Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Hand that Reads#1: Real Life Horror

written by JW Schnarr
Life as a reporter for a small town weekly newspaper involves a lot of what they call "soft" news: that is, you cover a lot of functions involving kids, or you cover the latest new thing happening at the seniors centre, or you cover what new thing is being sold at the local farmers market, stuff like that.
Now, these things are great, don't get me wrong. If it's one thing I love as much as anyone it's a good story--and believe me, when people are passionate about what they're doing, you'll almost always find a good story there. My editor says things to that effect all the time, and he used things like the seniors' quilting club as an example. Even something as seemingly everyday mundane about a club that sews for fun has a story or two lurking in there under all the pins and needles (or whatever you do quilting with, I honestly have no idea).
But on my desk I have a police scanner that is constantly fishing the airwaves for something juicy. The kind of spot news that will really get my blood going. Let's be honest here. One of the things I love most about being a reporter is being on hand to witness news as it's happening. And if there's some danger involved, well, so much the better.
But I have to admit, there are some times when that emergency response horn goes out across the airwaves and my gut clenches. 90 per cent of the time it's because I realize I'm heading out to the scene of a car accident...and usually I have no idea what I'm going to find until I get there.
Motor Vehicle Collisions (MVC's--we don't call them accidents anymore because that would insinuate that nobody is at fault and sometimes someone is VERY MUCH at fault) are scary because I have to be out the door before they full story comes across the air. And I live in a small town...think about it. The longer I live here, the greater chance I'm going to be covering one of these for someone I know.
The trick is to listen long enough to get an idea what you're headed into before you get there but leave soon enough that you can catch the ambulance at the scene. Sounds a little ghoulish, I know, but honestly you're not trying to get a massacre shot for the paper (we don't run those anyway) so much as you become a document for the scene.
There are some things I always take photos of at MVC scenes. Blood, for one, and believe me, there can be a lot of it. Sometimes the medics on scene will cut the clothing off of someone they are working on, and often all of that stuff (along with their gloves) ends up in a bloody pile on the side of the road.
Now, I'm by no means a squeamish person, and I write books that I hope will give the reader a little shake by the time they're done, but there really is no comparison between fictional horror and real life horror. The smell of blood and rubber and gasoline in the air, the sound of loved ones crying out in shock or confusion, the grim, sometimes teary-eyed faces of the rescue workers (yeah, it's upsetting for them too) and all the while I'm wandering around the scene like an asshole taking pictures of hurt and pain and misery. At times like this you just have to set your chin and do your job. Later you can vent it out to your coworkers if you need to, but until then you suck it up.
It's real life, and it's horrific. Nothing you find in a book ever comes close to touching it.

JW Schnarr is a reporter and photographer for the Claresholm Local Press in Claresholm, AB Canada. He is the publisher at Northern Frights Publishing and the author of Alice & Dorothy and Things Falling Apart.