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Jake May, Photojournalist: Covering Breaking News Takes Empathy and Care

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This post is part of a series called Photojournalism.
On Assignment: Photographing the Pope in Italy

 As a photojournalist, Jake May has encountered many difficult situations. Flint Michigan, where he works, has repeatedly led the United States in homicide and arson rates, and May has photographed many victims and families and friends of victims.

May is the chief photojournalist and multimedia specialist at The Flint Journal, a newspaper in Flint. Before joining The Flint Journal he worked as photo editor and chief photojournalist at The Register-Mail in Galesburg, Illinois. May recently won an honorable mention for Small Market Photojournalist of the Year in the National Press Photographers Association’s Best of Photojournalism 2015.

Maintaining a sense sensitivity, awareness, and care in doing this difficult work requires May to find a balance between doing his job and being empathetic with people at the scene. In this interview, we asked May to give us a closer look at the process of covering challenging spot news events.

Flint resident Andrea Cooper stands somberly outside of Liquor Plus located at 2407 Martin Luther King Avenue where a fully-engulfed blaze totaled the building on Monday Jan 26 2015 in Flint
Flint resident Andrea Cooper stands somberly outside of Liquor Plus, located at 2407 Martin Luther King Avenue, where a fully-engulfed blaze totaled the building on Monday, Jan. 26, 2015 in Flint. Battalion Chief Mark Kovach said the building was a total loss, and when crews arrived at 5 a.m., the worked to contain and let the fire burn the building because of concerns of firefighter safety. No one was injured in the blaze. Flint's arson squad was called to the scene to investigate. "This is the neighborhood store," Cooper said. "It meant a lot to us -- to the community." (Jake May | The Flint Journal, MLive.com)

What are your first thoughts when arriving on the scene of breaking news? Can you tell me about a typical or recent experience? 

Anytime I am called to a breaking news scene, my skin will automatically grow thicker than with any daily assignment. It’s important to prepare yourself for the worst. Truly, as photojournalists in these scenarios, we end up documenting what are some of the worst experiences people must face. It’s never fortunate, and though I said earlier it comes with tough skin, it also comes with a lot of heart. You have to be understanding. You have to be ready to listen and be human.

Before talking about the thoughts upon arrival, I think it’s important to talk about preparedness. Always have a fully-charged battery, at least a half-tank of gas in your car, your camera and a variety of lenses (long glass is a must) to truly be ready to do the job justice.

Knowing you truly listened to people will help you understand the full story, and bring you better access in your photographs, as well as leave with a better mental state about what you photographed.

Upon arrival, my first thoughts are switching long glass onto my body. Depending on how far back I am set to the scene because of police tape, depends on the lens I choose. I always carry a 35mm, 50mm, 70-200mm with me on every assignment, but also have a 300mm and a 500mm in my trunk. I won’t pull the lenses from my trunk unless necessary for distance, as they can be seen as intrusive and hurt the opportunity to build relationships with neighbors or family members arriving on scene. You want to have mobility and ease moving around.

Flint resident Andrea Cooper stands somberly outside of Liquor Plus located at 2407 Martin Luther King Avenue where a fully-engulfed blaze totaled the building on Monday Jan 26 2015 in Flint Photo by Jake May
Grand Blanc and Mundy Township firefighters combine forces to extinguish and control a large fire on Sunday, Jan. 12, 2014, which heavily damaged Canton Chinese Restaurant at 5313 Fenton Road in Grand Blanc Township. Grand Blanc Fire Chief Jim Harmes said fire crews responded to the 11:30 a.m. call and no injuries were reported. (Jake May | The Flint Journal, MLive.com)

Talking with the police and letting them know your presence is always good. This doesn’t mean shouting at them to come to the tape. Talk with them when you can signal them, and as you build a relationship with the police department and gain trust over time, they will work to give you information to help you make better pictures.

It’s important to take time and care, as you would in any assignment. Invest in knowing the story, and the people on the scene—the police, the bystanders, family and friends of victims, homeowners at fires. It can be hard, but approach with your camera at your side and show empathy.

Speak with people, and help try to console their wounds. Look for understanding with them, and ask questions. Be a part of your community in photographing these tough scenarios, as these are some of the hardest to shake. Knowing you truly listened to people will help you understand the full story, and bring you better access in your photographs, as well as leave with a better mental state about what you photographed.

Don’t allow yourself to be in a scenario where you don’t have an exit.

It should be noted: no two crime scenes are identical. You’ll never have the same exact experience for any breaking news you cover. And that’s highly dependent upon the crime at hand and the people on the scene. Some grieving families may welcome you with open arms in understanding of your mission with your pictures; others may shun you, or yell at you. It’s not easy, and they are asking out of respect for space — even more reason to be human.

