The distinct smell of the photo chemistry filled my head. I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. I had no idea that shots had been fired across town.
The pro photogs had just dropped off several rolls of film for me to process and then rushed off to their next assignments. I went about the usual process of feeling my way in the dark, cracking open refillable film canisters and winding the film, roll-by-roll, onto the stainless steel reels. I stacked them onto a reel rod and dropped them into the developing bath and clamped shut the lid. With everything safely locked away, I turned on the lights and the developing machine.
In the next eight minutes the chemicals dissolved just enough to leave behind the area’s Miss Kansas preliminary pageant, varsity basketball game, the Mayor’s latest speech — anything the photographers captured, I had just given it life. By that point they had become comfortable enough with my skills to leave all their rolls with me. No need to hold back a few in case the “kid” botched something and wiped the entire event from existence.
Oddly, some of my best darkroom learning experiences were watching the pros coax an image out of the under- or over-developed rolls of film I cranked out in my early days.
Sure, I got to actually take pictures, too. Most of my frames were exposed at local used car lots or residential streets, for that section in the back of the paper filled with tiny thumbnail photos of vehicles and houses for sale. Occasionally the pros sent me to a play rehearsal or a bodybuilding competition, and sometimes I took a company-owned Plymouth Horizon to “cruise for features.” The latter involved burning gas in hopes of catching a local doing something eye-catching, and considering the importance of events entrusted to me and my trusty Pentax K-1000, brought with it my best hope of getting on the front page.
I worked the film through its next step, the fixer, and then into the rinse tank.
We had no police scanner radio like we had in other rooms. With no chatter to occupy my mind, I hummed a tune, most likely something from the Steve Vai album I had been blaring from my car’s speakers, or from a more recent discovery, Patrick O’Hearn. It was a peaceful moment, just sitting there listening to the woosh of the developer bath’s timed agitation. I picked up a copy of Shutterbug to start picking out my next camera.
Scrapes of plastic against metal made me look at the revolving door. It was a black tube set vertically, one side cut out large enough to let a person walk in or out. It spun to three stopping points — the photojournalist’s room, the film developing room, and the printing room. This time the open side faced me, and out stepped Larry, one of the paper’s most seasoned reporters.
“Did you hear about the shooting?” he said.
“What shooting?” my heart sped up a few beats.
“Somebody’s been shot over in South Hutch. Where are the photogs?”
I closed my catalog. “Out on assignments.”
“You ready to go?” Larry said. His body language showed he wasn’t going to wait much longer.
“But I… I’m just an intern,” I said. And, frankly, I’ve never been around strangers with loaded weapons, and today seems like a bad time to start..
“No better time to learn.”
Just like that, I watched Larry turn and go back through the door. The film was rinsing, so it would be fine. I spun the door and climbed in, and came out the other side a photojournalist.
I grabbed my bag and my camera and followed Larry to the shiny hatchback fleet. He whipped the car out of the parking lot and onto Second Street. Bouncing as anyone in a mighty Horizon can expect to do, I fought to rewind the roll in my camera and pop in a fresh one.
Larry looked over at me. “Don’t worry. I’m sure the shooting has stopped.”
I was worried. “Um, thanks.”
He guided the tiny car through Hutchinson’s sleepy streets, then slowed as we approached a large corner lot on our right. A uniformed policeman stood on the front porch of the small ranch style home, and another stood next to the curb in the front yard. A very large man dressed business casual paced slowly back and forth across the lawn.
“Okay, here’s what we’re going to do. I’ll go start questioning the police, and you take pictures. Try to get the victim if you can. Be careful.” Top-bound spiral steno notebook in hand, Larry leaped from the driver’s seat and slammed the door.
That was it? That was the extent of advice he gave to a 19-year-old with 30 days of experience taking forgotten pictures printed one step above the Classified ads? Sure, I had got the gig by flashing some good shots of my high school’s track stars running hurdles and high-jumping, but this was in a considerably different league.
