Tim Tai's photograph 'Fire' got a Bronze award in Spot News category at the recent CPOY 70. Catching Photo of Yours (CPOY) is a new CPOY Blog feature that gives photographers a chance to share the emotional and technical aspects of making their award-winning photograph.
One staple of newspaper photojournalists’ coverage is breaking news events, which occur somewhat infrequently in a town the size of Columbia, Missouri, where I go to school. I live within earshot of a fire station and often hear the sirens turning on from my bedroom. On this particular night, I was home when I heard sirens and checked the online fire dispatch log to learn there was a fire reported at a mobile home park in the north side of town. I grabbed my gear and my car and headed over, and arrived after the fire had basically been put out. I made some pictures of the residual firefighter activity around the mobile home, which had been seriously damaged on the inside.
At that point, I was able to walk around a bit more freely near the scene, and was asking some of the onlookers if they knew who lived in the home. Someone pointed out who one of the residents, Donnie Perkins, was and I learned that he had been living in the trailer to take care of his elderly mother, but he wasn’t home when the fire occurred. As Perkins was watching the firefighters finish their activity around the home, he pulled out a cigarette and put his hand on his forehead in a look of total exhaustion. At the same time, I had noticed a young boy peering out on the scene through a window in the mobile home behind Perkins, and I tried to layer the frame with another onlooker. I took two frames, but only the first captured the quiet moment before it disappeared. It happened to be a second where the flashing lights of the fire trucks illuminated the scene with a deep red glow, and I think color is a crucial part of what makes this image striking. I made other frames of him later in the night, but I felt this was the strongest one.
Photojournalism is inherently intrusive, and it is difficult and uncomfortable for journalists to cover traumatic breaking news events like fires and shootings and whatnot. Sometimes, victims of trauma in this situations don’t want their photos taken, and it becomes harder as a journalist to communicate the feeling of the scene. But Perkins did not seem to have a problem being photographed, even at a fairly close distance, or telling me about the home and his mother. That sort of openness is a privilege and never guaranteed, but in this case I think it allowed me to make an image that helps viewers feel a sliver of the weariness and pain of the situation.