Bizarrely, having written in my last blog post about the Pine Range fire which I covered for The Bath Chronicle in 1991, I was heading back to my flat from a family gathering on Sunday evening to discover the sheltered housing complex on the opposite side of my building from where Pine Range once stood was surrounded by fire crews, engines and hoses. A fire had broken out in one of the flats and 11 residents had to be evacuated, with one resident being taken to hospital suffering smoke inhalation.
Aside from the obvious concern that everyone had been evacuated safely I couldn’t help feeling I should take a few photos, in spite of the fact I had a fair number of other commitments that evening, limited time and no obvious client for any photos I would take.
But the news photographer blood which still courses through me was buzzing and telling me to get on with it and at least take a few frames to offer up to the local paper. More in hope than expectation; time was a paper would have torn my arm off at the elbow for a set of pictures from an event they couldn’t get to and would happily have paid for them. Times have changed so very much though.
I don’t often find myself covering this kind of story any more. Most of what I do for publications is press release work, which of course doesn’t include things like un-planned fires. I had to pause and ask myself if it was still valid for me to take pictures at an incident if I don’t have an immediate client for the shots. I don’t even carry a National Union of Journalists card any more, having let my membership lapse some years ago.
I honestly don’t think any of that matters though. Whether or not a newspaper wants to use my photos is entirely their call. As a trained, experienced news photographer I still feel I have a duty to record events if I am able. I can’t know at the time of taking a photo whether I will have captured something banal, tragic or incredibly newsworthy. All I can do is call on all my training and experience and get on with taking pictures.
Now that local newspapers no longer cover local stories and events with anything approaching enthusiasm perhaps it’s more important than ever that photographers with the right training and skills create quality visual records of what they witness.
Looking at the paltry photographic coverage the Bath Chronicle gave the Tour of Britain last week, and The Frome Standard’s belated attempt at photographing a major news event on their own doorstep (their photos were taken over three hours after the event), it’s possible that historians of the future will look back on the stories of our time and wonder why the photos from the early 2000s are worse than the ones taken a century before on far more primitive equipment.