The emotional toll of covering violence

March 31, 2009

The police scanner says there was a shooting in Zone 7, very close. We arrive right behind the firemen. Two men on a motorcycle had been shot with the same bullet. Neighbors start to gather as I make a few pictures of the rescue crew loading the victims into the ambulances and rushing off to Roosevelt Hospital in Guatemala City. The neighbors are angry and start taunting the police, accusing them of incompetence.


Out of the corner of my eye I see family members arriving. You can tell who they are by their faces. Their confusion and disbelief stands out even through the dozens of people scuttling around. They are not crying yet…They still don’t know exactly what is going on. Eight-year-old Erica Estrada, dressed in shades of pink and burgundy, follows her grandmother. She draws my attention. Her hands are in her pockets and her face is twisted, but her eyes are still dry. Her grandmother screams as she realizes that her grown son, Erica’s father, was wounded badly and her husband, who was sitting on the back of the motorcycle, wasn’t expected to live.


Erica is half everyone’s size. Dropping the camera from my eye, I lower it to my waist, to her level. She is surrounded by strangers who have formed groups around her and her grandmother and who in their own horror seem to completely forget the young girl. Erica finds my eyes and stares at me in pain.


Still shooting with the camera at my waist, I have nothing to hide behind. Erica covers her face and begins to cry. Her grandmother calls to her from somewhere inside a separate group of bystanders. As she removes her hands Erica’s stare locks onto me again. She’s pulled by the arm and rushed back to their car just as my partner finds me and pulls me back to his car. We are off to the hospital.

We are already there when Erica and her grandmother arrive. They have gone from crying to screaming and each moment a new relative shows up in another taxi. Once again Erica seems lost and alone among a sea of adults, all in their own pain. Poor girl. I look around for someone to help her, anyone. Someone to hold her and tell her she’ll be alright, that the pain will go away.


She asks different people about her father and her grandfather but gets no answer from them. “Is my grandfather dead? Is it my father?” Everyone is on cell phones. She turns to another. I keep working but with the camera still down low there is no way to hide the tears swelling in my own eyes.

Erica bends over in emotional pain, crying aloud. I can’t take any more. I let go of the camera and touch her shoulder, and she looks up. “It’s gonna be okay” I tell her. She looks right into me. I find a relative of Erica and ask him to please look after her.

As I leave, I give up trying to hold back the tears. I cry aloud as I drive home, and as I sit on my bed. I can’t get Erica out of my mind. I lie there crying for three hours. I cry when I re-tell the story to others, and as I write it just now.

Guatemala’s National Police reports an average of 17 murders per day in the country of some 12.5 million inhabitants, giving it one of the highest murder rates among countries formally at peace.

10 comments

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[...] 1, 2009 · No Comments Daniel LeClair, Reuters Photographer, reports his experience covering a shooting in Guatemala City, revealing the emotional and psychic damage wrought by a [...]

wonderful blog…pleople just talk about a war in Irak…but we have to understand that Guatemala is in war too,a internal war that no body cares. and the victims are kids like Erica,she dont’n understand why?…why her?. and i’m just glad that somebody notice…that somebody care and put his camara dow to relieve her pain,and i hope that sharing this memory with us can relieve your….

JR

Posted by Jr | Report as abusive

Thank you Daniel, a very moving blog.

Posted by Corinne Perkins | Report as abusive

Daniel, Thank you for sharing. Your photo of Erica, as she covers her mouth and begins to cry, cuts right through to my emotions. This world can be a nasty place, and life as we know it, can change instantly. I will give my two daughters and extra big hug today.

Posted by Robert Moore | Report as abusive

I can’t understand why people adre doing such things. I don’t know.

Sometimes we have to decide between being a photographer and a human being, and I’m glad u connected to Erica as a human being for that moment. As editorial photographers, we sometimes feel like we are in the tight spots for all the ‘wrong’ reasons. Sometimes, it’s hard to justify our presence for the sake of “documenting the moment”. But I’m glad u showed us these pictures, and more importantly, explained what went on behind these images. This is only the beginning of the story of loss, pain, and recovery in a hard world.

[...] LeClair’s Blog [...]

[...] The emotional toll of covering violence [...]

Thank you for communicating so clearly through photo and text what you witnessed. Very powerful and moving.

Posted by Bruno | Report as abusive

[...] The emotional toll of covering violence [...]

That was very touching.
The thing is that, things like these happen on a daily basis around the globe and it goes unnoticed.
Thanks for sharing. Maybe Erica’s pain will be that much lesser when more and more people read this.
When Micheal Jackson’s daughter cried on stage, the whole world cried with her, but what about Erica ?

Posted by Joe Zach | Report as abusive

Very awfull. It was very dramatic for all in place because all of them saw it by their own eyes. But what about wars? How about weapons production? I think that those who invents, manufacture, sells weapons never saw how people die from their business. They never put themselves on place of murdered people.

Daniel, thanks for this blog. Talked this through over and over, since then only change for worse. Hope to be back soon.

Posted by Peter Eitel | Report as abusive

Daniel – i’m a travel magazine editor. I’d like to chat with you. getlostlukeATgmail.com.

Luke

Posted by Daniel | Report as abusive