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Sunday, April 24, 2011

Snap decision: Just doing their job

Snap decision: Just doing their job

Last updated 12:07 23/04/2011
He was on a lunchtime mission searching for the perfect watch strap when he watched falling masonry kill and maim fellow shoppers in Cashel Mall.

Frozen with fear, Press video journalist Daniel Tobin, 36, waited for the building above him to collapse and, he assumed, also take his life.

But the building stayed put, so as the screaming began and the magnitude of the disaster dawned, Tobin ran - past the crying, the dying and those in desperate need of help - to The Press building where he would retrieve the tool of his trade, a video camera.

Minutes later, he was filming raw scenes that would be - for good or for bad - indelibly etched on his mind and that of the video's audience.

No matter the years of experience on the job, looking at disaster through a lens has varying effects on coalface media workers, such as our Press photographers.

During those terrible and confusing hours following the fatal quake, ordinary people helped on impulse. Police, fire and medical workers acted as they had been trained but the often ignored fact is that media can be counted among the first-responders.

As the Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma website says: "No-one is above having a human reaction." So what effect did those initial scenes have on Tobin and other Press photographers as they made the instinctive decision to be objective recorders of history while their city collapsed and people lay trapped and dying?

February 22 started out like any other ordinary Tuesday. Press photographers were taking and filing photos, juggling the daily schedule, on their way to routine assignments and taking lunchtime strolls. Rarely do truly extraordinary events happen on home turf.

For example, Tobin's day was unfolding nicely except he was having a bit of trouble finding the perfect watch strap. As he wandered along Cashel Mall near Trade Aid and The Vault, he was distracted by a men's fashion shop and made the "random decision" to duck in.

Within five seconds of entering the shop, the quake began. The shop assistant pushed past and ran outside with Tobin trailing.

He remembers hearing the "horrendous roar" and seeing a woman on the opposite side of the street mirroring his position, half- crouching and hovering her hands above her head.

And then the sound of buildings coming down.

"Her building did and mine didn't," Tobin says. "She died.

"And then the screaming, I've never heard such animalistic screams.

"That's when people started to run and I heard these high school girls screaming and I was saying, 'It's all right, it's all right,' but it wasn't all right. There were dead people at our feet."

Almost immediately, Tobin's thoughts turned to his friends and colleagues at The Press.

"I just bolted. If I was going to help anyone it was them. With the violence of that shaking, I thought there would be no way our building would be standing.

"The guilt I have is that I left people lying an arm's length away. I could have easily helped but I wanted to help people I know."

The first thing he saw on arrival in Cathedral Square was the rubble of Christ Church Cathedral.

"That image struck me more than the Cashel Street stuff because it's an icon I've grown up with. My head struggled to comprehend that. I was convinced The Press building would be gone but it wasn't and that was when I thought about my camera."

As his colleagues poured from the building, Tobin ran upstairs to his desk, grabbing his camera, safety vest and laptop.

"I knew it was the biggest news story I'd experienced and I knew where people were trapped. I could get some amazing footage.

"Work sort of switches you into that mode. It almost prevents terror and shock because you don't become part of it. It's like a defence mechanism where you can hide behind the camera or a notepad."

The five-minute video, later uploaded to, shows Tobin and breaking news reporter Olivia Carville making their way across the crumbling city to Cashel Mall.

Although Tobin knew where such raw scenes had taken place, the video shows him filming cracks in the ground and other less shocking material. When he reaches scenes of chaos and people being pulled from the rubble, only once does a rescue worker tell him to have respect and cease filming.

Legally, a photographer can record any images in a public place, but in this instance Tobin moved his camera away momentarily.

"What did flash through my mind was that I was recording these guys' amazing, brave, courageous acts. If I didn't record it, who would know?

"I could put down my camera and help or I could record and show people what happened on that day."

Since that day, however, Tobin has thought about why he didn't pitch in.

