Lindsey Wasson graduated from Seattle University in 2013 with a BFA in Photography. She interned at SeattlePI.com while in school and then for The Seattle Times last summer, where she now works as a temporary staff photographer until September.
A house, marked with an X to signal it has been searched for victims, is seen destroyed in the mud on Highway 530 next to mile marker 37 on Sunday, March 23, 2014 the day after a giant landslide occurred near Oso, Washington. As of April 22, a month after the slide, the death toll stands at 41, with 2 still missing. Officials say it could take several more months to clear the square mile-sized site, which swallowed up more than 30 homes and cut off direct access to the small town of Darrington.
Q: You’ve recently graduated from Seattle University and now work for The Seattle Times. How did your internship start at The Seattle Times and what has it evolved to? Have your responsibilities changed?
To be honest, they treat interns very well and let you have good assignments, so in many ways it’s not much different now that I’m a temporary staffer. I think as I’ve gained experience, mutual trust and history, I’ve had a wider variety of assignments and I think more is expected, as it should be. I probably shot a larger percentage of features as an intern; now I’ve been rotated much more into sports coverage, food shoots, magazine work, etc. I feel more like part of the team.
Governor Jay Inslee talks privately Barbara Welsh, whose husband Bill was missing and found dead days later, after a media presser outside the Arlington Police Department on Sunday, March 23, 2014 the day after a giant landslide occurred near Oso, Wash. Bill Welsh, 66, was an electrician working with plumber Stephen Neal, 55, to install a water tank when the mudslide hit. They were both killed by the impact of the slide, which was traveling at an estimated 60mph.
Q: What resources did you use while at Seattle University, and how did you apply them? For example: the student newspaper; University of Communications; professors; the greater Seattle area.
I got my feet wet sophomore year by joining the student newspaper, The Spectator. I also worked for the campus photographer, Chris Taylor, who happens to be a former Seattle Times staffer. My advisor Claire Garoutte was great at sending out opportunities for her students, and I tried to jump on as many of those as I could. She often told us to “always say yes” to chances to gain experience. She didn’t mean that literally, but the idea is that you always have to be looking for that opening. Never pass up a chance to make connections and to gain experience. As time went on, I began freelancing for the University and eventually began interning at the SeattlePI.com.
As I started interning, a hugely valuable resource to me was the Northwest photojournalism meetups: a group of Seattle area photographers who get together regularly to hang out and to share work. This group was a great way for me to become a familiar face to industry professionals, learn and become friends with them. I got to know several of my current coworkers this way.
Oso residents Nikki Stinson and her son Montana, 15, tidy clothing that has been used by family members volunteering at the slide site on April 1, 2014. After the Stinsons returned home from a mandatory evacuation when the mudslide hit, their home became a throughway for around 13 relatives and family friends volunteering in shifts at the site. Nikki Stinson, who kept the house running during the two weeks after the slide, says she’s “..inspired by the strength of victims looking for their family members. I can’t even imagine.” Nikki says everyone in the community is just doing their part. “I’m proud to say that we live in Oso. I’m proud of my boys, of our whole community.”
Q: Having a front seat at the Oso mudslide, what has been the hardest part about doing your job?
I’m not sure I could tell you what the hardest part was. I can tell you this is the largest, most difficult story I’ve worked on in my short career and this was certainly new territory for me. There were different challenges at different times. Those first few days, it was dealing with the unpredictability of the situation and making your own judgment calls. Nobody had any idea what was going to happen. I arrived Saturday night with no clue how this would play out. When coverage began, it was an absolute media circus.
Balancing respectfulness while still doing my job was tricky, particularly with the layers of red tape at every turn. I never wanted to feel like a vulture. On the first day, Barbara Welsh, whose husband Bill was missing and later found dead, came to a press conference Governor Inslee spoke at. When he went to go speak with her privately, the huge gaggle of media followed. I hesitated because it felt wrong, but went to make photos when I saw everyone else capturing the moment. So I joined them, made a few frames, and stepped away. That was enough.
It can also be draining to be around that level of destruction in an entire community completely affected by an event. I’ve been to the slide site on each side, about 5 times total, and seeing the scope of destruction is incredible. But the evidence of what was once there – people’s books, smashed cars, a poster ripped from a teenager’s wall—that makes your stomach drop. Nearly everyone knew someone or of someone missing or dead. House fires or even shootings are different, more isolated. But up there, especially as the scope of the disaster became evident, you’re surrounded by a community of grief, uncertainty and fear.
An emotional Snohomish County Fire District 21 Chief Travis Hots holds back tears as he updates the body count during a press conference at Haller Park in Arlington on Tuesday, March 25, 2014. Two more bodies were recovered that day, bringing the official total to 16.
Q: How did the community initially react to you being there? And how has it changed?
To be honest, it was a bit difficult to get a sense of the community’s take for the first couple of days. The city and county government wanted to very tightly control everything and I found there were few places I could get access to. Residents I did interact with initially sometimes just seemed a little dazed, obviously emotional, dealing with the same lack of information. But there were mixed reactions and emotions to my presence. Some people tend to freeze or become suspicious as soon as they see cameras, and I understand that. Sometimes I walked around town without them.
