This past Saturday I was on my way home from my photowalk, lost in thoughts about what needed to be done during the day. I looked up and half a block away a car driving down main street clipped a parked car and flipped over. Just like that.
Men rushed out from surrounding stores to help the driver, call 911, turn the car engine off, check to see if anyone else was in the car, help the dazed and bloody driver find a seat on the curb.
I reached the scene, verified that all the things I could think of to do were being done, then settled in to watch for a while. I chatted with a stranger about the accident. We were both baffled. It didn't make sense. Not that it was impossible for a car driving down the road could clip a parked car. That it could do so at low speed and flip over was the mystery.
A friend walked up and asked if I got any good pictures. Without missing a beat I said "no, I don't take pictures of things like this." He said "well I am going to," and whipped out his phone camera.
I was reminded of the terrorist attacks on 911. We lived in a penthouse loft in Brooklyn at the time. We had a spectacular view of the city and, consequently, a ringside seat. We watched it from beginning to end, dazed, trying to make sense of what we were seeing, wondering what else was going to happen, realizing when the second plane hit that we were being attacked.
As the horror unfolded I could only watch. A friend of ours, who also lived on the penthouse level, set up a camera almost immediately and filmed the whole thing. Later he walked the video into the city and sold it to a major news station. I think someone in the building helped him connect with the station and later sued him for a share of the money he received.
I had a camera. It never occurred to me to make pictures. What could pictures possibly add to the memory that was being seared into my brain? And why would I want pictures of something so horrible? The idea that I might be able to make some money from the good/ill fortune of being in the right place at the right time was completely alien to me.
It was the same story with the car accident. Some people did make pictures and posted them later on facebook. Something interesting and compelling to share. It didn't even have to be a good picture, just a picture of something unusual, horrific, whatever. With it you could claim a larger portion of people's attention than usual for some brief period of time.
There is an iconic photograph by Joel Sternfeld. It depicts a fireman in full firefighting gear at a farm stand. There is a messy pumpkin patch strewn with broken pumpkins in the foreground. The fireman holds a pumpkin under one arm and inspects a pile of them in front of the stand. In the background there is a raging house fire and ladder truck pulled up to it. It’s a photograph that required being in the right place at the right time with the presence of mind to make a photograph. The result is an image that propels you beyond the thing itself into something that makes a statement about emperors fiddling while rome burns. It is perplexing. The fireman should be engaged in the fire, not the pumpkin field. Why wasn't he?
If the facts were as the photograph suggests, I am not sure I would have pulled my camera out. I would have been immersed in the thing itself. An uncontrollable universal moment of destruction and despair. I would have been wondering if anyone was inside, if anyone had or would die, if the fireman in the pumpkin patch had given up and decided to let the house burn down.
Apparently, things were not what they seemed. The fire was a controlled training exercise and the fireman was on a break. Ok, maybe in that circumstance I might have gotten my camera out.
Did I missed an iconic moment with the car accident? I don’t think so. But it did leave me wondering what makes some of us ready to be heros, others opportunists and still others witnesses on the sidelines?