Ups & Downs of News Photography: Covering an Assignment for the San Antonio Express-News


A few weeks ago, a friend of mine, Andy Bronson of the Bellingham Herald, referred me to Photo editor Luis Ruiz of the San Antonio Express-News for an assignment.

The assignment was to cover the official release of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board report which states the cause of an explosion that killed 7 people in the early morning hours of April 2, 2010, at the Tesoro Refinery in Anacortes. The refinery is about 45 miles southwest of Bellingham. San Antonio is home of the Tesoro Petroleum.

Refinery Lights across the Bay from Seafarer’s Memorial Park

© Paul Conrad/San Antonio Express-News - Public hearing and official release of the U.S Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation report on Thursday evening Jan. 30, 2014, at Anacortes High School in Anacortes, Wash.. The report concerns the safety failures at the Tesoro Refinery in Anacortes which exploded and killed 7 people on April 2, 2010.

One glitch in an otherwise routine news assignment, San Antonio is two hours ahead and the meeting at the High School begins at 6. The newspaper’s deadline is at 9 Central. So the meeting starts an hour before their deadline. Wonderful.

Refinery Lights Reflecting in Fidalgo Bay
© Paul Conrad/San Antonio Express-News - The Tesoro refinery as seen from Seafarers Memorial Park across Fidalgo Bay on Thursday evening Jan. 30, 2014. A public hearing was held with the official release of the U.S Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation report on the safety failures at the Tesoro Refinery in Anacortes which exploded and killed 7 people during the early morning hours of April 2, 2010.

I’ve worked on deadline before. However, it is usually at my newspaper so there is some leeway if you just call and let the editors know you’ll be 10 or 15 minutes late. But this was a big assignment for a rather large respectable metro newspaper. Looks like I’m going to work my ass off to get the images in.

The assignment was pretty simple. Other than the early deadline, the next day I was to spend with Vicki shooting images around Anacortes of people’s reactions and shots of the refinery. But as editorial assignments can sometimes go, that changed.

Chemical Safety Board Begins the Presentation:

© Paul Conrad/San Antonio Express-News - Chemical Safety Board lead investigator Dan Tillema during the public hearing and official release of the U.S Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation report on Thursday evening Jan. 30, 2014, at Anacortes High School in Anacortes, Wash.. The report concerns the catastrophic failure of a heat exchanger at the Tesoro Refinery in Anacortes which exploded and killed 7 people on April 2, 2010.

Which is fine as that’s not anything new to me. You have one of two choices: either bitch and whine about it, or just accept the new limits and finish the job. Water off a duck’s back. Roll with the punches. Improvise, adapt, overcome.
You must be flexible when working with newspapers. It is demanding at times, but that’s one of the reasons I like it so much. And you get to see some cool stuff on someone elses dime.

In this case, instead of going around town seeking local reaction, the business page editors just wanted shots of the refinery. No big deal, except fresh in my memory is a few disturbing reports of photographers being arrested while taking photographs of refineries. Here’s a link to a New York Times Lens Blog concerning photographers being arrested: Criminalizing Photography

Brian and Jeremy Hughes discuss the report: 

© Paul Conrad/San Antonio Express-News -  Brian Hughes of Seattle, left, and his brother Jeremy Hughes of Bellingham discuss the U.S Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation report on Thursday evening Jan. 30, 2014, at Anacortes High School in Anacortes, Wash.. The report concerns the safety failures at the Tesoro Refinery in Anacortes which exploded and killed 7 people on April 2, 2010.
The reporter was pretty friendly. Vicki was nice to work with and she knew her stuff when it comes to Tesoro. Strong communication skills go a long way to help reporters, visual and word, work to get the necessary information to the public.
I left a few hours earlier than I needed for several reasons:

  • To meet Vicki and discuss an action plan
  • To scope out and shoot some refinery shots for the deadline
  • To understand what was going to happen at the meeting, get names of the presenters, and get photos of the audience as they wait for the presentation to begin.

After spending about an hour shooting the refinery, I called Vicki and met her to go to the High School. Being as she was from San Antonio, I offered to pick her up and take her.

For an hour before the presentation I photographed people as they came in, sat together discussing the reports, and attempted to find any of the relatives of the victims. During this time I met brothers Brian and Jeremy Hughes. They are engineers who live in Seattle and were curious about what the CSB would show. (Read the full report here: CSB Release Report of Fatal Tesoro Refinery Explosion)

Unfortunately, I did not find any relatives of the victims before the presentation began. So, I shot an overall of the auditorium, the CSB presenters, and the closeups of the observers. Not very strong stuff, but you shoot what you can.

Ken Powell getting  hugged by Marie Howling Wolf
© Paul Conrad/San Antonio Express-News - Ken Powell  of  Mount Vernon, Wash.,  is hugged by Marie Howling Wolf (cq) during the public hearing and official release of the U.S Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation report on Thursday evening Jan. 30, 2014, at Anacortes High School in Anacortes, Wash.  Powell's daughter Katheryn Powell, 28, of Burlington, is one of seven workers killed in an explosion at the Tesoro Refinery in Anacortes in the early hours of April 2, 2010.

