Upon reading the Nashville Tennessean report of the recent death of someone I knew, a photo I had taken of him came to mind. Nashville iconic street musician Elringo De’Angelino died recently. He was known by many as “Velvet Thunder” and played on 2nd Street in downtown and his most famous lyric is titled “Big Legged Woman.” He was believed to be in his mid-70s.
Looking at the image, the sounds of his guitar and booming voice emanate from the photo’s old silvery surface. His hands blurred from movement as he plucks the strings, his lips pursed as he sings, the crowd behind in frozen gaze as if mesmerized by his music. I first met him while shooting the above photo for a basic photography class assignment. Being a bit shy, I asked if I could photograph his performance. He simply laughed and said enjoy the show. With my initial intimidation and slight embarrassment gone, I began shooting.
All that from a simple image on a piece of paper.
But his photo also reminds me of the times while covering breaking news that I’ve asked myself “Why the hell am I here.” How during one incident as I watched a fire fighter pulling a lifeless body from a burning Bowling Green, Ky., motel, tears welled in my eyes and I said to myself, “I’m changing my major, I can’t do this anymore.” Then I drove home, numb from the experience, sat on the couch in deathly silence and cried. I skipped school the next day, trying to figure it out. That was almost 15 years ago.
Over the years, I’ve had to deal with onlookers’ abusive comments and physical abuse. While covering the aftermath of a rollover accident in downtown Bowling Green, Ky., an onlooker kneed me in the back while I was squatting to take some photos. Calling me a vulture as he did so. Or when the Kappa Delta Fraternity house on College Street went up in flames, an onlooker made snide remarks as I photographed the structure disintegrate to rubble. Yet there he was, just standing there watching. I was doing my job.
During a structure fire in Enid, Okla., a good ten minutes after fire fighters arrived on scene, a neighbor came running over and asked the responders if the occupant got out safely. They frantically searched the burning mobile home and discovered resident Jerry Barnes lying on the bed unconscience. They dragged his near lifeless body out to the open to begin life saving measures. As I was shooting the CPR in progress, one of the fire fighters yelled at me “How can you even take photos?” And I repeated the question back to myself: Why was I there?
The worst are the letters to the editors about what was printed. The snide remarks and comments can be somewhat ignored, but when a reader complains and it’s in print, then it can be depressing. It becomes more of a public issue and can make you even more of a target.
Yet I keep going. Something deep down inside keeps me charged and ready to tell the next story. To inform the public of what’s going on. A passion I that sometimes cannot explain.
There are those times while covering breaking news that the writer and I have been thanked for being there. Or the letters and post cards I’ve received over the years from grateful subjects for covering their stories, or from readers thanking me for my work.
Uplifting comments from subjects such as Mary Louise Thomas of Bowling Green who sent me a letter thanking me for the article and photographs. About how the newspaper was fair reporting her need for medicinal marijuana to deal with her fibromyalgia and how the photo really captured her pain and suffering.
The most recent thanks I’ve received is from Pearlington, Miss., residents for covering their town as it recuperated from the devastation Hurricane Katrina created. Residents Cheryl LeSieur, AnaWeidie, and Tim Smith all expressed thanks to Aspen Times writer Scott Condon and myself.
They were thankful for keeping their town in the news so they were able to rebuild with the efforts of a multitude of volunteers. The town of 1500 residents was virtually wiped out by a reported 15 foot storm surge.
One of the most memorable though is Jerry Barnes. Over a month had gone by since being rescued from the rubble of his burned mobile home. He was in a coma for the first two weeks of his hospital stay. He was recently released and staying at The Salvation Army. I returned from an assignment one day and the writer Scott Fitzgerald came to me and said the guy burned in the trailer fire wanted to thank everyone who saved his life. Including the reporter and photographer.
I felt numb as we walked to The Salvation Army in downtown Enid. I didn’t know how I would feel as this was the first time I would meet the victim from a fire or accident. Those fears melted as he came up, shook our hands and hugged us. Thanking us for the news articles that let people know what was going on. It was a simple meeting.
To see a fire victim after the fact reassured me that I was in the right field. My passions were not misplaced.
As we continue through our careers, we must constantly remind ourselves that we do make a difference and our work is appreciated. And the odd thing is, those thanks come at the best possible time- when we need reminding why we do it.
And I thank you Velvet Thunder. Your booming voice and guitar will be missed on 2nd Street.
Thank you for stopping by and reading