One night after my shift was done at the newspaper, I got in my car to go home and as usual had the scanner running so I could hear fire & police calls. Just as I got to the edge of the employee parking lot, a call came in about a man who had been shot multiple times and dumped out of a car at the gas station across the street. I immediately parked and ran across the street to the station with my cameras. It is exceedingly rare to arrive at an incident like this before the helpers arrive.
It was weirdly quiet. The police and medics wouldn't be there for maybe 90 seconds at best. No other cars were at the gas station. Sitting, propped up against the gas pumps was this man, and for a second I wasn't sure if he was the victim. But there was blood on the oily pavement and he was the only one there.
And for what seemed like an incredibly long time I had no idea what to do. I knew that I did not have the first idea how to treat his wounds. I did not speak to him, crouching there a couple feet away. I did not try to hold his hand or offer any human comfort. "This is a crime scene," I thought. "I shouldn't touch anything or it might mess up whatever evidence is present." These seemed like smart decisions at the time. But I was weirdly frustrated by not knowing what to do.
He was clearly in shock, and never looked up at me. Maybe he couldn't. But here I was, this white guy in a tie gawking at him as he bled out, and I was pretty sure he knew I was there. During those long seconds before sirens approached I didn't even take any photos of him. It seemed, well, mercenary. And I knew that the paper would never publish a photo like that. As a rule we didn't show dead bodies (of local people, anyway.. disaster victims in other countries were another story.) I'm not even sure they printed anything about the incident other than the police report the next day.
Finally a police car arrived, followed soon by the ambulance. None of those people even seemed to notice me, which was just fine. The first cop on the scene immediately worked to get the man's name, and his name was the only single word I heard him say the entire time. (We'll call him Fred, here, to protect his identity.)
"Who shot ya, Fred?" The officer asked this three or four times. I don't think Fred ever answered: he was getting weaker every second. "Who shot ya, Fred?" A faint moan. "Who shot you?" I do remember Fred reaching up to touch the policeman, and it seemed a gesture of grasping for human contact. I could tell Fred was just trying to get some interaction, something to hold on to as his life slipped away.
It was touching. It was brief. There's a point when you're watching a medical rescue when you can tell the medics have done all they're going to be able to do, and it ain't gonna bring the person back. This moment came soon. I had made a handful of images and so I slipped away and returned to the paper to process the film.
Just about every day of my life since then I have thought about Fred, and I have felt terrible guilt that I did nothing to help him. I also didn't make any images of him when he and I were alone. In many ways I felt I failed as a photojournalist in that moment. We're supposed to be tough; hardened to the horrors of life, impartial witnesses to carnage and suffering, documenting it dispassionately. We're the ones who run toward the gunfire, the explosion, the storm.
Cops, firefighters, soldiers and the like have to laugh and joke about horrible situations. It's the only way to survive. I've done it, too, standing around in the middle of smoldering corpses and great suffering. You have to. If you let yourself take and fully appreciate the horror in front of you it's too much to bear.
I felt in this instance that I had failed as a human being. Maybe I could have given some succor in his last few minutes. I chose not to, and that choice has haunted me.
Fred stays in my mind. I hope he had a good life. I certainly didn't make his exit from it any more graceful.