A Long Hoped For Moment

2nd Place photo of the month from Montana AP

Last Friday was good day. Sometimes it seems that everything just comes together so perfectly that all I can do is accept with gratitude that life is gift. It had a been a longish week, but at 3 o’clock in the afternoon I was not tired, I was joyful. This was the Friday before my three-day weekend. I left the office, hopped up into my jeep and let out a shriek of delight. The jeep, which I dearly love by the way, is not a well insulated vehicle. One of my co-workers happened to be passing by and overheard me. Oops. But really, did I care? Not one jot. If you can’t celebrate a three-day weekend, what can you be happy about ever? As I pulled out of the parking lot I began to look around. It was a lovely day. The sun was shining. There were a few clouds in the sky, enough to add depth, but not too many that would block the light. It’s the exact sky that I love to see and photograph. And it was early in the day still. So why go home? Why not go exploring? Be a photographer! Be alive! So, that’s what I did.

I had no clear objective in mind beyond heading toward the mountains. The mountains to the north and east of Kalispell were snow capped and the lowest clouds were dancing across the highest peaks. That’s what I wanted to capture. I headed up toward Columbia Falls and then east toward Glacier National Park. I stopped a few different places along the way, snagging different angles of the peaks. As I continued along, just before entering the town called Hungry Horse I crossed a bridge over the South Fork of the Flathead River. I have never been able to cross a bridge without looking over the rails to see the scene. I know I can’t stop. I know that most bridges (this one included) are not built for people to walk on and take pictures from. This particular bridge is narrow to begin with, and on a busy highway, ergo, walking out on this thing would be suicide. But I looked over none the less, just to see what I could see. I was not disappointed.

In an instant Glacier was forgotten. Down below that bridge was a snow covered road that ran parallel to the river. And down on the banks, a lone figure, a fly fisherman out in the soft light of dusk. I crossed the bridge and found myself in Hungry Horse without my map. Normally, I carry a map of Flathead County. I do this because google maps (which I have lived by for the past three years in DC) don’t work in Montana. That’s overstating. They work, they just aren’t real accurate. It’s better to carry the Flathead map, you will have a considerably greater likelihood of finding what you are looking for if you do. My map was on the corner of my desk back in Kalispell. Oops again. So, with no idea how to get there, I took off down a side street and with a little luck, I found the road I had seen from above. I don’t worry about a snow covered road. The jeep, thank you God, has 4 wheel drive. I didn’t need it, but it tends to give me more confidence. I headed up the little road and soon came to a parked truck and the sound of a black labrador barking happily. As I got out to find the fisherman I had seen I quickly realized that he had made his way down a steep snow covered bank to get to his fishing spot.

For those of you who don’t know me personally I need to take a moment to explain that I am klutz. When I don’t have my camera gear with me my gravity issues don’t bother me much. I just look silly when I fall, but nothing bad happens. When I am carrying thousands of dollars of expensive and highly breakable glass, my lack of sure-footedness becomes a significant obstacle. I had seen the shot. I knew exactly what I wanted and why. But there was this snow covered bank between me and my happiness. Arg. Now what? Down the bank I go…Yes, I lived. And, more importantly, the camera lived.

This was my first shot. It is the most like what I saw from the bridge above. This is what photographers refer to as a “safety shot.” It’s the picture you take just so that in case the scene in front of you suddenly dissolves, at least you know  you’ve got something. Think it doesn’t happen? The reason photographers are all paranoid about this is that sooner or later (and it’s usually sooner) you will arrive with your gear, see and incredible scene, and as soon as you are ready to start making your pictures, it stops. The event ends, the crowd disappears, the light changes or is altogether gone. A million things can go wrong with no warning. So, you take a safety shot.

Once I had this picture I made my way through the ice and rocks toward the fisherman. This became harder once the black lab puppy spotted me and decided I was in need of a new friend. I love dogs, but not when I am surrounded by snow and ice and rocks and running water and camera gear, because, oh yeah, a klutz am I. I didn’t fall, but truly that is a miracle. The fisherman is Gary Frey of Whitefish. He was out trying to catch some rainbow trout. And fortunately he had no problem letting me take his picture. I made several frames of this guy. Different angles, different lenses, different exposures. When I’m in a situation with beautiful light, a willing subject, and strong visual interest the words of my teacher come back to me: “Shoot it up.”

This was my favorite of the batch. I loved his position between the mountains, I loved the sky and I loved the arc of the fishing pole. To me that pole just says fly fishing. If there had been no other opinions this is the photo that would have run. But my editor Scott and my fellow photographer Nate both liked and commented on the beauty and drama of the rocks in the top photo. It’s ultimately my choice, but I went with their opinion on this one. I’m glad I did. I’ve had a lot of positive feedback on the photo. The other night I went to the girls basketball game in Columbia Falls. As I walked into the gym (wearing my press pass of course) this woman tapped my arm and asked if I was the one who had shot the photo of the fisherman. She stopped me just to tell me how much she liked the image. It made my night when she did that.