An hour after the presentation began, I needed to download my cards, make an edit, and upload to a Dropbox folder for Luis to use for the paper. In half an hour I had uploaded 6 images for them to use: 2 of the refinery, and 4 of the meeting.

While uploading, the presentation ended and then began public commentary with questions from the audience. I shot a few of these and as I did, noticed a few older people in the audience. As they began speaking, the introduced themselves. Some of the participants are locals interested in the safety of the community, and several others family members.

Herschel Janz listens to the Presentation. His son Lew died in the accident.
© Paul Conrad/San Antonio Express-News - Hershel Janz of Anacortes, Wash., listens to Estus Ken Powell during the comments section of  a public hearing and official release of the U.S Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation report on Thursday evening Jan. 30, 2014, at Anacortes High School in Anacortes. Janz's son Lew Janz and Powell's daugher Katheryn are two of seven Tesoro refinery workers killed in an early morning explosion at the Anacortes refinery on April 2, 2010.

As I was photographing one man, Herschel Janz just watched the commenters. Another older gentleman came up to the microphone and he introduced himself as Ken Powell. His daughter Katheryn Powell, 28, died from burns she received in the blast. After he finished, he stopped and shook hands with Herschel. Ken received a standing ovation as he returned to his seat.

Late afternoon Sun lights the steam as a tanker rests at dock:
© Paul Conrad/San Antonio Express-News - A ship is docked at the Tesoro Anacortes refinery in Anacortes, Wash., as seen on Friday afternoon Jan. 31, 2014. A public hearing was held during official release on Thursday evening of the U.S Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation report citing safety failures at the Tesoro Refinery in Anacortes which exploded and killed 7 people on April 2, 2010.

As I shot this, it occurred to me to call Luis and let him know of the images I was getting. It was past deadline, but in cases like this, it is always good to let the editor know if you are getting anything good and that you will be uploading them soon. Editors know that in these situations, you can sometimes get something good after deadline they will use.

Then next came Tesoro refinery worker Marie Howling Wolf. She was a good friend of Katheryn and knew Ken really well. After she spoke at the microphone concerned of the safety of her coworkers. She hugged Ken afterwards in a poignant moment.

After the filing the extra photos and story for deadline, I talked with Vicki to find out what we needed to cover and what time to meet her. She said the editors had changed the story to cover the safety record of the refinery and not local reaction. Basically, my job would be to drive around getting refinery photos.

The next day, the first thing I did was actually drive to the gate at the refinery, introduce myself, and let them know what I was doing. I was actually surprised when the Chief of Security told me that it was OK and to stay on the main road encircling the refinery. I was free to photograph any part of the refinery as long as it was visible from the road. That must made my job super easy.

Steam Rises from the main Stack:
© Paul Conrad/San Antonio Express-News - The Tesoro Anacortes refinery in Anacortes, Wash.

I spend most of the afternoon shooting the refinery from various angles from the road. While doing so, I discovered a walkway that goes from Fidalgo Bay Road, across Fidalgo Bay, and to the main road around the refinery. So I walked the Tommy Thompson Trail over the water shooting various angles.

As it began nearing sunset, I found myself looking east towards Mount Baker. The clouds still obscured the dormant volcano so a shot of the refinery with the mountain in the background would have to wait for another day. I still needed something with the huge oil tankers docked near the refinery. So looking at Google maps on my phone, I found a few spots to go check out.

One of them required a ferry ride to Guemes Island and drive along South Shore Road to find that angle. Lucky for me, the clouds parted in the west and let the Sun shine over the refinery. Got a few shots using my 80-200 and teleconverter.

Then the skies opened east as I was on the ferry ride back to Anacortes. The setting Sun lit everything in a beautiful orange as it dipped below the horizon. I drove back to Fidalgo Bay Resort to shoot a composition of the refinery against Mount Baker. The Sun had set but the alpenglow was phenomenal.

I parked my car and ran quickly to the shore with my gear. While running, I began extending the legs on my Manfrotto 055XProB tripod and placing the tripod mount on my Nikkor 80-200 f/2.8. I had to work fast as alpenglow can fade rather fast.

As I began shooting, the lights of the refinery began to turn on. I wanted the starburst-effect I know my lens can produce with the aperture stopped down to f/16 or f/22. So I based my exposure on these settings. I was getting 2, 4, and 8 second shutter times. Not only that, the alpenglow was becoming strong so I was getting both.

And in about 15 minutes, it was all gone. Taking a breather, I went through the images on my camera and found a few I liked. As I’ve had issues before of accidentally deleting them, I locked those images. One had a particularly nice twist in the steam coming from the main stack.

Alpenglow on Mount Baker as the Refinery Lights turn on
© Paul Conrad/Pablo Conrad Photography - Mount Baker is illuminated by the setting Sun as the lights at the Tesoro refinery in Anacortes, Wash., turn begin to illuminate the petroleum plant.

You can view some of the images on the San Antonio website: Tesoro Taken to Task for 2010 Explosion that Killed 7

Overall, it was nice to complete an assignment and to get a compliment from an editor I have never worked for.

If you have any work that needs covered in the Pacific Northwest, feel free to contact me here: Contact Form

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Paul “pablo” Conrad

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