First to Respond: A Look at Photojournalism with Light Leader George Wilson

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When a newsworthy event takes place, medical response teams are not the only people to arrive at the scene first. Photojouralists and reporters are also sent to the scene to capture what is happening as it happens. Our own Light Leader George Wilson was recently called to cover the Orlando nightclub shooting which occurred very close to his home. Below he shares some of his images as well as his experiences capturing the aftermath of this extremely tragic event.

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When did you first pick up a camera? And was there a specific moment you wanted to pursue photography as a full-time career?

I got my first camera when I was 8 years old. Back then, they automatically put dates in the image border. I still have the battered yellow photo album containing prints from my first roll of size 126 film. Just snapshots, of course, but it marked my first steps into photography. It was a way to express what I was seeing and feeling. I can say that I pushed that camera to its limits. I discovered how close I could get to my subject without losing sharp focus and that if I turned the camera slightly it changed the image a bit. Every day with the camera in my hand was a new adventure, and I recorded everything I possibly could. For awhile I ran around shooting everything at a 45° angle. The square images that came back from the grocery store processing were kept in my photo album and turned to create a diamond shape – how cool, I thought. I was off on this life-long journey of photography! I am almost 51 now, and the sense of discovery and excitement is still there. The excitement I feel today when I see the image appear on my LCD is the same as when that 8-year-old boy opened the envelope of freshly processed photographs at the grocery store.

It was in the 1980’s that I began to shoot news work. There is no gallery for my photographs here, not that I want one. I remember events, moments, and stories through a series of still images. They capture a moment – a fleeting moment in history. News work is different from advertising, portraits, and landscapes. We are documenting history, not selling a product or location, so there can be no altering the picture with Photoshop or HDR techniques. The moment is what it is – nothing more, nothing less.

You’ve had the opportunity to cover disastrous events before, what is your approach to shooting a tragedy of such magnitude?

The camera becomes a barrier between me and the event or the emotion of the event. That being said, we are all human. The emotion does hit you, whether in the middle of the night, driving to the next assignment, or sitting alone editing the images to meet deadlines. It will hit you.

For the Pulse nightclub attack,, this barrier, this invisible wall, helped me cover the event without bias. I was contacted early Sunday morning by DPA (Deutsche Presse Agentur), the German Press Agency, to cover the aftermath of the shooting. On Sunday, I would work alone, and then on Monday there would be a reporter with me. She was flying to Orlando from the Washington D.C. office.

For a news photographer, setting aside your personal feelings is a must. I can greatly influence the viewer by composition, aperture, shutter speed, and cropping. I can direct their eye and even dictate what to feel through visual communication. This influence can greatly sway public opinion and do great harm if emotions are not kept in check. For the same reason (?), if images are altered and content changed or even created, the photographer can damage public trust.

Why photograph such a tragic event?

For me, it is about telling the story and sharing the experience with the world beyond Orlando (in this case). Orlando now has the misfortune of being a location of a terrorist attack – the largest mass shooting in American history! We want the world to understand our pain, our suffering, and our resolve to try and make it stop here.

When I photographed the moments of mourning, the moments of grief and familial suffering, along with the moments of courage, it affected me personally. But the responsibility I had to tell the story – Orlando’s story - far outweighed my own personal anguish.

I consider myself a visual journalist and the power of the photograph transcends language barriers. This is not just the story of a tragedy, but also of a triumph. It is people coming together as Americans without barriers of race, gender, or sexual orientation, to console and to heal, to see suffering and try to end it, to see pain and try to ease it. Many of my own images are still very hard for me to look at, even though I captured them. In time, like the city, I will heal too.

Of all the assignments you have covered, is there a single moment that stands out as one you will remember forever?

There is not one single moment that stands out. My students like hearing the backstory to my images and everyone has their own favorites. I tend to remember the moments and emotions through still images – each has its own life and each brings back different memories. One assignment can run the gamut from exuberance to sorrow very quickly. The shootings at Pulse did exactly that.

On Sunday, Senator Bill Nelson (image below) approached the media in the heat of the day and announced that ISIS had claimed responsibility for the attack. When Senator Nelson says something poignant, he tends to stop just for a moment and look down, as he did in this image. We were once again reminded that our shores cannot be protected. I could sense fear, strength, and resolve in his words at that moment.

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Can you tell us more about your recent experience in Orlando?

The media was kept a distance, away from the nightclub in multiple directions. The police had a job to do and the media would have contaminated the crime scene. I needed to show the urgency, the police lines and the fact that there was an ever-growing police presence. In the image below, I slowed my shutter to 1/25 @f13. This blurred the unmarked vehicle moving through the crime scene, showing the urgency and the increasing number of first responders.

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In this image, Amr Sharaki, a Muslim originally from Egypt, now living in Orlando, passes out popsicles to blood donors waiting in a line that stretched around the building in higher than 90°F heat. Here is a young man, just a few hours after the tragedy had unfolded a few blocks away, doing something very simple, but very significant in his adopted country and hometown. Here I began to see the city pulling together as Americans.

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Perhaps my favorite image of the day below (that sounds really strange to say in light of the events that unfolded) shows Tara Osborne, Danielle Irigoyen, and Caleb Collins - all from Orlando. They stand at the corner of Orange Ave and Michigan Street holding signs in support of families and victims in the mass shooting just a few blocks north of where they are. Motorists were honking horns in support as cars passed. While I was there, an ice cream truck pulled up and parked behind us. They were giving everyone drinks and snacks – at no cost. The driver wanted everyone to stay well hydrated in the blazing Florida sun. We were pulling together as a city, as a community, and were caring about the well-being of our fellow man.

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The following image was published around the world on front pages from as far away as Bangladesh. The power of the Internet and the photograph puts news and events in front of everyone around the globe. In this image Annette Stubbs, a pastor from the Parramore section of Orlando, leads a group of parishioners in prayer just outside the crime scene tape. The emotion in this image, I think, says it all. Orlando was devastated by this event. The victims were mostly from the LGBT community – a community that crosses racial, religious, and economic lines across Orlando. Orlando did not see these lines during this event; we were one city – one community.

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The emotions of the first two days – Sunday and Monday – were wide and varied. On Monday night at the Dr. Phillips Center, thousands of people gathered in a vigil. I had gotten there early and shot both night and day images. In this image, Jordan Tarquino, -Megan Boelitto, and Lola Selsky all hug. This was the first time the three had seen each other and learned that each was safe.

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What surprised me most at this event was that after it ended, people remained on the lawn of the Dr. Phillips Center. They took out trash bags and cleaned the entire area. It was left in immaculate condition, save for the large pile of flowers near the entrance. The people of Orlando had, through this simple action, thanked the city for allowing them to come together to mourn, to grieve, to inspire, and say “we are Orlando, united.”

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George Wilson has more than 30 years of experience as a professional photographer, and his work has appeared in many national and international publications. Now focusing on nature and wildlife photography, George exhibits his infrared black and white landscape work and teaches photography at numerous art centers, botanical gardens and at the Walt Disney World Resort in his home state of Florida. A key element to George’s work is his dedication to traditional photography as his post processing is strictly limited to tools aligning with the traditional darkroom. To see more of George's work, visit wilsonphotographyfl.com

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