I’m glad the paper ran it, I’m glad that people liked it, but even if this photo had never seen the light of day or the eyes of any other person it still would have been significant to me. I am most alive when I am being a photographer. I hear people all the time talking about being in the moment. The only times I really experience that are when I am photographing something that captivates me. Furthermore, I have been looking for a fly fisherman since I got to Montana. This has to do with a story I love. Years ago I saw the movie A River Runs Through It. My favorite part is the end where the old man stands alone fishing and you hear his voice wrapping up the meaning of his life and the story he has told. I always thought that this was beautifully written and so I decided the book might be worth reading. It is. The book is better. That’s usually true and this book is no exception. The movie ending is faithful to the book. The words are elegant and powerful. As I watched the fisherman out there on the water I was reminded of the words of Norman Maclean. “Like many fly fishermen in western Montana where the summer days are almost arctic in length I often do not start fishing until the cool of the evening. Then, in the arctic half light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories; the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River, a four-count rhythm, and the hope that a fish will rise. Eventually all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood. It runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words. And some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”

I am haunted by moments. Ones that I have captured and ones that slipped away. I have much to be thankful for in my life, but I am always thankful for the twists and turns that led me to the life of a photographer. I get to look closer. I get to pay attention to the beauty I see and I have away of inviting it in, and making it my own. So yes, Friday, was absolutely a good day.

The Power of a New Perspective

“Where were you the day the World Trade Center collapsed?” Almost nine years later this is the question that haunts us the way “Where were you the day Kennedy was shot?” once haunted a generation.

I was in Flagstaff, Arizona. In 2001 I was the university photographer at Northern Arizona University. In the summer Arizona is three hours behind the East coast. That means when the first plane hit the WTC at 8:46am in New York it was 5:46am in Flag. I was awake, but not watching the news. I remember getting a frantic call from my mother telling me I had to turn on the television. As I watched CNN and the video footage of the second plane impacting, footage which they played again and again for almost an hour, I was literally horror-struck and speechless. The things we were watching were incomprehensible because I couldn’t make myself believe that what I was seeing was possible. I watched that plane crash over and over until the footage was replaced with the even more impossible image of the South Tower collapsing. Followed shortly by the North Tower. Followed by images of fire. Images of smoke taking over the famous skyline. Images of people with their faces covered in dirt and ash. Images of firefighters, police, and other rescue workers striving desperately and heroically. And worst of all, images of those alive but trapped and God help them, jumping out of the windows, weighing their options and thinking maybe the fall won’t kill them, but the fire surely will. I watched all of this while most of the university slept.

A college campus is not a lively place at 6 in the morning. The only people awake are the faculty and staff who start their day at 8 while most of the students start their day considerably later; and so the news spread slowly. It was strange to witness. At first those of us who were awake gathered around the televisions all chores and jobs and obligations forgotten. As soon as I saw what was happening my first thought was that I should go to New York. Get on a train and just Go. I knew that they would need photographers there. A moment like this must be documented. It has to be recorded for history, recorded for the victims and their families (which is all of us), recorded so that it cannot be forgotten. I did not go. And there will always be a part of me that wishes I had. Instead I stayed to document how this day affected my community because the ripples of something like the 9/11 attacks encircle the globe, touching everyone.

I wandered the campus and watched. In the early morning the scene was replayed over and over, a student would be walking along to class, completely oblivious, and they would get a call on their cell phone, or a friend would come up to them and start telling them the news. Their expressions were always the same. Disbelief. Shock. Pain. Anger. And fear. Sometimes one might get all the way into the student center for a cup of coffee before going onto class. Coffee was forgotten as soon as they got within earshot of the televisions. Classes were forgotten too. By early afternoon most everyone knew. By that evening the university had planned a candle light vigil. I don’t remember when the first estimates on how many had died came out but with a tragedy on this scale you knew it would be thousands.

I did not lose anyone I loved in the attacks. And therefore I have been able to mostly put September 11th behind me. But so much of what I had buried came rushing back to me yesterday when my editor asked me to tone and prep this photo.

Photo obtained by ABC News

I was told that ABC News had obtained never before seen images from the attack. In 2009 they filed a Freedom of Information request with the National Institute of Standards and Technology to obtain images taken on September 11th. The day of the attack plane and helicopters were grounded. No unauthorized flying – that meant news crews couldn’t go up for aerial shots. The only helicopters allowed to fly were those belonging to the police. Suddenly, seeing the images of the all too familiar scene from this new perspective reopened wounds I had forgotten.

These images reminded me of more than that day nearly a decade ago, they also reminded me of the reason I am a photographer. Of the reason I am proud to be a photojournalist. There are many who distrust and despise the media. As a member of the media I have seen too many times my fellow journalists in the worst of lights. And yet, I do not lose hope for the profession because I know that at the heart of it, journalism is a noble thing. We are the witnesses. We are the ones who give a voice to those who cannot speak. We are the ones who challenge the establishment and look more closely. And as recently proven again by ABC News we are the ones who stand up for the right of the people to know. The public has a right to know, a right to demand truth from our government, and journalists work to ensure that this sacred right is not swept easily aside. When we fail, it is on a grand scale because we are failing the Truth. But when journalists do their job, people see. Like me, looking at these images and suddenly seeing something familiar and forgotten brought to new light. These images are powerful, and they are now part of the public record of the what has been called the defining moment of the 21st century. And they exist now, in the public eye, because journalists fought for them.

To see more of these images you can visit:  http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/slideshow?id=9798666