I got out and immediately saw a policeman holding a rifle out in front of him, barrel up. Judging it as more dangerous than anything I had ever seen in person, I thought taking a picture of him would be worth my time. I aimed, focused, and snapped. While I cranked my film lever to get ready for the next shot, the cop walked quickly to a parked police cruiser and sat in the driver’s seat, out of my view.
Next I saw two EMT’s jogging around to the side of the house that faced the adjacent street. I made my way around on the sidewalk to get a look, and they walked up a few steps, then flanked a door and looked into the house as if expecting something.
This might be a good time to aim my camera again, I figured.
Within seconds of my aiming at the door, the large man on the lawn stopped pacing to make a b-line for me. I looked away from my viewfinder.
“Stop taking pictures,” the man demanded and continued toward me. He was overweight, but tall and stocky, not blubbery, as if maybe he had been an intimidating football player earlier in life.
He certainly was an intimidating lawn crosser.
The EMT’s in the doorway reached in and helped pull a gurney across the threshhold. On it lay a teenaged boy with blond hair, prostrate, his face grimacing in pain. There we have a perfectly presented victim, and here I am waiting for a stranger to pound me into the lush grass. Good thing a trauma team already was on site.
“Hey, Mark,” called a familiar voice.
I turned, but I had to peer around a large cottonwood tree. There was Monty, one of our pros, his camera aimed at the same spot. I smiled and then turned to face my problem.
“Put the camera down,” the approaching man said.
Maybe if I identified myself. “I’m just here from the Hutch–“
“Stop taking pictures, now!” he said, looming over me.
What was I going to do? I couldn’t just tell Larry and my editor that I had stopped taking pictures. But Monty was there, and I was sure he would get something.
I lowered my camera and let it hang by the strap, but I didn’t say anything. The man turned stoic, which almost made it worse. I took a few steps back and watched helplessly as the emergency workers wheeled the boy to the street and their waiting ambulance. They carefully collapsed the gurney’s legs and hoisted the patient into the back.
All the while, my camera rested against my belly and Monty fired away, the motor drive on his tank-tough Nikon whining and clicking. I guess the man wasn’t up to facing more than one of us at a time.
Back at the newspaper, we developed our film and then printed our best shots. I only had the one, of the cop holding a rifle, but it caught Monty’s eye.
“Hey, I didn’t see that. Is that the gun used in the shooting?” he said.
“I don’t know. It was before you got there. I just saw the cop carrying it, and this is the only picture I got.”
“Take this over to the station and ask them if it was the gun,” Monty said.
“Sure. Your picture, your cutline.” Wait. Cutline? That was news speak for caption, which meant he was considering submitting my picture for the story.
I hurried to the station, just a few blocks away, and barely stopped myself from running to the front desk. A few policemen stood behind the desk, talking to the dispatcher.
“Excuse me. I’m Mark Williams. Hutchinson News.” I set the print on the counter. “Could you tell me who this officer is?”
“Thanks. Could you also tell me if this is the gun used in today’s shooting?” In that town, that was enough detail for them to know exactly which shooting I meant.
“Hang on. Hey, Lieutenant!” one of them called to the back of the office. “Can you come here a minute?”
The man from my photo walked into the room. “Hi. Mark Williams. Hutch News.” I was abbreviating it now. Who did I think I was?
“Could you tell me if you’re holding the gun used in the shooting? In this picture?” I held it up.
“Yes, that’s it,” he said.
They filled me in on the details while I scribbled barely legible notes.
In the end, Monty’s photo of the victim being rolled out on the gurney was the lead photo on the front page. Right below his, however, was my picture, the only one I took after Larry rushed in and interrupted my quiet time. I considered it my graduation from the ads pages, an unplanned initiation of sorts. Sure, it turned out the kid had accidentally shot himself in the butt, but I didn’t know that while I was at the scene.
Monty asked me why I stopped taking pictures. “You know, you really shouldn’t just stop like that. He doesn’t have the right to stop you.”
“Well, that guy was big, and he was coming right for me. What do you do in a situation like that?”
“I guess I just figure my FM-2 wouldn’t feel real good upside his head.”