"At the time I didn't feel like I needed to help because there were at least five guys helping each person so if I jumped in I could get in the way."

He edited out some graphic imagery but left in scenes of a body covered by blanket and a man lying on his side who was minutes from death but what haunts him most is capturing Trocadero baker Shane Tomlin's final moments.

Tomlin became the face of the earthquake when his image (also captured by another Press photographer) was repeatedly published and Tobin's footage replayed to Tomlin's mother and sister on Campbell Live.

Tomlin was listed as missing and later confirmed dead.

"That shook me up," Tobin says.

"I didn't know I'd be filming her son in the last moments of his life. That messed with my head a bit. I'm hoping to meet his mum.

"Of all the other things I saw, his mother and sister watching that footage seemed so sad."

Tobin says he feels somewhat changed by his involvement in the devastation and feels less anxious over small stresses.

The Press and its parent company, Fairfax, has provided counselling sessions which Tobin and others have accepted. He says the biggest impact has been on his concentration span and he often finds himself reliving the scenes. To others, his most obvious change is a bold tattoo of the cathedral rose window on the inside of his forearm.

"It was the first thing I saw when I walked into the Square and I think it was cool that part of the cathedral survived. It's such a part of my memories of growing up here and finally I've found something with meaning."

The website of the Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma has this advice for those covering the visual side of traumatic events:

"Realise that you are a human being who must take care of your mind. Admit your emotions. Talk about what you witnessed to a trusted peer, friend or spouse. Write about it. Replace horrible images with positive ones. Establish a daily routine of healthful habits."

Dart clinical psychologist Dr Elana Newman, who conducted a survey of 800 photojournalists after the World Trade Centre attacks of September 11, 2001, found that while most photographers were resilient, continued exposure to tragedy takes a toll.

Press photographer Iain McGregor is one example of how the cumulative effects of work can build up. With some other photographers he was told to take time off after the quake.

The 33-year-old says his employers were conscious of his previous months' assignments which included the World Cup in South Africa, the September 4 earthquake, the Pike Rive mining disaster, various court cases and funerals.

McGregor was driving to a run- of-the-mill job when the quake hit. Realising the aftershock was larger than most, he turned back towards town. Gridlock prevented him driving to the city centre so he parked near the Lion Nathan Brewery on St Asaph St and started walking towards the Bridge of Remembrance where he immediately came across a scene which would grace the front page of The Press the following morning.

"I put my emotions back for a second and thought, 'OK, there is so much rubble and here's a white middle-aged woman in a nice dress'. There was something so wrong about that scene.

"She was just going about her daily business and the next thing people were hauling her from a broken building. It's not right."

Press editor Andrew Holden, who often makes the final decision on the front page image, says the photograph of about eight rescuers wearing a variety of clothing and of different ethnicities portrayed some positivity on this darkest day.

"It shows normal people, desperately trying to save someone. Ordinary people, each who will have their own story from that day - why they were there, what they were doing - and it showed the destruction of a building as well," Holden says.

As the woman was carried from the rubble, McGregor's attention was drawn elsewhere. In the same way Trocadero baker Shane Tomlin's image would come to haunt Tobin, it also had a great psychological impact on McGregor.

Even without the knowledge that Tomlin later died of his injuries, the picture is unforgettable. It is a tightly framed shot of Tomlin's dust-coated head, cradled on the hairy knee of a rescuer. His expression is not quite pain but more of confusion. His right eye open and his left slightly closed but both staring directly at the viewer.

McGregor judged the situation as positive in comparison to a woman on the ground near him who was holding her dying husband's hand.

"I thought he (Tomlin) would be OK, and he turned towards me, just briefly, looking straight at me.

"Because I thought Shane was all right, I thought it would be dramatic but good. It needed to be recorded because it was horrific but, by me being there, people will know how he was saved.

"Then next thing he was on the missing list, now he's dead. That's tough to take. It's a name I'll never forget."

