Strange Fruit, or why I would struggle to be a photojournalist

This is going to be a very weird post, and I hesitated to write it at first, but here goes; make of it what you will. It covers an incident on Jan 4th this year. It will not contain any images.

For reasons unknown I had had the sound of Billie Holiday’s haunting voice singing the classic song Strange Fruit buzzing around in my head on and off for a couple of days. If you are unfamiliar with this 1939 song, based on the 1937 poem by Abel Meeropol, I suggest you give it some time. It always gives me the chills, and with recent political activities and hate crimes it somehow seemed to stick in my head as the year’s first earworm, albeit an unusual one. I was replaying the song in my head as I was getting ready for the morning’s activities. 

Anyhow, it was the first school run of the new year and I was driving my daughter to school on my way to work when I noticed that there was a police car parked awkwardly at a local park with the children’s playground cordoned off with tape.

My daughter looks over and whispers hoarsely, “Oh my God, there’s a man hanging by the swings.” I ask her if she was sure and she says she is pretty sure of what she saw. We talk for a minute or so and I drop her off at school, after I confirm that she is ok after what she had briefly glimpsed.

I hesitate at the school and decide to come back past the park to see if she was indeed correct or whether it was some kind of prank, and I can clearly see a man dressed in black hanging from a rope in the swing set with his back to the road. It was a truly disturbing sight, and it is disturbing recalling it now, some two weeks later.

I didn’t really have time to think, only feel my emotions. Part of me felt quick sickened by the sight, part of me felt saddened by the fact that this poor man had been in such despair to do this to himself, and so publicly too. Also, part of me felt angry that he had not been covered up somehow, to at least afford him a modicum of dignity while all the time in the back of head was the sound of Billie Holiday’s voice.

However, there was also one other thought that had slipped into my conscious mind, much darker and very fleeting: should I stop and get a photograph? I dismissed this thought rapidly as I felt it would be an invasion of privacy, and trampling on tragedy, but I am ashamed to admit the thought was there nonetheless. I am quite shocked that I even thought of it and, to some extent, I even think that writing this blog post is a step in that direction, but I am, selfishly perhaps, justifying it to myself as a cathartic expression of my feelings.

As I continued on my journey to work, my mind was filled with conflicting ideas. I considered my own actions, or inaction, and considered what sort of person would be able to photograph such a scene. I thought immediately of Malcolm Browne‘s photograph of Quang Duc during his self-immolation in 1963, and of the Eddie Adam’s 1968 Saigon execution: Murder of a Vietcong by Saigon Police Chief. I am sure I would not have been able to photograph these tragic scenes, at least not without significant mental turmoil, and I wonder how such photojournalists can do what they do. They must truly be be remarkable individuals, made of stern stuff and truly driven by the ideal of portraying the truth.

As I listened to NPR on the car radio I was surprised to hear a report on how California is now allowing physician-assisted suicide.  This seemed to be a sad, but fitting end to my morning…

~Richard

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