As an amateur photojournalist, never has any story I was covering affected me so profoundly and deeply as the Isla Vista shootings.
For me, the story began right away at 9:27 p.m. on Friday, May 23, 2014.
I was in my apartment when I first heard the shots a block away at the corner of Embarcadero Del Norte and Segovia Road. Like everyone else, I thought they were just fireworks. But to be safe, I started getting my camera equipment ready. When I heard sirens, I knew something very serious had happened.
Racing out of my apartment, I arrived at the Alpha Phi sorority house roughly 10 minutes after the shooting, where I witnessed Santa Barbara Sheriff’s deputies and University of California Police Department officers with their guns drawn. That is when I saw what looked like bodies lying on the lawn of the sorority house, with a police officer desperately giving first aid to one of the victims.
With my camera, I snapped a few photos of the scene and then left.
It was not until later that night, after editing my photos, that the gravity of what I had witnessed became apparent. My photos captured the immediate aftermath of Elliot Rodgers’ rampage and his brutal murder of 19-year-old Veronika Weiss and 22-year-old Katie Cooper.
Immediately, I wondered what I was supposed to do with these photos, and asked the editorial staff of The Bottom Line newspaper for their input. It was decided the photos had no journalistic merit and that their publication would be disrespectful to the family and friends of the victims.
However, this decision put me in strange position: I was both one of the few witnesses to the crime scene and a photojournalist. It also left me confused and conflicted, and I could not help but wonder whether publishing photos of a tragedy is ever justifiable.
This question came up again on Saturday, May 24, outside the Capri Apartments at 6598 Seville Road. It was there that I witnessed members of Santa Barbara County Coroner’s Office removing bodies from the killer’s apartment. Unlike the previous night, the anonymity of the victims was maintained by black body bags.
At a press conference later that day at the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s headquarters, I asked for input from my fellow journalists. Greg Nichols, 2006 alumni of the University of California, Santa Barbara, had driven up from Los Angeles early in the morning to cover the story. He mentioned the famous “Falling Man” photo taken by Richard Drew of a man jumping from the burning World Trade Center buildings on 9/11, and how poignantly and dramatically it represented the terrible events of that day. Nichols also stressed the importance of respecting the families and friends of the victims as well–my question was a difficult one.
I believe I received an answer to my question on Sunday, May 25, after I posted a photo to my Instagram account of grieving students at the vigil. Immediately, someone recognized the people in my photo and tagged them. About two hours later, one of the women tagged commented, admonishing me for posting a photo of her mourning.
Never before has the subject of one of my photos ever contacted me, let alone responded to a particular photo I took. More importantly, never have I felt worse for simply doing my job.
As a photojournalist, I have an ethical responsibility to take photos that accurately and objectively portray events as they happened, without censorship. However, I also understand I have an obligation to “Treat all subjects with respect and dignity,” in the words of the National Press Photographers Association.
There is a thin line between the crass exploitation of a tragedy–where the dignity and respect of victims are ignored for profit–and ethically defensible journalism.
I am having difficulty reconciling my responsibilities as both a resident of Isla Vista and a photojournalist. I want to accurately report the news, because to omit details is to do a disservice to the innocent victims of this tragedy. At the same time, I also want to respect wishes of the families and friends of those victims, who want nothing more than privacy in their moment of grief.
Having followed this story since the start, I still have more questions than answers. The one thing I do know is that our community of Isla Vista is strong and resilient in the face of unspeakable tragedy, and that together, we can overcome any obstacle.