Between scenes and aftershocks, McGregor says he grew "dazed and confused and tearful". Thoughts turned to his family but he soon received confirmation they were safe and continued working.

"It was hard shooting but the camera can act as a buffer for your emotions. In a way it's easier to see trauma when you're weighing up light and shadow and other things you need to take a good picture. I was a bit detached but when it came time to file the photos, the reality of what I'd seen hit me. I was a victim as well.

"A lot of people, even people in the army, won't see what we saw that day, in their lifetimes. People were just going to lunch or back to work, just completely undeserving people."

McGregor had already been ordered to take leave after appearing traumatised by the September earthquake.

Then he did not take the instruction well but this time he accepted.

"Everything else just paled into insignificance," McGregor says.

"What did it matter if I took a photo of a damaged building?

"People had died. I didn't want to cover funerals and memorials. I didn't argue, I'd done my job and I needed to get out for a while."

McGregor's re-entry into the world of earthquake photography was to cover the Super 15 Crusaders match at Twickenham and he returned to The Press in the first week of April, initially working outside the cordon.

He says his counsellor advised that the run of jobs over the previous six months had served his system constant shots of adrenaline.

"I'd use surfing to combat the stress but now the beaches are full of sewage so I couldn't do that. She said I also used alcohol as a coping mechanism - and she's right.

"She said I was sensitive which I wouldn't have picked myself but I guess you have to empathise with something to portray it.

"And it is strange having people complimenting you on photographs that were actually horrific. I don't know if what I did was good or not but someone told me one of my images had been used to promote a fundraiser and that made me feel like something positive had come out of it. Maybe my pictures opened wallets, I can go to sleep at night with that."
Fellow Press photographer Carys Monteath, 30, says no training could have prepared her for that day.

Abandoning her car, the first scene Monteath stumbled across was the burning CTV building which she believes sent her into mild shock.

"There were people crawling all over the site. It was on fire and people were bringing towels from Les Mills and damping them in puddles to put them on the burning building. You wonder if you should help.

"I certainly felt conflicted but there were police, fire, construction workers. That's when you start thinking it's your job to tell everyone who wasn't there what really happened."

Rather than point and shoot at a panicked tempo, Monteath says she was able to seek poignant moments but it was overwhelming because every sight was extraordinary.

A few minutes later she heard someone mention The Press building, and she ran. The first familiar face she saw was fellow photographer John Kirk- Anderson.

"And I just burst into tears. Suddenly seeing someone I knew, emotions just let go. Poor John."

Eighteen weeks pregnant, Monteath was resolute she would continue working and, after a quick discussion with her department head, she hit the streets.

"As soon as I put a camera up, it's a screen. You know it's reality and you are confronted by awful scenes but it can act as a barrier."

One of the hardest moments she faced that day was bumping into a CTV cameraman who had no idea of the fate of his workplace.

She urged him to go to the site.

"I had to show him the photos I'd just taken. He was just stunned and that was the last I saw of him. Imagine having to tell someone their office was completely lost."

Colleague John Kirk-Anderson, 47, believes one of his strongest shots of the day was of two men standing in the twisted remains of the PGC building, holding hands victoriously above their heads celebrating their rescue.

When the quake hit, he sheltered under his desk while colleague Don Scott's "notoriously messy cupboard spewed 20 years of detritus".

Kirk-Anderson stayed under his desk simultaneously taking "hopelessly underexposed and unfocused" photographs with a camera above his desk like a periscope.

It is probably best to introduce Kirk-Anderson as a different kind of beast, his unsentimental personality had led him to a previous career as an army sniper.

As the building collapsed, he says he felt "ice-calm with no adrenal response".

He checked his wife, who also works in the building, was unharmed. Then helped free cartoonist Al Nisbet from a rubble pile, grabbed his camera equipment and a pre-packed emergency bag before evacuating the building.

He made a hasty plan to meet his wife at home later and began shooting.

