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I’m sitting in the newsroom going through my normal afternoon routine when my co-worker on the other side of the short cubicle wall says it.
“There’s been an explosion in Boston.”
The skin tightens all over my body. My face starts to itch. I want to rub my nose. I flinch, not because I'm imagining what may or may not have happened. I flinch because I know what I’m going to be doing around the clock the next day, or two, or more.
I will be one of many people you don’t even know exist who works in the news industry tasked with combing through every single photo taken in Boston so that we can tell the story with images. As the story takes all its twists and turns we are like monkeys choosing images, arranging them into a coherent whole, and presenting our product to the public who will get to see a tight, compact distillation of The Event. Like this.
While the public gawks in disbelief at the hastily chosen images of destruction, the vast majority of the photos taken in Boston will go unseen because some are far too mundane or repetitive (do you need to see the back of an EMT’s head?) while other are far too graphic. Yes, the Internet has standards -- blood is fine, carnage is not. Human suffering is OK, senseless butchery is a no-no.
I am one of the people who will define the decency of destruction. And I am going write this definition while I look at every single photo shot in Boston. I’m going to do this because it is my job during major national crises. I am the de facto photo editor for a Midwest news organization’s website.
This isn’t what I normally do. Nope. Not at all. Most days I am the pond scum of the news gathering world. I am the toe cheese of the newsroom. I am a news aggregator, which is the ambiguous way of saying that I steal other people’s work, change just enough so I can’t be accused of plagiarism, and all the real reporter gets is one lousy link in the third paragraph.
But then there are days like the London bombings, Sandy Hook or Boston.
These days are different because the newsroom's unwritten emergency response plan includes temporarily promoting me from pond scum to photo editor.
The pictures always start out the same with these types of events. They are wide angle, low-detail shots that convey the feelings associated with words like “DANGER!” “URGENT!” and “PAGE VIEWS!”
These pictures aren’t so bad. They actually make me feel an empty numbness because of their repetition. You see, there are many news organizations in the world, and these organizations employ legions of photographers who all start off shooting the same things. Basically, they chronicle the path from where they all parked (or where they were all huddled around together shooting the shit), to The Event itself.
So that’s how it starts, like a slow drip of morphine. I’m settled in, anesthetized, prepared. I’ve done this before, I tell myself. This will not get to me. I will take deep breaths. I’ll try and keep my emotions from running out of control.
Time passes; I'm making slow progress, drip, drip, drip. And then it happens. A data dump of The Event floods the database, and I’m overwhelmed with the deluge. Each image pops onto my screen, fills every nook and cranny, and then I push a button and another photo pops up. When I find one that works -- one that helps to tell The Tale of Today’s Massacre -- I make a note and move on.
That’s the finish line with a mass of runners stretching from one side of the street to another. They are packed together in a tight group. Now they’re scattering, running in every direction.
The pace increases, there are too many photos to really consider them all. My heart rate increases, and then there’s blood on a sidewalk. There’s a fireball in the air. There’s a fireball in the air? There’s a fireball. IN THE AIR.
More runners. Are they runners, or is that the crowd running all over the place? They’re just dots now, a super wide angle like it’s from a helicopter. They look like ants, but there’s a big empty spot in the middle of them like someone kicked their nest.
A close-up of one of the runner’s faces. Is this before or after the fireball? Keep going. None of these are important yet.
There’s another fireball. I’m back on the ground. More people running. They have fear on their faces. Confusion. People with numbers taped to their chests mixing with people wearing jeans. They don’t know where to run.
I search for before and after images. I look for a sidewalk without blood. A CEMENT sidewalk without blood and a BRICK sidewalk without blood because that’s how you can tell which fireball is which. I look for a “bomb” even though we don’t know for sure if it’s a bomb.
I keep picking pictures, taking notes, and then it stops. I’ve hit the end of the first wave of pictures coming in from the photographers on the ground. The newsroom hasn’t even kicked into high gear yet, there are still hours until the deadline. My deadline is as soon as possible.
My colleagues send me photos from Twitter as I frantically build a gallery of the pictures. My hands are shaking. My right arm keeps tensing up. I need to go pee. It is getting hard to write captions because the words are losing their meaning. How many different ways can you say “explosion” while avoiding “bomb?”
Deep breath. The gallery is put together. It’s published. In a little while the world will see the first version of my curated set of photos, the best visual version I can put together from what I've seen and of what we know or think we know actually happened. I start looking through my competitions’ galleries to make sure I didn’t miss anything.
And then it starts again, another data dump of photos envelops the database. There are no more pictures without blood. There are police everywhere. An old man has fallen on the ground and there are police around him with their guns drawn. He’s down and out, they want to spring into action. Save that one for later.
Keep pushing the button for the next picture. Then the next. What the hell was that? Go back. Holy shit. That’s a foot, just a foot, there is no body. Foot. Cement. Blood. That’s it.
“WHAT ARE THE RULES ON BLOODY LIMBS?!” I yell to my boss. He’s too busy to answer. I keep going.
Keep going. Keep going. Push the button. Next picture. EMTs treating victims, a runner using his shirt to make a tourniquet for an injured guy’s leg. Keep that one for later. “Will make a heartwarming story,” I jot down in my notebook.
A man in a wheelchair being rushed up a street away from the chaos behind him. His rescuer looks determined while the victim’s face is relatively calm, the black number on his chest with its white background is bloodied. Where are his legs?
That’s what bone looks like. That’s what flesh looks like -- almost like ribbons or parachute pants ripped to shreds.
Now I know what bone and flesh look like, and I can't remember how to breathe for a second. The morphine drip of repetition is gone now. This is affecting my entire body, my entire being.
I lean forward, put my elbows on my desk, rest my head in my hands and push HARD on my temples. I scratch my fingernails down the front of my face, on my cheeks, and pull on my hair.
“This is fucking bullshit,” I say to no one in particular.
Pressure builds behind my eyes, my mouth fills with saliva and I clench my teeth together until they feel like they’ll move.
The morphine drip is long gone. And as sick as I feel, I don’t want it anymore.
I fear the tragedy-mongering of my industry, but perhaps even more, I fear the numbness. The ability not to feel at all.