Hardest Days

stadium baseball fire montana
stadium baseball fire montana

The hardest days to be a photographer are ones when you have to photograph someone's tragedy.

Last night a fire in a dumpster (possibly fireworks set off by kids) led to a fully engulfed structure fire that destroyed the Sapa-Johnsrud Babe Ruth Field stadium in Columbia Falls. The stadium was built in 1989 by community volunteers like Bob Smith. He stands in the field, looking at the shell of what they had done and sadly states, "What a shame." Smith looks up at the roof, now charred and black and gaping with holes, and remembers being up there and working on the roof.

photojournalism frame shot fire montana
photojournalism frame shot fire montana

The coach, Ray Queen, is there, he paces the infield making calls, gathering and giving information, and starting the process of starting over. "It's so ironic," said Queen. "The last game we played here was Sunday. We played Kalispell and were winning 16-0 by the end of the third inning. The Kalispell team called it quits at that point. We weren't trying to run up the score. I was out at third base signalling my team, 'No more steals.'" Is it comforting at all to think that the final game was a victory?

For Queen this day is especially hard. This is what he told Daily Inter Lake reporter Katheryn Houghton: The Sapa-Johnsrud Babe Ruth Field was named in memory of two former players who had gone to the Babe Ruth World Series in 1983, Jimmy Sapa and and Ray Johnsrud. A year after the team went to the series, the two players died in a collision with a train while driving home from a baseball practice. “I had played with them until their tragic death,” Queen said. “This fire makes it feel like that’s happening all over again.”

coach baseball stadium fire ruins
coach baseball stadium fire ruins

In the scope of possible tragedies, this one is not as severe as a life lost. And yet, this is an emotional day for people. And coming in to photograph a painful moment in someone's life is never easy. On the one hand, the paper has to have a photograph of this. The field is a landmark for the community and we can't just ignore its destruction. We, the members of the news media, console ourselves and hope that our stories and photographs will inspire community members to get involved, donate time or money or resources, to help with the rebuild. But that doesn't make taking the pictures easier.

For me, in these moments I feel like the worst kind of vulture. I feel like the photographic version of an ambulance-chaser. I feel guilty. I have a job to do, but I hate it. The question is, how to do this compassionately? How to do this job and keep my humanity? And for me, introvert that I am, the answer is rather unexpected. It's to talk. Talk with the people. Don't jump in with the hard-hitting questions. Show a little sympathy. I personally have no connection to this place, but I can feel empathy for what they've lost and for all the mess they'll have to clean up. Don't ask for stories like you're trying to get the scoop, but let them tell their stories, so they can share and feel heard. And then get to work. Start taking photos. Details, overviews, people if they'll let you. That way, when you express sorrow for having to ask these questions and take these pictures, they'll forgive you and say, "It's ok. You're just doing your job."

fire line do not cross stadium fire baseball montana
fire line do not cross stadium fire baseball montana

UPDATE:

This is why community journalism is great. In the morning I photographed the fire. In the afternoon I saw the team out doing a fundraiser car wash. I stopped to get more photos and we are going to run this photo with the fundraising information that they didn't have yesterday when all this was unfolding. I also learned at the car was that the league did not have insurance on the structure, they are going to have to raise all the funds. I called my boss, we added that to the story. It's important information and I get to be part of helping get the word out. Even the hardest days are great days when you get to do something good.

baseball field fire fundraiser Montana
baseball field fire fundraiser Montana

If you are so inclined to help out with this effort check out: https://www.gofundme.com/sapa-johnsrud