Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series about how UCC’s school shooting was covered in local media. This piece focuses on photography and photojournalist Michael Sullivan of The News-Review.
Susan Sontag, author and filmmaker, once said, “All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.”
In the media arena, photojournalists are storytellers in their own right, conveying emotion, freezing moments in history that may last for centuries. As they capture events and situations one picture at a time, nothing seems hidden, as many celebrities can attest to.
When the media circus came to town Oct. 1, the day of the school shooting, the community was not only inundated with reporters and their microphones, but also with photographers and their cameras. The images that came from that month are still burned into our minds, and questions are still being raised as to why some of these photos were published. After I saw the images of campus on Oct. 1, I shut down and stayed away from media for days even though I’m a journalist.
Pictures are indeed worth a thousand words. Our emotional reaction to images is almost instantaneous while words create a more delayed response. Recently, E.A. Holmes and A. Mathews at the University of Oxford confirmed “that imagery does indeed evoke greater emotional responses than verbal representation.”
Photographer Michael Sullivan, who works for the local newspaper The News-Review, provided many of the unforgettable images of Oct. 1 that accompanied stories by reporters Ian Campbell and Troy Byrnelson.
“I feel I have the same responsibilities and objectives as the writers in the newsroom,” Sullivan said. “We may work with different tools, but we’re both trying to tell the story of what happened at any given event.”
That story was so traumatic that it raised many questions and emotions regarding reporting of trauma, but do we stop to think how things looked through the eyes of those who captured the images? Have we considered what history would be like without the iconic images from D-Day that froze those moments of triumph and loss? What about the other visuals backing historical events? For example, we still associate Tiananmen Square with the photograph of the student in front of the tanks, and we continue to be touched by the romanticism of returning soldiers thanks to Eisenstaedt’s captured WWII moment of the American sailor kissing a woman in Times Square.
We connect with those pieces of history, with the people captured in those moments of time, because photographers create a human bond that we feel.
In order to create that bond, photojournalists often put themselves into the middle of chaos, grabbing onto images to tell their audiences what is happening and who is affected. As Sullivan explained, “I’m looking for something genuine, something that might, in one frame, tell the story.”
One of Sullivan’s rules for photojournalism is to avoid juxtaposing his interpretation onto a scene he is photographing. “I don’t want to arrive at a scene, breaking news or otherwise, with a preconceived notion, or looking to push some sort of personal vision or agenda,” he said. “Overall I strive to be accurate and comprehensive. I’m not taking pictures for myself. I feel the responsibility to be the eyes of the readers who aren’t on the scene.”
When he comes to a difficult photo shoot, Sullivan tries to remain calm and remember that his purpose is to create a photographic record. He also advises, however, “show up every day prepared to work and learn. It’s important to understand that each day and each assignment is an opportunity to learn and to grow.”
And Sullivan does not work alone: “We ran a photograph of an individual lying on a gurney being moved by emergency medical technicians on the front page of that day’s edition [Oct. 1]. In the newsroom, our publisher, several editors, our page designers and I discussed whether or not it was the right image to run. It was an accurate photo that immediately conveyed the severity and tragedy of the story. That’s why we selected it.”
The Mainstream asked Sullivan to explain his Oct. 1 experiences as he photographed UCC’s school shooting for the local media. He provided the following information by email.
Michael Sullivan’s Story
“I was finishing a photo assignment in Garden Valley (approximately eight miles from UCC) when I got a call from the office to head over to UCC to look into a scanner report of a live shooter incident on campus. The second I hung up, I heard several sirens from first responders rushing to the school. I hurried to UCC.
“As I pulled up to the intersection for the road leading to the school, I saw a police officer directing traffic. He wasn’t letting anyone (other than first responders) drive up to the campus. But I saw a couple people walking the road to the school. I parked on the shoulder and met up with The News-Review reporter Ian Campbell who pulled in just behind me. We jogged the road to the campus. Fire vehicles, law enforcement and ambulances were flying by in both directions.
“Arriving on the scene, the first responder presence was incredible. Vehicles from all agencies were represented. Police tape had been set up. There were several columns of people lined up, being searched by police as the school was being evacuated. If I remember correctly, that was the first image I made on the scene, a student standing by as a police officer checked her bag.
“Once cleared, people were gathering in large groups on the front lawn section of the school. The mood was extremely tense but not chaotic. A lot of questions and confusion. People trying to figure out exactly what was happening. I don’t think the campus had been completely secured at that point as a tactical police squad showed up and started going from room to room in tight formation. I didn’t know it at the time, but at this point the worst was over, and the shooter was dead.
“The News-Review is an afternoon paper and I was on deadline to get the photos in for that day’s edition. I made images on campus for as long as I could.”
As long as the images of that event linger in our minds, the impact is still felt. This remains true for Sullivan, as well.
“It’s been over six months, but I think on some level I’m still processing that day and the days after. I know it’s changed me but not in a way that I can articulate right now,” Sullivan concluded.
Whether we are a photographer, reporter, student, teacher or community member, it is my belief that many of us agree. We are all testifying “to time’s relentless melt.”
Revised June 9, 2016- Spelling errors