Story Junkie

There is a particular thrill that comes with a good story. The lazy way to get this thrill is by way of soap opera or movie. A slightly more involved way to achieve a good-story-high is to read a novel. However, nothing comes close to the adrenaline rush of finding a good story and telling it yourself.

I have known for most of my life that I wanted to be a photographer. When I found out that a storytelling photographer was a real profession, I knew that was the path for me. I envisioned my perfect career as never setting a camera down, always having a writer with me to attach words to my pictures. I had no idea how hard the journalism bug could bite me until my reporting professor (hi Don!) made me go out and do the damn thing. 

Initially I was struggling with the whole idea of approaching strangers. Strangers have a notoriously bad track record in my book. I often hoped that if I looked interesting enough at the right places someone with an excellent story would just walk up to me. Unsurprisingly, that didn’t work. 

After some floundering, I finally spent a whole day observing a park in my reporting district. I told myself I was determined to walk up to a stranger and hear their story. I saw a man wake up from a mid-afternoon nap and decided that if he had the time to take a nap in a public place, he had the time to talk to me. Literally my first attempt at digging and I struck gold.

Courtney Smith started off rather reserved with his conversation. He didn’t offer up much unless directly asked. I assumed that was going to be the classic response to a stranger asking personal questions. I decided to sit and listen for as long as he would let me. He miraculously kept talking and kept answering my questions. Courtney revealed that he was previously employed by the SFPD and only left after feeling he was extremely discriminated against. Sure, I could personally tackle systemic racism inside one of the largest police departments in the U.S., no doubt. Courtney gave me a first hand, harrowing account of how racism tore down the life he was building for his young son.  The New Yorker would love it.

I left the conversation leaping out of my skin to tell the story. Student journalists are often bursting with stories and no place to put them. I felt like I wouldn’t be able to write the story, either. There was no way I would be able to do it justice. I was buzzing with a manic energy that I had to let out. I called my rather estranged dad and verbal vomited the account I had just heard from Courtney. Being the supportive father he is, he asked “How much of that do you really believe?”

Just like that, I stopped buzzing. I did give a stranger a potential platform to broadcast whatever grievances he wanted. People use the media to spread their agendas all the time. What proof did I have other than my belief in a man who napped in a park? 

In his story, Courtney said that the Daly City police arrested him for having his off-duty weapon in his car. Arrests get recorded. I wrote down his badge number that he casually dropped in reference to a conversation. Do badge numbers have a record? I needed something to prove my dad wrong, and more importantly, something that would prove that I was capable of finding stories that felt like they could make an impact. Armed with my two bits of researchable information about this guy, I found the report of his arrest in Daly City and police documents that listed his badge number next to his name, proving his prior employment at the SFPD. His arrest was as he described, but he did not mention the brass knuckles they also found in his car. Regardless, I felt in my bones that he was telling me his truth. My stomach made its way through my chest and into my throat as I craved to know more. Not just about him, but about every stranger at that park that day. Who knows what else is out there?

The closest I’ve been to Nightcrawler

The day my comrades at the San Francisco Examiner started respecting me as a photojournalist was the day of the gas line explosion. 

Firefighters work on reducing damage caused by a gas fire on the corner of Geary and Parker Streets on Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019. (Ellie Doyen/Special to S.F. Examiner)

It started like we were in a lazily-written, slow-burning news thriller. All members of the paper were present in the newsroom. This was unusual, because most often the reporters were out reporting. The crime reporter in particular, Michael Barba, was hardly ever in the office when I was. He was at the justice hall constantly. On February 6, Barba was in the office with his old-timey police scanner on loud enough for the whole floor to hear (an exaggeration my brain believes to add drama to the situation).

I was ready and eager to do anything and everything for the paper, but it was a slow morning for news. Barba relayed that the scanner mentioned a fire on Geary. No one seemed particularly intrigued, as apparently it is a relatively common occurrence. I tried to play it cool like the rest of the reporters as we listened to the scanner kick back more info.

Laura Waxmann, the education reporter, had pulled up the location on Google Maps to find that there was a small preschool near by.

I felt the community interest build, so I casually started asking my editor which lenses to pack.

Barba told us they were evacuating the area. Then we heard the words “gas fire” trickle over the radio.

That’s when I became a little more insistent that I would like to go. Camera around my neck, full battery and empty cards. Worst case scenario, it’s a learning experience for me, the lowly intern. Laura said she would come too, it could be something. 

I called an Uber, trying so hard to maintain my chill, but as soon as I exited the newsroom, I started running to catch the car. Laura had to run to keep up, and once we were in, I allowed myself to burst. We both started making calls. She was calling a hospital nearby asking about potential evacuations of patients. I called the pet store I worked at because it was only a few blocks from the fire. No one seemed to match my level of energy (manic excitement is hard to match). 

A police officer keeps a crowd at bay while watching a fire on Geary and Parker Streets on Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019. (Ellie Doyen/Special to S.F. Examiner)

We went over a hill and got stopped by police tape. The poor, poor Uber driver let us out there and we left him to figure out the traffic situation himself. Laura and I wordlessly split off to do our respective jobs. Laura immediately started looking for witnesses, I immediately started taking pictures of the literal 30 ft tall wall of flames (also may be a bit of hyperbole, but that’s certainly how tall it looked from where we stood). The tape kept us about two blocks from the fire, but still I felt the heat. 

As I was taking pictures, a witness to the initial explosion started offering me his account. Something about the professional camera always screams “press” more so than the press pass that the reporters have to work for. I switched my hat to reporter and recorded his account and sent it off to my editor. 

After the brief interview, I was jonesing for a closer look at the fire. I started running in any direction I could think of to get a better view. I want to insert here that I was wearing heels this day. I’ve never felt more powerful than when I was running towards a fire in heels.

As I ran down the middle of a street, I looked up and saw some painters on the roof of an unfinished building. Bingo. I yelled up at them to ask if I could be let up. Some said yes, some said no, but after a while of running around, I circled back and they had decided to let me up. I walked up canvas covered stairs, through a kitchen missing a sink, and out to a balcony with a collapsable (!!!) ladder leaning against the roof. I was hoping for a sturdy, fire escape sort of deal, but beggars can’t be choosers. 

The man who let me in held the ladder as I climbed, questioned my shoe choices, then said “Have fun!” and left me there. 

A hellicopter passes over a gas fire on the corner of Geary and Parker Streets on Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019. (Ellie Doyen/Special to S.F. Examiner)

My heart was POUNDING, let me tell you. I took my pictures, used my in-camera WiFi to send said pictures back to my editor immediately, and sat down for a moment in awe. The painter/necessary-ladder-holder didn’t come back for a while, which I used as an excuse to simply marvel at the grandiose feeling of it all. 

After leaving my roof, I got as close as the tape would let me. Then I got even closer. The cops in charge of the border accused me of being sneaky, to which I responded that I was an intern. It’s a must. By this time, other photographers were trickling in. I think we were the first to the scene because of Barba’s scanner. I felt as if I had already gotten the scoop and was sending the pictures back before others even got their first picture. Not to toot my own horn too hard, but that was it. That was what I was itching to do. Hard-hitting breaking news coverage, barely two weeks into my internship.

The picture ended up being my first front page. Someone hung it up in our office on a big, blank wall. I cried. Barba told me much later that the fire was when he knew that I had *it*. He was the one that hung the image in the office, because it inspired him too.