Though no scene is identical, you build that tougher skin from scene to scene. You learn how to talk with people and you learn how to shoot unobtrusively. Shedding light on the crimes in your community can only bring eyes to the issues that are affecting the neighborhoods where you and your readers live. You’re working to help elevate the conversation.

You need to know why you are shooting and believe in it. If you are just shooting breaking news scenes to win contests, you aren’t doing it for the right reasons. It’s about documenting your community and dive into deeper conversations to help people understand why crime happens and, for some, to attempt to help heal wounds.

What is the difference in your mentality and approach between breaking news and more editorial stories? 

There are only a few differences I could identify as mental difference in approach between daily editorial assignment and breaking news.

You have to be ready for anything. Moods can shift on a scene as emotions run high, especially for enraged or tearful family members. You have to protect yourself in these scenarios, as well as those around you. Know your surroundings. Don’t be stuck behind your viewfinder and not know who is standing around you. Understand how much raw emotion is falling out around you. In some, that takes the form of sadness. In others, that is anger and rage. Don’t allow yourself to be in a scenario where you don’t have an exit.

You have to be ready to transmit photos on the go, having a makeshift office with a hotspot and a laptop to get your images out quickly as well. Other assignments, you may be able to get back to the office to turn things out, but breaking news is exactly what it sounds like, and as people learn of what’s happening your photos should be one of the first instances they can find of what they seek online.

Truly though, approaching breaking assignments with the same mentality and care as you would daily assignments or long-term stories is very important. I cannot stress enough the importance of listening, being human and caring about those you photograph.

Flint Police officers handcuff a man one of  three Flint residents with warrants who were arrested at the 3800 block of Lippincott Boulevard at an apartment complex in Flints east side Wednesday March 18 2015 during a sweep of outstanding warrants in the Flint
Flint Police officers handcuff a man, one of three Flint residents with warrants, who were arrested at the 3800 block of Lippincott Boulevard at an apartment complex in Flint's east side Wednesday, March 18, 2015 during a sweep of outstanding warrants in the Flint. (Jake May | The Flint Journal, MLive.com)
What gear do you bring with you? How have certain lenses given you more opportunity for better images?

I currently have a Nikon D4s and a slew of lenses. I used prime glass, mostly. I carry a 35mm F2, 50mm F1.8, 70-200mm F2.8, and then in my trunk, I carry a 300mm F2.8 and a 500mm F4 with a monopod. With police tape up, and distance and barriers you have to work around, long glass is your friend in a lot of cases.

At the end of the day, it’s about using your whole arsenal of lenses to tell the story though. Scene-setting images are just as important as the emotional breakdown upon finding out someone has died. Learning to shoot the full variety, and using your lenses to your best benefit is vastly important.

I shoot every assignment in the mentality that it could stand as its own photo essay in a gallery online. Tight, medium, wide, moments, scene setting, different people, color, light, different compositions throughout — there is a lot to think about as you shoot any assignment, and it should be no different when at a breaking news scene. It’s the difference between standard photographs and storytelling photojournalism.

Can you tell me about how the responses from the family and friends of a victim have influenced the way you approach them?

Again, no two scenes are the same, but it’s the experiences you carry with you that help you understand your approach.

It’s never easy talking with someone who just lost a loved one. You just need to wear your heart on your sleeve and listen. You need to be there. Be present. Ask permission. Listen. Listen. Listen. 

I’ve been on scenes where people don’t want you anywhere near them, and you have to respect that. I’ve also been on scenes where me being human and consoling is exactly what the family needed. 

For me, I just try to approach people how I would want to be approached. Sometimes you’ll shoot photos of people before you have the chance to talk with them. That’s the nature of breaking news scenes. Just be respectful, and represent people in a respectful manner.

Flint Township firefighters work to contain a fully-engulfed trailer home fire on Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2015 at Estates of Genesee Valley in Flint Township. No injuries were reported at the scene. Swartz Creek fire also responded. Jake May | MLive.com

What is the last thing you do before leaving a scene?

Before leaving a scene, I speak with the police one last time to thank them for what they do, and let them know I’m heading out. They actually give me the same heads up in the case they are leaving before me. 

I also make sure to take informational pictures, cross streets or street signs as well as taking any notes about the scene around me, to ensure I have the most accurate caption information possible. Some of this comes from talking with police or family members as well.

A photo of the notes Jake May took at a breaking news scene 
A photo of the notes Jake May took at a breaking news scene.

How do you work with police to get the best image?

This is definitely building a relationship of respect.

First, be calm. You should not run to a scene if you can avoid it. Approach with poise and calm sense of self. If a cop or firefighter needs space, respect that. You need to talk with who is in charge of the scene if you’re looking for information or further access. The more scenes you are at, the more familiar they are with you and your presence.

