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TRUSTING YOUR INSTINCTS

05.05.2010

The Dart Society, an organization for connecting and supporting journalists “who advance the compassionate and ethical coverage of trauma, conflict and social injustice” included me in a blog about Pulitzer winning photographer Kim Komenich, who stopped a bank robbery.  The author, Deirdre Stoelzle Graves, used my coverage of the famine in Sudan in 1998 as a way to make a comparison between Komenich’s instinctive act and that of a photojournalist.  (With the photo above, I was awarded first place in general news at the 1998 World Press Photo competition. To see a few more of my pictures from Sudan, click here.)

Mindful Compassion: The ‘Warrior-Photographer’
By The Dart Society on April 28, 2010

At our Invictus gathering last November at Moni Basu’s house in Atlanta, I met the photojournalist Rich Addicks. Like Moni, he was a former Atlanta Journal-Constitution staffer who had spent his career covering some of the toughest stories of our times. We were paired together to talk about work that had stuck with us, and it was this account that brought home to me what it takes to make a great photograph.

He was in a therapeutic feeding center in Sudan covering a famine there in August 1998, where, he says, “only the worst of the worst children are fed. Dramatically speaking, it was a place few would want to witness. It was truly heart-wrenching … not a happy place. It was for children who were under 60 percent of their weight for height, and less. It was a small compound, fenced off with orange plastic fencing, and inside were tents and huge pots of food that were a mixture of everything starving children need to bounce back. Amazingly, they do bounce back, but when you see them it doesn’t seem like they will. The place was hot and full of crying, fly- covered children, who seemed in tremendous pain, and scared.”

Rich continues, “After several hours of shooting — although really I’m not sure how long, because in these situations you loose track of time –I had to take a break. An emotional break. I was already physically tired, but the emotional part was pushing its way through to my professional side.

“As I stood near the edge of the compound, literally catching my breath, and thinking about my children at home, I looked up and saw a mother holding her emaciated child. As she pulled the child to her face for a kiss, I pulled my camera to my face, because I instinctively knew what was coming next. The light was fading as the sun set behind me, and it made a beautiful picture. I shot two frames. At the time, I thought to myself, that’s the best picture I’ve taken here. It seemed so universal and so hopeful in this place that seemed hopeless.”

Rich said he hadn’t intended to take a picture. “In reality I was taking a moment to step out of myself and the place,” he said. “As trained journalists, we learn how to put such work above our emotions, because we believe that the information we will be communicating is bigger than we are. I was glad I took that break. It was the first time while in Sudan that I had allowed myself to think of my children, and because of that, I encountered the same thing I was thinking, how much we all love our children.”

The type of awareness of time and space, and a photographer’s position in that, is what Rich has. And it’s what Kim Komenich has, too. Even without his camera ready.

At a Wells Fargo in San Jose on April 12, Kim stopped a bank robbery from escalating by holding the robber in a bear hug until police arrived.

People who train in traditional martial arts repetitively practice precise movements, over and over. They do so to ingrain instant response to a threat. They don’t want thought to slow the body where it needs to go.

In the Japanese martial ways, this quality of instantly moving correctly is called “mushin,” literally “no mind.” But it is not mindless. It is instead the result of much diligent, mindful training. The highest expressions often are described in terms of compassion and using the least amount of force necessary to accomplish a just and proper aim. Some sensei teach their students to think of engaging with their opponent as they would with a child who must be brought close and protected from harm.

It was Kim’s photographer’s awareness of space and time, his “warrior-photographer” spirit, that prompted some of us to reach out to him in the days after the robbery attempt. When he was told of the Rich Addicks story, he said it was right on.

“A photographer develops a muscle memory,” he said, explaining the moments of the robbery. “I don’t know exactly why I put myself where I did. I just decided to lay back and watch.”

In those moments, which slow to a creep in trauma situations, but which Kim estimates as 30 seconds, Kim knew where everyone was in that bank. He knew where to stand, how to watch the robber, that the robber seemed drunk. He knew where the two accomplices who had accompanied him were; he knew he was outnumbered, but he didn’t know if the accomplices presented danger. He saw the note the man handed the teller — it said, “I have a gun.” He saw the teller produce the money.

As the situation began to escalate, he waited to respond as if waiting for the shot. The robber’s voice grew agitated, and when he reached into his pocket, Kim watched “the elbow bend” and acted. He swooped the man into a bear hug and held him for several minutes until the police came.

“It was kind of an if/then situation,” he said. “My goal was to just be there.”

A bank surveillance camera captures an image of former San Francisco Chronicle photographer Kim Komenich holding bank robbery suspect Victor Anthony Fernandes in a bear hug at a Wells Fargo branch in San Jose on Monday. (Photo: San Jose Police Department)
Kim was interviewed on NPR, on the Today show, on Fox, Yahoo! News, and in print. When he found the words to describe it, the main word Kim used was “compassion.”

“He was having a bad day, and I just didn’t want it to get any worse for him,” he said. “But there was a rule of engagement I had organized in my head. … If I were 17, I probably would’ve jumped on him. In this particular case, it was compassion.”

If he were still at the Chronicle, he might’ve been packing one of his big cameras. They can be used to do more than make a picture.

Kim identifies the presence of compassion during the bank robbery, but says that in high-danger situations, self-preservation is also present.

“This is not to say that I’ve made my career hugging people — there are instances where I’ve had t0 defend myself,” he said.

“I could tell you my favorite story about using a camera as a weapon,” he said. It was the day after the riots in LA — he’d been down there that night shooting the uprising around Florence and Normandie, and had been surrounded by a mob. It was a terrifying experience.

He filed about 3 a.m. from The Associated Press offices and was asked to return to San Francisco to cover the riots there. The Chronicle had photographers working in pairs, for safety, and Kim and his partner were at a high-end fur shop on Geary Street.

“The guy drove his car right up, broke a window and was pulling furs out,” Kim says. “We photograph him and his car — and license plates, and he came at me,” trying to get his Nikon F3 or F4 or whatever he had.

“I had the strap looped around my fingers, and swung the eight- or nine-pound camera around like a rock in a sling,” Kim said. “That was when the guy backed off.”

Deirdre Stoelzle Graves and Scott North, inspired by Kim’s story, co-wrote this blog post.

2 Comments
  1. Tod permalink
    07.08.2010 3:59 am

    Great image of the mother and baby, and also a great blog post as well. I’ve done some work in Africa, so I know a bit what it’s like to cover this type of a story. It’s tough to see some of the things you see in places like this. Thanks for sharing both of these, Rich!

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