When a house lights up in flames, one of the top things people race to save are the family photos.
For most of the last century, this risk made sense. Before smartphones and Snapchat and Facebook and Flickr, slips of photo paper were sometimes the only evidence that our loved ones ever lived. That our stories did not end at the limits of our memory, but that Grandma Joan had the same dimple below her cheek, that her first son who died of polio once hugged a fluffy dog on a porch in the little prairie town where he was born.
These images are everywhere. Now, we've pasted them online ourselves. In another decade, maybe two, will we still ache to brave infernos to pull our identities from the wreckage? Will we even have photographs we can hold in our hands, something that can be devoured by flames, or saved?
The Chicago Sun-Times laid off its entire photojournalism staff last week. Twenty-eight living albums of our history, gone in a flash. Just like that.
When media descend on a person or a scene, the subject of the latest human tragedy or travesty of democracy, the people facing down the cameras -- and those aligned with them -- often push back. "Vultures," they call us or, if they are a certain mayor of Toronto, "maggots," but the metaphor is wrong. Journalists are not agents of decomposition.
More like: underneath it all, journalists are embalmers, and media is a mausoleum of who we are today.
With pen and lens we drain fluids from a flash of history, paint it up to glow like life and freeze it in the shape we found. We arrange it in a casket of column space so future generations can read, and sigh: "Oh, they didn't know..." and "this is when they learned..." and "so this is how he died."
We do this work by telling stories, and photojournalists are among our most efficient storytellers. The world is saturated with photos, but a photojournalist is not a person with a glorified iPhone, taking glorified pictures in the mirror. They are that mirror: they are observers.
Oh, because I have seen, and I remember...
We are in the muck of an encroaching flood. I am perched on the shrinking patch of dry ground but Free Press photographer Ken Gigliotti is wearing hip waders, shoulder slumped beneath the weight of lenses and the gear he has carried for at least 40 years. He plunges into the spreading spew of the Assiniboine River, off to snap the photo I can't see and the newspaper may never use, but if this flood gets worse, well, we'll need it so -- click, click click.
We are in the sand of Birds Hill Park, it's almost October, it's too late to be this hot but the sun -- apparently -- doesn't think the same. I am lying on a picnic table, baking in the final gifts of summer. When I look up, Ruth Bonneville's elbows are buried in the sand. She is grinning, she pauses to wave her hand, and a toddler in a bright bathing suit races toward her through the sand. They are both laughing. Click. Click.
The next day, those pictures land on the cover of the Free Press, and the girl's grandparents get it framed.
We are on the Trans-Canada Highway, stuck in an idling line. I take notes from the initial reports passed from car to car behind. "There's been an accident." Joe Bryksa wrenches our truck onto the shoulder of the road, slings his camera and disappears into the fog of exhaust. When I catch up to him, he's picking his way through debris, stepping lightly over fragments of a bumper. He is the only moving thing in the perfect stillness of disaster. Click.
The point is: their storytelling usually starts where a writer's ends, and stories could never be wholly told without the images they've saved.
One of the photojournalists who was tossed from the Chicago Sun-Times last week is named John H. White. He is 68 years old, and in 1982 he won a Pulitzer Prize for his snaps that captured the power in fast-fading seconds of everyday life. He started taking pictures when he was 14 years old, after his family's church burned down and he raced to save the memory of its ashes.
After the pink slips rained last week, White sat in front of the cameras for CNN. He was upbeat. He spoke about faith. "As long as there are people," he said, "there will be photojournalists."
The house is burning down, again. But we can decide what to keep and what to let burn away.