Ten years ago today, I learned the biggest lesson of my career – and it was my first. Literally.
When the Columbine shootings occurred I was in the tail end of my junior year at the University of Colorado at Boulder in April 1999. I was struggling to know what to do with photography after producing three years of terrible pieces in the art program. When I enrolled in Kevin Moloney’s photojournalism course, I needed special permission since I wasn’t in the journalism school. I had no idea what photojournalism was, nor how much it impact my life in the matter of months. I’ve said this before, but Kevin changed my life. He is the reason I’m a photojournalist.
When the news broke about the shootings at Columbine High School, I was at my apartment getting ready for another class. The school was 1 1/2 hours away, so I ditched the rest of my classes and headed down that way with little knowledge of how much it would impact me. The spot news assignment was the following week. It wasn’t the reason I went, but for some reason after a couple months of learning what it was that photojournalist do, it seemed like it was something I should do.
The trip down there was chaotic as I channel surfed AM dials and a police scanner to find any more news. I didn’t have direction so I literally followed the emergency vehicles and helicopters. I didn’t make it to the school, as it had been locked down, but the neighboring school a few blocks away was serving as the location for students to come reunite with loved ones when they escaped the bloodbath.
I got out of my car, scooped up all the film I had rolling around in my trunk and went right in. No idea what I was doing, where I could and could not go – much less, how to make a photo. The first person I recognized was, in fact, my professor and he was photographing a scene with two students hugging after escaping. I followed him like a lost duck and, upon looking at these frames 10 years later (it has been that long since I’ve dug them out), the first 3 frames I made had his back in them.
I spent the day and the subsequent week on the story. No client. Just learning. Learning how much the media affects a scene when the circus rolls into town. Learning the look of disgust from someone surrounded by a horde of clicking shutters. I also learned that people wanted to talk. People wanted to share their stories.
I learned from both.
It took a few days of post-Columbine sit-downs with him over beer to really get through the emotions of covering something like this. It was my first time ever being in a breaking news scene – much less one of the deadliest school shootings in the country’s history. I had so many feelings running through my head – shame, excitement, confusion, guilt – you name it, I had it. How could I possibly consider this as a career? How could I justify being there with a camera on the worst day on someone’s life? We also get to be there on the best days as well. That is the reward.
Kevin sent out a note a few weeks after Columbine to us. I still have a printed copy of it. You can read it here. It is as important now as it was then for me.
“We in the media desperately need to realize that are subjects are watching us, too. We must behave in a sensitive manner around the grief-stricken. We need to show that we care and that we do this job because the public cares. We must be ambassadors.
This profession is not about money nor about winning contests. Journalism is about telling stories — carefully and professionally. If what you do in journalism ever becomes about money, find another career that will make more money for you. If what you do in journalism ever becomes getting a picture or quote regardless of the effects on the innocent, find another career where you’re less likely to hurt someone.
This is not about money.
This is not about winning contests.”
With that, here are some of my first ever photos. They’re taken from the contact sheets.