What I’ve gained, and what I’ve lost.

Crystal Atchinson, sister of Ryan Pengelly, and other volunteers sort through the fire damaged remains as they take part in a community clean up effort on Saturday afternoon at Forest Acres. More than 20 volunteers turned up to help with the project.

With the advent of the winter cold we seem to be covering a lot of fires lately. These assignments are always a challenge to me. On the one hand there are some stunning photos to be made. Twice last week I was sent out to photograph the aftermath of devastating fires. Homes burned. Lives crumbled to ash. Precious, irreplaceable treasures gone forever. People want their stories told and so they will open their lives and what’s left of their homes to the prying eyes and lenses of photographers. I am there with permission. When I go to these assignments, I am invited. In a way I am even helping them. I tell their story, the word gets out and the community responds. That is the good that comes out of these assignments, but still, I come and go to these scenes feeling like the worst kind of scavenger, invading someone’s life when they are at their most vulnerable.

Crystal Pengelly, wife of Ryan Pengelly, uses a shovel to remove debris from what was her home on Saturday afternoon in Forest Acres south of Whitefish.

The first of these assignments was a trailer home burned down to it’s foundation. The home of a veteran recently home from the war. Among the items lost: his service medals. This photo of his wife was the main photo from the day. She was digging around in the area where your jewelry had been. But the last I heard she hadn’t found anything. Not only did they lose their home and all their belongings they were being rushed to finish the clean up because the owners had already rented out the space for the start of December. Nice.

Darien Matthews, 12, makes her way through the remains of the family home on Friday afternoon east of Kalispell. The Matthews' house was destroyed by fire on Wednesday. In the background Kaden Matthews, 10, picks his way through the rubble.

The second fire was even more visually arresting. A mother and her two children escaped a fire that consumed their home with only seconds to spare. A faulty hot tub is the suspected cause. All their Christmas presents, family heirlooms, clothes, books, keepsakes…gone. I met them the day they went back to the fire to survey the damage and see what, if anything could be saved. Again, I find myself challenged. Sometimes, in this profession, it is hard to keep hold of your humanity. These people just lost everything except their lives. I can see it in their faces, they are grateful to be alive, overwhelmed at the questions of what the future holds for them, and in a state of subdued shock. But I’m not there to empathize with them. I am there to document. And as I’m walking around with my camera, watching, waiting for the moments to unfold, I am mentally composing my shots and thereby distancing myself from what they are going through. I’m not focused on what they’re suffering, I’m focused on what will make the best image and whether or not these might be good enough to enter into the end of the year photo contests.

From left, single mother Hayley Matthews and her two children Darien, 12, and Kaden, 10 survey the damage to their home on Friday afternoon east of Kalispell. The Matthews home was destroyed in a fire on Wednesday.

Detachment. I can’t think about making compelling images if I am too emotionally connected. I have to pull back. Close off my feelings. And try to see only in terms of what will make the best photos to tell the story. When I saw them step out onto the ledge over-looking what used to be their home I ran to the far edge of what used to be their house. My mind was calculating how to show them, their stuff, and the snowy mountains in the background. After all, they escaped the fire at 6 o’clock in the morning wearing only their p.j.’s — the icy weather is part of the story. Do you see it? My primary concern is not the people, but the paper. But what does that say about me? What does that say about the kind of photographer I’ve become?

Hayley Matthews surveys the damage to her home on Friday afternoon east of Kalispell.

I didn’t used to be this way. When I was younger I was more emotional. I let my compassion take precedence over the needs of the paper. There was a time (after my father died) when I could not photograph Memorial Day without crying when they play Taps. I still tear up for that particular piece of music, but I no longer tell my editors that I can’t photograph the event. Now I can photograph vigils for lost loved one, fires, crime scenes, even funerals, all the while keeping my heart closely guarded so that I don’t feel too much and fail to do my job.

A Bible that mysteriously survived the fire is still stuck the the hood of the Matthews truck on Friday afternoon.

I’ve been a professional photographer now for just shy of 12 years, and that doesn’t include my college days. In the time that’s passed I’ve grown so much and I am proud of what I have accomplished. Tomorrow is Thanksgiving and one of the things I am thankful for is my job. I get to be a photographer. I get to live this life and live my dream. I am aware of what a blessing this is and I am still deeply grateful. However, journalism is beyond a doubt one of the most cynical professions out there. So, now when I go to document the hard scenes of life and I find myself detaching I can’t help wonder what I’ve lost.

Being a professional photojournalist has given me a wonderful life. But it has changed me too. And not all the changes are good.

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4 thoughts on “What I’ve gained, and what I’ve lost.

    • That’s the heart of the matter isn’t it? Knowing that if you keep your vision clear you can make some powerful images, and simultaneously not celebrating someone’s tragedy. Thanks for the comment. We’ll see what the judges think next spring.

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