The hard jobs
By Denis Balibouse
If I had my dream life as a photographer, it would be a mix of working like Ansel Adams, Michael Kenna and Hirochi Sugimoto, contemplating nature and shooting landscapes in black and white. However, I am a photojournalist, and I cover news: mostly sport, politics and finance, but sometimes heart-breaking events.
Last week in Sierre, western Switzerland, a bus carrying 52 people crashed in a tunnel, killing 6 adults and 22 children.
Last Tuesday night I was at home, after a quiet day doing mostly administrative stuff. At 10.31pm I received an SMS. The message was brief but described an accident involving a foreign bus in a tunnel on a motorway. It mentioned multiple casualties and forbade the media from entering the tunnel.
After a short phone call to the duty police officer to assess the situation, I grabbed my equipment, told my wife that I would be back as soon as possible and drove the 120km (74 miles) to Sierre. Usually, these stories are over quickly, and often not deemed newsworthy, but I had a bad feeling about this one.
During the drive I had time to think about how to approach the job. I tried to prepare as much as I could, knowing that on the scene things could change quickly. I arrived shortly before midnight and took a safe position on the bridge of the way-out of the motorway, overlooking the entrance of the tunnel, some 400 yards away.
There were four helicopters positioned between the photographers and onlookers on the bridge and the entrance to the tunnel. Visibility on the bridge was poor. The situation down below seemed eerily calm. I only saw two ambulances in one hour.
By 1am all agencies had a photographer on the scene. We received another text message announcing a press conference at 5am. As we couldn’t return home, the local photographer invited us to her place for coffee.
After coffee, we decided to go back to the tunnel as the press officer was unable to tell us if we would have access to the crash site in the morning or if the bus would be pulled out before 5am.
Shortly after 5am the Head of the Valaisan Cantonal Police announced the 28 casualties. The scale of the tragedy came as a blow to us all.
I was about to start editing news conference pictures when we received the okay to access the crash site and photograph the removal of the wreckage. My pictures so far covered the start of the terrible story. I knew that what was to come was a long and unpleasant wait for the poor families of the victims.
I don’t think any photographer enjoys photographing the suffering of others, but part of our job is to bear witness to these events. We all know that our camera can serve as a sort of barrier, shielding us from the emotion of what is taking place in front of us. However, once it is all over the memories of what you have seen stay with you. A couple of times in my car going from one spot to the other over the days that followed I could sense the emotion surrounding this tragedy rising within me.
Stories such as this always lead to questions about the way we report the news. In a place as quiet and orderly as Switzerland, where there exists a gentlemen’s agreement with the police that we don’t photograph disturbing images or the deceased, how do we record the suffering of the people affected by this horrible event?
When I compared what I saw coming from conflict zones or even the pictures shot outside the school where my Belgian colleagues attended the arrival of schoolmates and parents after this crash it wasn’t long before I started asking myself about what ‘news’ is and where does the public’s right to know start and stop?
Should the police have allowed us into the tunnel to shoot the wreckage after the emergency services had finished their work? What about the poor little girl holding a flower and crying outside the parents hotel, should she be photographed at such a time? There are probably as many answers to those questions as we have clients; so many different cultures and ways to report news.
The days following that 5am press conference were filled with sorrow but also great teamwork and cooperation between pictures, text and the TV department of Reuters. Teamwork is an obvious requirement of this industry but it can prove elusive at times. I’m grateful for that sense of camaraderie during this difficult job, and for moments like my chief photographer and another colleague calling me while they were on holidays to offer their help and also to see how I was.
After three days and nights, I made it home, exhausted but ready to give my son and wife the biggest hugs I could ever give, my mind never far away from those poor families who had lost so much in Sierre.