Among several other widely used shots, Kirk-Anderson believes dusk photographs of the smouldering CTV building will have lingering impact.

"My impression was that it looked like 9/11 and the World Trade Centre with the silhouette of a broken building with smoke and rescuers in a small pile of debris.

"I was very conscious I was recording history."

Like many cameramen and women that day, Kirk-Anderson witnessed but did not shoot scenes which would be too upsetting or graphic for publication.

Press editor Holden, 50, says: "We couldn't show anyone who could be clearly identified as a dead person because these were our people, with families who live in range of our paper and it would be too insensitive.

"There is such power in a photograph. Arguably it showed the greatest extent of the newspaper as a medium because so many people didn't have power and couldn't see TV. These photos showed extraordinary moments.

"Words can be comforting in tone but there is nowhere to hide in a photograph. And photographers must be at the coalface, they can't conduct any of their business over a telephone line."

Kirk-Anderson says shooting scenes of obvious death were unavoidable but later deleted.

"I did shoot a couple of things and once I became aware these people were dying, then I stopped. People reacted to me twice that day, telling me not to shoot. I knew we were not going to be starved for images that day. If someone was distressed, I stopped."

While some snappers agree a lens acts as a filter, Kirk-Anderson sees no difference between his eyes and his lens.

Having shot tsunami victims in Banda Aceh and torture victims in East Timor, he says he has made a point of deliberately taking in the scene without a camera in front of his face.

"But this day, I didn't do it, I just shot everything I could.

"We are essentially paid observers, I'm not an emotional person, I never get involved and for me, this was no different."

Kirk-Anderson has not sought counselling but says the disaster has resulted in him feeling keener to keep in contact with others.

"Which is out of character," he says.

Nicknamed Rikipedia for his expansive knowledge bank, Press illustrations editor Richard Cosgrove, 38, is charged with allocating jobs to the photography team.

On February 22 he was on a day shift standing near his desk while the "vertical and horizontal shaking" waged war on the city.

Despite hearing the building begin to "carve up", Cosgrove says he felt strangely calm while mentally preparing for the building to pancake.

Once the shaking stopped, he snapped into warden and first aid mode, checking stairwells and making sure a bleeding colleague was being helped.

As soon as his section of the floor was clear, Cosgrove grabbed camera gear, the first aid kit and the defibrillator, "just in case".

Making "the quickest ever exit from the building" he took a few photos of rubble and a bleeding reporter.

After discharging his responsibilities as warden, Cosgrove and the editor held a briefing pairing reporters with photographers and sending them to various parts of the city.

Soon Cosgrove moved to the north side of the Cathedral where he captured a photograph of Dean Peter Beck making a dusty walk from the church and another of a woman trapped in its windows.

A man who says he compartmentalises emotions by nature, Cosgrove says his over-riding urge was to record history. It wasn't until he saw his wife later that evening that he became teary.

Instinct and adrenaline operated his camera during those first hours. He says he felt "calm and measured".

"I think I'd already done my role of getting people out so I felt comfortable moving to my next role of taking photos.

"At every scene, people were helping, if they'd asked I would have helped too but at every other point I would have been more of a hindrance.

"It was the PGC building that really signalled the gravity of it because that was the first modern building I'd seen felled.

"It wasn't until I saw Don Scott's (another Press photographer) aerial photographs that I realised how enormously lucky we were to get out alive, After all, we were in a building where a colleague died and others were badly hurt.

"You appreciate how lucky you are because life is something you can't replace."

Cosgrove, who has a degree in psychology, has chosen not to see a counsellor but says he has found sharing his story cathartic and has spent a lot of time talking to the photographers about their experiences, including ordering staff to take time off.

"You cannot beat around the bush, you have to be clear and tell them it's for their best welfare.

"They all did so well, everyone copes differently and no-one should be ashamed to have a good cry, whenever that happens."

- The Press

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