You are as much a part of the scene as the cops and bystanders — similar to that of you on the sideline of a sporting event with the referees, players and the parents and fans in the crowd. Own your space. Be confident, but not cocky. Stand by your need to photograph the scene, but again respect is mutual. You have to earn that respect.

Does this work affect you emotionally? How do you protect yourself? 

It’s easy to take personally what people say to you at a breaking news scene. I have, and dependent upon what people say, it hurts. It’s those words that will stick with you and help you to understand the kind of photographer you want to be on breaking news scenes.

Earlier in this interview, I talk about being human. Sometimes, people will yell at you. They will be screaming out of instinct and raw emotion. They may or may not mean what they yell out at you, but you need to be prepared to internalize what they say and talk civilly. Your blood may boil, your heart may hurt and you may cry. It’s not easy. 

I can recall one of my first breaking news scenes out of college, where the daughter of a woman yelled at me. I was photographing setting up a memorial in the spot where her son was shot hours earlier. She screamed out that I was heartless. I put my camera to my side and I shouted back that I was not, and the reason I was here was to truly try to commemorate the life lost.

I was distraught the rest of my shift. I had to heal. I had to talk with other friends who were photojournalists and vent. It hurt. It hurt badly. It’s stuck with me though, because it’s my aim never to appear that to anyone as I photograph them. It’s not the only time someone has had a vocal outbreak at a scene, and it surely won’t be the last.

I don’t think anyone will ever be fully comforted at a breaking news scene. I know I’m not.

I think understanding yourself and how you decompress is incredibly necessary. If you’re a runner, go for a run at the end of your shift. If you need to talk with close friends or your mother, do that. Find a way to relieve yourself of stress and weight put on you from a breaking news scene in however you best do that. Taking care of yourself is just as important as taking care of your community through your lens. You can’t photograph another day at your best if you’re carrying weight that makes you doubt what you do.

A female firefighter left and Flint resident Kim Edgcombe 53 keep a woman conscious after a traffic crash that totaled two vehicles on Thursday June 5 2014 at the intersection of Dort Highway and East Court Street in Flint Five were sent to the hospital including a young boy All of a sudden I heard a boom and saw a cloud of smoke and I ran down Edgcombe said People were screaming and trying to get out of the car I got the girl out of the car and she collapsed on the road I stayed with her until the ambulance took her Somebody has got to help
A female firefighter, left, and Flint resident Kim Edgcombe, 53, keep a woman conscious after a traffic crash that totaled two vehicles on Thursday, June 5, 2014 at the intersection of Dort Highway and East Court Street in Flint. Five were sent to the hospital, including a young boy. "All of a sudden I heard a boom, and saw a cloud of smoke, and I ran down," Edgcombe said. "People were screaming, and trying to get out of the car. I got the girl out of the car, and she collapsed on the road. I stayed with her until the ambulance took her. Somebody has got to help." (Jake May | The Flint Journal, MLive.com)

Is there anyone who stands out in your mind from your collective experience covering breaking news that taught you something valuable about yourself, your work, or the town you live in? Can you tell us about that?

Any person I photograph on a breaking news assignment stays with me, and helps me better understand how to continually better my approach to the next time I’m in a similar situation. Certain instances or individuals have helped me craft my approach with ways I should and should not photograph or work with people. You’ll end up being a sum of your own experiences with breaking news. Your experiences will continuously define your comfort in shooting at scenes, and the more you go to, the more comfortable (mostly) you will be. I don’t think anyone will ever be fully comforted at a breaking news scene. I know I’m not. I will still always have a sinking feeling in my heart when I watch a family cry.

Covering breaking news in Flint has taught me so much about myself. It teaches me to be open and considerate, and not only when at scenes with crime tape, but in all situations. Everybody, no matter when you meet them, has something going on in their lives and in their minds they are constantly dealing with. Be kind, and treat others as you wish to be treated. In my work, it has taught me how to be patient and listen. And truly, it’s taught me so much about the heart of my city. The pride Flint residents hold for this city and living in it is palpable, partially because those who are living in the city view at is a living and not dying. These scenes remind me of that. Show me why they’re prideful for the lives they lead and who we all are coming together in one city and for one purpose — to live.

Do you have anything else to add or any advice for those who have just started or who have never covered breaking news?

Remember why we photograph breaking news. It’s important to document your community with heart. If you shoot a house fire, the photos could help someone to be more careful about putting out their cigarette or checking their stove or gas grills are off. If you shoot a car accident where someone died from texting or drinking and driving, it could be one of the worst days for you to photograph in their and your lives. It’s not easy, but knowing someone could see the photos and think twice before texting while driving or drinking and driving is worth your time.

Just be yourself, and be open to listening, caring and understanding to the best of your ability in those moments. And please, be sure to find a way to decompress. It’s important to keep your physical and mental health throughout your career, and especially on a day when you document something so difficult.


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