Sometimes you go on a story and think there’s nothing there. I’ve had this happen and most of the time I’ve been right. The story either didn’t happen or it was so small it wasn’t worth it. News photogs run on these every day. If you hear a call for a three alarm fire or accident, you can’t take the chance of missing it, so you roll on the chance it might be something. And usually it is obvious right away that you have something or you don’t. But not always.
Once I rolled on an apartment fire in a bad part of Stockton. Got there…fire department was leaving, so I grabbed a couple of shots and then sprayed the scene and got ready to leave. There was smoke damage to the door of one apartment and not much to see or talk about. Did my standard routine of asking a bystander – what happened here, without camera or mike on because I’d already dismissed it as a nothing story. The bystander said, “Yeah…there was a fire and everyone got out okay. The little old lady carried the naked guy out.”
Whoa! What? Further investigation lead me to “the little old lady.” She was in her 70’s and had throat cancer. The fire had started somehow in the apartment of a close friend of hers. The friend came running to her crying that her disabled husband was in the bathroom and she had been bathing him and she wasn’t able to get him out. So this “little old lady” ran into the burning apartment and somehow (blame adrenalin) picked up the “naked guy” and brought him to safety. Suddenly this nothing story was top story of the day. Even the fire department wasn’t aware of her heroism. Without the element of a human story…this was just another ho-hum no one hurt/not much damage fire. But all of the elements came together to create a very beautiful story…even though I didn’t have flames, I did have the rest…interview with hero, cover shots, interview with friend, interview with somewhat surprised but congratulatory fire official. (The city later recognized the heroine with a ceremony and award.)
Moral: always take the time to check thoroughly. Without that one question to a bystander, this story would never have surfaced.