Thursday, May 15, 2008

Survive dangerous situations

A round goes where it's sent. It may drop some. It may blow slightly left or right, but it won't stop until it hits something. If we outthink the person who sends the round, we might live to tell the story.

We discussed the importance of living to tell the story. This involves calculating risk. When in doubt, err on the side of caution because a dead photojournalist doesn't make deadline.

We've also learned the difference between cover and concealment as well as when to use each one. Additionally, we learned the potential weapons we can face as we cover breaking news.

Now, we know what we're facing. Let's discuss how to apply this knowledge to deal with volatile situations and survive and tell the story.

Be mentally prepared
Whether we're in a combat zone - or a city hall meeting suddenly becomes one - we need to know what to do to stay alive and tell the story.

The number of journalists killed in conflicts increases each year. While we were once considered neutral in combat, we're now considered easy targets. Furthermore, unstable people with weapons are very likely to consider journalists part of their current problem.

Photojournalists don't need to travel overseas to be in potentially deadly situations. People are killed every day in the United States as well. Because we cover potentially volatile situations, we must know how to react before we arrive at the scene - as well as when the scene around us erupts into violence.

Practice survival steps

The following suggestions should take place in about one second. The key to this process is to make it instinctual. To accomplish this, PJs should practice the process a few times with their gear to make the process efficient and automatic.

When a shot is heard, photojournalists should automatically hit the ground, find cover, ID the treat, assess the situation, plan an evacuation route and help others. All of this can happen in a second or less.

Well-trained pros already plan many of these steps before a shot is fired. As we look for clean backgrounds for our images, we semiconsciously note items of use for cover and/or concealment.

At the park a hedge might make good concealment. However, a cement picnic bench makes great cover and concealment. We're protected on three sides, have room for rounds to escape and the shadow of the table masks our presence on a sunny day. If it has a tablecloth, we're golden.

Get small

Smaller targets are more difficult to locate and shoot. A seven-foot-tall basketball player is only one foot high when he lies on his belly. This isn't good during a hoops tournament, but it's exactly what should happen if someone tries to unload a clip of rounds in him.

If a scene erupts around the photojournalist, hit the ground. Even if we're standing on a golf fairway, we need to immediately become the smallest possible target.

Take cover

Before anything else, PJs must protect themselves to be able to work. This means they must work from the safest place while still able to photograph the action.

When arriving at a known volatile scene - often heard on police scanners as "shots fired" - PJs need to keep low and quickly find the best cover available. Hopefully, the cover also provides concealment to keep working without being literally shot.

If the situation changes, seek better cover or evacuate entirely. James Nachtwey has images of the interior of the World Trade Center after the attack because he got out alive.

Take cover. Get the shots. Then, move to better cover.

Use concealment

Cover is almost always better than concealment. However, when a crisis develops next to us, concealment is a good starting point. If we already have some hiding locations selected, we'll know where to move first.

Remember, it's difficult for bad guys to kill the unseen.

Identify the threat

After we make ourselves a small target and find cover, we must identify the threat. If it's one person with a pistol, the threat continues. If everyone is watching a mother scream at her 10-year-old son, it was probably a firecracker.

I'll be honest. It'll be embarrassing if you're the only one lying on the floor during a school board meeting after some kid lights a firecracker. However, as I keep repeating, it's better to be safe than sorry. Few will notice anyway; they're all staring at the boy.

I covered part of the aftermath of the Wedgwood Baptist Church massacre in Fort Worth. The death toll was so high because the teens thought the gunman, Larry Gene Ashbrook, was performing a skit to test their faith. He wasn't.

Ashbrook detonated one pipe bomb, fired at least 45 rounds, killed seven and injured others. Police found another 100 rounds in his pocket after he killed himself.

This took place at a church youth assembly. All PJs have covered similar events. There simply is no way to know when chaos will explode around us. Be ready.

If the threat is coordinated and organized, we're in a lot of trouble. The best idea is to escape and document once safe. Otherwise, it's highly likely we'll be injured, killed or taken hostage. All are bad options.

If a photojournalist is immediately identified and guns-in-face surrounded, there's no option other than surrender. We can try to escape later, but we must understand the freedom clock starts ticking the second we're captured. Each second we're detained makes it less likely we'll see freedom again.

If captured, we must be vigilant to find an adequate moment to attempt an escape. There will never be an unguarded, open door.

Assess the situation

At this point, PJs under threat should have some form or cover or concealment. They should know what the treat is.

Next, we must assess the situation. Can we stop this situation? If not, can we document the scene from this location? Are we injured? If so, how badly? Can it be treated enough to allow our escape? Is there anything nearby to help protect ourselves? How willing are we to protect ourselves?

The last question stresses the importance of PJs knowing what they're willing - and unwilling - to do in extreme circumstances. Some people would rather die than injure another person. Others are willing to wound or kill in self defense. These lines must be drawn before this moment occurs so we can act without hesitation.

Plan to evacuate

PJs aren't cops or soldiers. We're visual reporters.

Our job is to tell the stories we see. If our assessment of the situation determines we should split and tell the story from a safer distance, that's what we should do.

While this may sound like the easy part, it's probably the most dangerous because bad guys probably don't want us to leave. They probably would also shoot us in the back.

As with everything else, it's best to select an escape route before it's needed. Lacking this plan, we'll need to find a series of short, safe movements to get us farther from potential harm.

The goal is to minimize exposure to the known threats (we don't know if doorways are wired with explosives yet) while moving steadily towards an safer place or exit. We'll want to move low and rapidly across exposed areas while moving lower and slower across safe areas with cover.

We don't want to run in any predictable direction. No run should last more than three seconds before hitting the ground, rolling and/or finding cover. This process is exhausting. Each second of stress also consumes energy reserves. Get out quickly and safely and reserve energy to tell the story once we're safe.

Help others
I always tell PJs they must help other people. But, a dead PJ is no help to anyone. So, save yourself, then help others.

Some ways to help include:
Pull bystanders to the ground during incoming fire.
Call bystanders to overhead cover during indirect fire.
Take others with you during escapes.
If photojournalists know field first aid procedures, do so.
Create distractions to allow others to escape.
In the U.S., have 911 on speed dial. Dial as soon as possible and leave an open line (don't talk unless you're in a very safe place). Leave the phone behind or slide it away to create a distraction and make an escape while police triangulate the phone's position.

Think it through
Throughout this series, I've stressed the importance of knowing what to do and how to do it before the time is at hand. This process should become as automatic as f-stops or flash angles.

When we enter an area, we pay attention to alternate exit routes. While we look for clean backgrounds, we also identify places to seek immediate cover. While we identify and greet people we know (work the room), we also create goodwill with potential film couriers, should we need one.

Some habits must become scripted and understood at the office before we ever step foot out the door. We must coordinate where our film/disks will be hidden during an emergency. We preset speed dials on our cell phones. We stay physically capable to handle what life throws at us.

PJs must deliver publishable images by deadline. If we think everything through before it happens, we'll be able to tell the story to our readers and the story of the process to our friends.

Enough for now,

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