Residents and officials opened up more the longer I stayed. The more I hung around town both in Arlington and Oso, the more I’d begin to recognize people. Folks I had photographed or talked to I’d see again walking down the main drag or at a fundraiser, and I think that’s helped me feel more comfortable with the community and vice versa. Having some of those subjects come up to me to thank me for the coverage was surprisingly moving and incredibly validating. I spent a lot of time at Oso’s chapel in particular and was taken aback by their generosity. During a Sunday service, a man I’d never met simply came up to me and said, “I just want to thank you for the work you’re doing. It’s important work.” And then handed me a cookie.
It reminded me why I was doing it. I wanted people to see not just the sheer destruction, but also the community’s overwhelming, unified response to it, their spirit. I kept going back and tried to show I wasn’t just there to run and gun, but was committed to telling their story respectfully. And I will keep going back.
Much of the day’s mail at the the Oso Community Chapel for relief efforts reaches their office without any address, simply marked with the city name, on Saturday, March 29, 2014.
Q: What did you learn from it?
I think I’m still processing how I feel about it, but I have learned a lot. I have more experience handling an active, ongoing news scene on my own with very little upfront information. I’ve learned to trust my instincts and decisions more, which were sometimes hard to balance with gauging my editors’ wants and needs. Handling a giant, national media presence and competition was an added pressure on me, but more so on the community. I had to figure out ways to be extra respectful because I was one of so many.
I’ve learned how I personally handle dealing with a prolonged, sensitive news situation, and how easy it is to get very attached. It was jarring to drive home every night to a city so far removed from the event. As we slowed coverage, it was hard to leave for longer. I felt guilty. But while you’re working you don’t often have time to process what you’re seeing. The viewfinder, the camera, can be an emotional distancer. It removes you one step from the scene emotionally. You are witnessing grief or destruction, but when you put the camera to your face and look through something else, it acts like a filter and makes it a little less real for that moment. It feels protective, even though I know it isn’t. It can be a way to hide. But I’ve learned you also have to put the camera down sometimes to earn the chance to raise it again.
Amy Danard, left, gets a hug from Teresa Wrzesinski as they remember those who have been lost at an Oso Victim’s Relief Benefit at The Krosswalk in Arlington on Friday, March 28, 2014. Danard, who went to high school with Christina Jefferds, a resident confirmed dead, says she feels “Numb…It’s my town and I know these people.” Wrzesinski’s daughter went to school with some of the children who were missing. “They found some of their bodies on Tuesday,” she said. Locals Jennifer Starr and Kari O’Sullivan, who had planned to celebrate O’Sullivan’s birthday at The Krosswalk, decided to turn their plans into a benefit instead. “It didn’t feel right to just be celebrating,” said O’Sullivan. “We just wanted to come together in a place of hope and caring,” Starr said, to celebrate life and remember those who have been lost. At the end of the night, they had raised about $4500 in cash through admission, donations and raffles, as well as two truckloads of donations of clothing, blankets and other supplies. All of the proceeds will go towards helping families affected by the disaster.
Q: What advice would you give photographers who are still in college?
This isn’t original advice, but it’s true: Just work hard. Intern as much as you can, or gain experience however you can. Classes are important, absolutely, but there is just so much they cannot teach you. At least in my experience, the most valuable lessons I’ve learned have been through actual work; in my college career it was the Seattle PI that really did it for me. Interning at the Seattle PI with Josh Trujillo was one of the most important, formative experiences of my college career, and Josh got me to the Times. I’m still learning from him. With internships comes networking: while it’s not the most important thing, it’s always good to have people in your corner.
Volunteers bow their heads during a moment of silence at 10:37, a week after the mudslide occurred, at the Oso Fire Department on Saturday, March 29, 2014.
Q: What’s been your biggest challenge thus far?
Often my biggest challenge is just myself. It’s really easy to second-guess yourself and your work, especially when there’s so much incredible talent out there surrounding you, competing with you. I was pretty shocked when I learned I would be working here and I’ve been trying to work hard to deserve it. There are weeks when I feel like I’ve totally lost my ability to take a decent photo and I wonder why I even bother. But I think a lot of successful people feel like that sometimes, too, so I’ll take my cue from them and keep working hard. This is my hometown newspaper, and working here has meant a lot to me. I know there are a lot of people who want my job.
Much of the day’s mail at the the Oso Community Chapel for relief efforts reaches their office without any address, simply marked with the city name, on Saturday, March 29, 2014. There were no major updates on the death toll last night, according to County Executive Director Gary Haakenson, leaving the official count at 17 dead with 9 bodies yet to be recovered and 90 missing. Periods of rain and wind have hampered efforts the past two days.
Randi Ray, daughter of Oso Community Chapel’s pastor Gary Ray, and Gary’s daughter-in-law Molly Ray, right, put up yellow ribbons around the Chapel grounds on Sunday, March 30, 2014 before their 10am service. “We may be knocked down but we’re not knocked out,” said Pastor Gary Ray in his sermon.
Q: What are your plans for the future?
I wish I could say I had a great plan mapped out for myself, but I’m just taking it as it goes at the moment. Most immediately, I’m looking for employment after my contract is up here at the Times in September. I’m looking to stay in newspapers or similar news media at least for the next few years, if I can. I’d like to build skill and experience before even considering freelance.
To suggest a student or recent graduate for the Emerging Talent series, email Nick at Nick...@gmail.com.