When I speak to journalism students, they always ask about the process of photographing victims of violent storms or natural disasters. The perception, I guess, is that news photographers and storm victims have an adversarial relationship. I’ve worked at newspapers through 13 Oklahoma storm seasons and only once have I encountered someone who preferred not to be photographed and was not shy about letting me know it.
Last week, when neighborhoods in Little Axe, Oklahoma, were destroyed by storms, I was sent at dawn the next day to get pictures of the damage. After a few conversations and laps around the town, I saw resident Keith Bolles waiting at a blocked intersection on the east side of town. I pulled into the grass and approached he and his son. From the first handshake and introduction, I could tell that the Bolles family, while dealing with a huge loss, were nice people who were not only willing to talk, but eager to.
I stood in a ditch talking to Keith, his son, Caden and his wife Shelley, and a growing crowd of concerned relatives for nearly 4 hours while we waited for the Cleveland County Sheriff’s deputies to open the restricted area to homeowners. When the area was finally opened and the Bolles family drove in to their neighborhood to look at the devastation, I passed the police blockade as relatives told them, ‘he’s a friend of ours.”
This story isn’t unusual. It’s almost normal after floods, tornadoes, wildfires and other natural disasters. People want to tell their stories. Pictures that news photographers bring back from some of these major events don’t happen without the family accepting a photographer onto their property, if only for awhile.
As I watched the Bolles family pick up their belongings, I was struck not by their sadness, but by their relief and happiness. Every time somebody found something that wasn’t broken, they celebrated. Keith held up pictures of his children that could be salvaged and laughed about them with his relatives. Shelley cried tears of joy when the puppy they thought was dead was returned to them by Animal Control officers. And when Caden was able, against all odds, to find a ring that was important to his mother, the family stopped digging through the rubble for a moment and cheered.