Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, made the news last week when Hurricane Lee strolled across Northeastern PA and the Southern Tier of New York, dropping enough rain to make us think about building an ark. The Susquehanna River rose to new record levels, flooding out everything from Binghamton, where I spent my college years, down to Wilkes-Barre. Lee’s impact cannot be underestimated: it surpassed Hurrican Agnes from 1972, which up to now had been the standard by which all other storms were compared. Over 65,000 people were evacuated from the Wilkes-Barre area. Words begin to fail in describing what happened.
But photos do not. In fact, the photographic coverage that I saw was excellent, albeit heart-wrenching. And in this assessment I include the full range of photos that I saw, everything from the professional photojournalists to the locals with cell phone cameras. In fact, due to their being right in the midst of things, some of the non-photogs had the better perspective.
I don’t have any photos from Lee to share. And I have mixed feelings about that.
On one hand, I desperately wanted to leave work and rush down to Wilkes-Barre and Pittston, camera in hand, to capture the storm for myself. There were definitely photos to be made: moving, telling photos. The river was in the streets, in people’s homes. It was a historic occasion, amidst the terror, and the photojournalist in me knew the shots I could get. My early photographic training was based in photojournalism, and I still return to those tenets.
Yet I still didn’t go and make any photos. Because of the human element. Because no matter how historic this event may have been, no matter how many opportunities there were to make great images, or record the important moments, it was still a tragedy in the making. People’s homes were being destroyed, their lives torn apart, often endangered, and sometimes ended. I cannot bring myself to intrude into their grief, to force myself into such personal, private moments.
This is why I am a terrible photojournalist. It’s why I chose not to pursue it as a career. Let me work with people in a studio setting, an editorial setting, but please don’t ask me to stick my lens in their face during awful moments such as these.
The other thing that held me back is not wanting to be in the way. Emergency personnel already have their hands full. The last thing they need to worry about is some stupid photographer edging in on the scene, getting in the way, getting into danger himself. We’ve all seen target-fixated photogs do just this, and it’s part of the reason that we have a “bad name,” why officials distrust us from the start. I see no need to add to that.
Am I just making excuses? Am I trying to justify the twinge of guilt that comes from having stayed at home? I don’t think so. This is how I feel, and I believe that my feelings are legitimate. Nobody was paying me for coverage that I failed to provide, and I’m able to sleep at night without feeling like a ghoul.