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Photojournalism Under Fire


Denver Rocky Mountain News photo staff shaken by Columbine tragedy

Janet Reeves was in the morning editorial meeting when the first news crackled in over the police scanner. The time was 11:25 a.m., the date, April 20, 1999. At that instant, just five minutes after the first call went into 911, Reeves knew there had been a shooting at Columbine High School. She had no idea that the events of the next few hours would seize the attention of the world, overshadow the war in Kosovo, and put her photo staff at the center of a controversy that is unfolding to this day.

With the information available at that time, the 17-year veteran of the Denver Rocky Mountain News swung into action.

The photo editor on the desk sent two photographers. Within five minutes Reeves, the paper’s director of photography, sent two more. Minutes later, another staffer who was out photographing a Disney executive was dispatched to the scene in a helicopter. At the end of the day, the Rocky Mountain News would have 16 photographers fanned out over the crime scene, three hospitals, and a local grammar school where parents were reuniting with their children.

For the Rocky Mountain News, a 650,000-circulation daily, the event quickly became the biggest local story it had ever covered. By now, the whole world knows the details.

Two male students at the school, who felt bullied and alienated, carried out a methodical plan to kill their classmates and blow up the school on the 110th anniversary of Adolf Hitler’s birthday. In the end, 12 students and one teacher were killed; at least 23 were injured. Hundreds more were terrorized by the two gunmen: seniors Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17, who took their own lives at the end of the shooting spree.

For the photography staff, the ethical challenges were enormous. They had to be sensitive to the needs of the public, watch out for their own safety, and contend with an almost instant demand for images worldwide — all while covering a murderous rampage.

"We were looking for the best pictures, but we had to think of several things, especially when you have a community that is a victim," Reeves says. "Everything and everyone watched what you did. You couldn’t offend an entire community."

Dead or alive

On the day of the shootings, the Rocky Mountain News sent an astonishing 90 photos to wire services and has processed thousands of images since. Reeves says she has no regrets about any photos the paper published, but the decisions on which photographs to run were never easy.

"We grappled with many images, starting with the first day," she says.

The photo taken from a helicopter of a dead student lying on the sidewalk while other students crouched behind a squad car caused hours of debate. Photographer Rudolpho (Rudy) Gonzales says he was busy photographing the students behind the police car, and it took him awhile to see the body. When he did, he couldn’t tell if the person was dead or alive. Later, he convinced himself that the body was just a bunch of book bags. "I guess denial started kicking in right away," he says.

The image was powerful but disturbing. No one knew the identity of the student. But from the blood smeared next to his still body, it was clear he was dead. The paper had an informal policy of not running photos of dead bodies, but Reeves felt this was a time to reconsider.

"My point was that sometimes we water things down so often. This was one of those events that it was pretty important to show that people died here." But other editors were hesitant. "What if it was your child?" some editors argued. The decision was debated for four to five hours. As deadline approached, John Temple, the editor of the paper, made the call, and the paper decided to run the photo despite the standing rule.

The next day Temple heard from the student’s family, who had feared the worst for their 15-year-old son Daniel Rohrbough. "They couldn’t see his face but they recognized his shirt and he hadn’t come home," Reeves says. "It was the first confirmation that he had died."

Gonzales, who was so busy working the scene, did not see the photo until it was printed in the paper the next morning.

"It was really disturbing," says the 30-year-old. "It was a week of intense shock … It’s something I would never want to experience again."

He says he is hoping one day to talk to the Rohrboughs but hasn’t yet had the nerve.

Reeves says Daniel’s mother now carries the photo in her wallet, and it brings her peace of mind to know that her son died instantly in a heroic act. He held the school door open to let others escape.

"I think the family in the end didn’t mind it running but wished in their hearts that we had waited a few days," Reeves says.

Newsroom conflicts

While the aerial photo of Rohrbough lying lifeless on the ground would grip any reader, the news staff had a more difficult time choosing photos of the injured survivors. With photographers at the triage scene and area hospitals, several photographs of students in stretchers came out of the darkroom. Reeves says the paper made sure not to use photos that showed the faces of the injured. "They could go in alive but come out dead," says Reeves.

