Michelle Jay was on Heartbreak Hill when her phone died. The photo editor of The Daily Free Press at Boston University didn’t think much of it. She was doing double duty, focusing on a few runners and photographing the Boston Marathon for an advanced photojournalism class and for the newspaper. Around 3 p.m., she noticed that runners were slowing down to a walk. A few police cars sped by. Then, a woman told her there had been two explosions near the finish line, about five miles away.
“I just remember my heart stopping,” the 21-year-old junior said. The last text she had received before her phone died was from another B.U. photographer near the finish line.
“As an editor, my first thought was, Where are my people? There was initially a moment of guilt, and I was like, Oh my God, if anybody gets hurt and I sent them there, how do I deal with that?”
Jay’s professor at Boston University, Joe Lippincott, was putting together feedback on student portfolios when he heard about the bombing. With all 21 of his intro and advanced photojournalism students photographing somewhere along the marathon route that day, he was in “panic mode,” he said, until he heard that everyone was safe.
Within the next hour and a half, both Jay and Lippincott were able to connect with all the B.U. photojournalists via social media– cell phone service was spotty after the bombing. None were injured. And that’s also when Jay found out that one Daily Free Press photographer, Kenshin Okubo, had been near the finish line when the bomb went off and had photographed the immediate aftermath.
Okubo took pictures of the bloody chaos near the site of the first bomb, as well as an image of terrified spectators fleeing the scene and a man staggering through the wreckage with the front of both pant legs torn open. Those pictures would soon run all over the world.
Soon, too, these young photojournalists would have to navigate the emotional and business realities of a violent spot news event and a story in the national spotlight.
Photographing violence and its aftermath is the hardest job in photojournalism, even for seasoned professionals. Gary Knight co-founded the VII photo agency in 2001, and his career has taken him around the world, including war zones in Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia and elsewhere.
“I don’t have the capacity really to deal with [the violence] anymore,” Knight told me, stressing he was only speaking personally and not for other photographers when it comes to how he copes with photographing war an violence.
“I’m aware of it all the time, all that pain and suffering that I have witnessed. And of course it’s the pain and suffering of others, but it’s there always, and there’s no escaping from it.”
Today Knight is the director of the Program for Narrative & Documentary Practice at the Institute for Global Leadership at Tufts University in Somerville, right next to Boston. He still photographs projects for VII. He wants more universities and colleges to prepare students for the emotional and practical demands of photographing violence and conflict.
“You have a lot of young people coming out of universities, coming out of colleges, coming out of photographic education and going off to places like Syria or being caught in something like this totally unexpectedly,” he said. “And they’re absolutely ill-prepared for it.”
At Boston University, Lippincott has been teaching photojournalism classes for 22 years and addresses just those questions in his classes. He sees spot news as the toughest test for young photojournalists, and includes it as an assignment in his advanced class.
“As a human being, you’re going to react to things,” Lippincott said. “In an occasion like this where most people run away from something, and you instinctively run toward something, you’re going to subject yourself to a lot of potential second guessing. Once it’s over and you decompress, you’re going to get depressed. You’re going to be affected by it, you’re going to feel it personally, you’re going to feel sad for a while and it’s OK to feel that way. It’s part of what happens in a situation like this.”
From 6 p.m. April 15 until 3 a.m. the next morning, Michelle Jay and the staff of The Daily Free Press were working to put the paper out. Jay had other things to think about, too, including the more than 20 calls coming in from all over the world, looking to license the Daily Free Press pictures.
She called Lippincott, who suggested she not license any picture exclusively, and also that she read everything she could online about image licensing to make sure the staff’s pictures were protected. In the end, she ended up licensing the images so that they could only be published twice in each outlet in order to keep the option of reselling the images later.
There was also the question of standards. Since Okubo was at the finish line, some of his images were graphic.
“As purely a photojournalist I was struck by the visual imagery he’d managed to capture,” said Jay. “Then I made sure he was OK as a person and as a human being.”
“Gore and horror movies are things that I can’t really watch,” she said. “So I’ve have that set as my tolerance level almost…if I want to see it, then I wouldn’t necessarily want to run it. We’re more like a small community newspaper than a big national publication.”
That standard came up during the evening of the bombing. Jay– who emphasized she collaborated with her editor in chief, advisory board and even a former photo editor in France that busy night– made the call to swap out an image in the paper that showed a graphic leg wound for one less bloody.
You can see the print result of the staff’s images in the pages embedded with this post. It was a strong student visual showing during one of the biggest and toughest Boston stories of the last decade.
“I’m just so damn proud of them, I truly am,” said Lippincott.
Brian McDermott teaches photojournalism, web design and video journalism at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.