Even days after the massacre, the News was still walking this tightrope of sensitivity. The paper covered 13 funerals and always found there to be a fine line between invading someone’s private grief and covering a very public event.

After the funeral of Kelly Fleming, the News decided against running the heart-wrenching photo of Fleming’s sister looking into the casket. "That photo brought tears down our faces," she says. "That was intrusive. Maybe the world didn’t have to see the horrifying look on the sister’s face." Instead, the paper decided to use a photo of Fleming’s family walking arm in arm behind the casket. Reeves says the image was more respectful of the community.

The face of tragedy

An easier decision was what to run on Page 1 the day after the shooting: "The Scream."

The photo by George Kochaniec Jr. of 18-year-old Jessica Holliday holding her head in grief became the face of tragedy for millions around the world. Holliday and the girl next to her in the photo, Diwata Perez, had been in the library when the gunmen opened fire.

Holliday hid under a table and prayed amid the gunfire and the gunmen’s laughter. When the killers got to her table, they stopped to reload, then left to get more ammunition. She and the other survivors began to run. When she got outside, she saw her friends bleeding and she learned that her best friend, Lauren Townsend, had been killed.

Capturing the horror

Because he had spent the morning of the shooting at the Colorado legislature, Kochaniec was the last photo-grapher from the News sent to the scene.

"On the way down there, I listened to news radio." Kochaniec says. "They were giving unconfirmed reports. It got to the point where we thought twice as many had been killed."

Kochaniec drove to the furthest entrance of the school, thinking other photographers would be staking out the main entrance. Behind the school, he stumbled across the triage scene.

"It was terrible," says Kochaniec, 43. He thought of his own sons, Steven, 16, and Bradley, 14. He stood back 30 to 40 yards and photographed with his 500mm lens.

He was the only still photographer on the scene. More TV people showed up later. He recalls the scene as if flipping through a series of vivid snapshots.

As he came upon the shooting, Kochaniec remembers thinking, "I’m photographing the worst thing I’ve ever seen. Then I concentrated on doing my job. A lot of crying, a lot of scared teenage kids. Eight to 10 shot students were on the ground. It was terrible. TV people were crying. It was so sad. It was almost unreal.

"I noticed one kid holding an IV. Someone was holding his hand. He looked really young. I thought he was a minor flesh wound. All of sudden, every part of him went into convulsions. I freaked out. I didn’t think he was hurt that bad. It was a shock. He was taken away by medevac.

"[Photo editor] Steve Dykes got on the scene and gathered film from everyone. We had cell phones and pagers. It was well orchestrated. They made two to three film pickups. He got two speeding tickets coming back because of adrenaline. He moved a bunch of images on the AP wire and sent some to Sygma Photo News Agency. The pictures were sent all around the world. All three major papers in New York ran them. Life did a double truck with three to four images. The main one was "The Scream." Like a painting from the 1800s. Arms up in the air. That’s what this picture was like. There were girls in it. They were in the library. One girl’s best friend had been killed."

Such face-to-face tragedy took its toll on the photo staff. Every member went through counseling after the shootings.

"It was impossible not be affected," says Gonzales. "There was a handful of people [in the newsroom] who wondered if they could keep doing this job." Kochaniec even asked to be excused from shooting the funerals.

"I’ve been to hundreds of homicides and sad events in my career," he says. "This was something different — a mass shooting of young high school kids. I was never prepared for it."

Although Kochaniec doesn’t receive any money from the selling of his photos — he doesn’t own the rights — the newspaper donated $20,000 from the sale of Columbine images to a fund for the victims. It’s a fitting memorial from a photo staff deeply affected by one of the century’s worst tragedies.

"It’s not a shield when you’re looking through a long telephoto lens and you see a lot of grief and crying," Gonzales says.

"It’s a magnification. It’s a zoom lens into someone’s pain, grief and suffering. A lot of photos I shot through tears."

Bobbi Nodell
Story Author: Bobbi Nodell

Bobbi Nodell, formerly with MSNBC.com, is now a freelance writer based in Seattle.

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