Picture and A Thousand Words
Toronto Star, August 7, 2005, pg A 08
Wrapped in an airline blanket, clutching his carry on, and pants still wet from the knees down, Eddie Ho walked from a protected area of the airport Sheraton Hotel to Terminal 3, where he would find a cab - and about a dozen reporters and photographers hoping to speak with survivors of Tuesday's Air France accident.
It was just before 10 p.m., six hours after the Airbus 340-300 skidded off the runway into a ravine and burst into flames. Ho, a 19- year-old student from Johannesburg who was seated near the front of the plane, was in a talking mood.
As he described in vivid detail how it was that he, all 296 of his fellow passengers, and all crew, came to escape what otherwise had all the hallmarks of a disaster, other media also spotted the airline blanket. Ho found himself in the middle of a scrum.
A natural story teller, Ho, in Canada to study business at Queen's University, described how he jumped from the plane, landed on others below, and went on to help an injured man. In the middle of his tale, he also casually mentioned that he had taken photos of the escape.
Four pictures, in all. Taken with a Canon Powershot S200 point- and-shoot digital camera, which, along with a laptop, later became drenched and are presumably now toast. The camera's memory card, however, survived.
On this day, a citizen was the photojournalist, and so it has been on other days of late that have been darkened by subway attacks and suicide bombings. The first to document the scene are the scene. People with camera phones and pocket digitals are clicking and capturing the fleeting moments of our day, up close and raw, 1/60th of a second at a time.
I had been dispatched to the airport to take pictures, but the pictures of the day were on Eddie Ho's little 128 mega-byte memory card. It became my job to get those pictures, exclusively, and get back to One Yonge St. - and, with the clock now past 10 20 p.m., as soon as possible.
Ho was interested in selling, and asked for business cards. Said he'd get back to us the next day. I told him we could do business right then and there.
A brief bidding war ensued. One reporter working for Good Morning America offered up a night's stay in a hotel, provided Ho appear on the program (Ho took up that offer, having nowhere to stay that night). And then it got serious.
A freelancer for Splash, an international news and picture agency, was on the phone with a boss and offered $1,000 (U.S.) I said I would do better than that, and got on the phone with Chris So, a Toronto Star picture editor.
The Star regularly buys pictures from freelancers, but rarely will a set of pictures fetch four-figure pay-outs. This day was different. So had already secured pictures from a pilot who snapped images from the cockpit of his plane, and from two passing motorists. The pictures were good, but as our second deadline of the night approached, "we still had no great photo," says So. "At that point, we wanted to get that by any means possible."
So told me to up it to $1,500 Canadian. "I'll give you $1,500 for those right now," I told Ho.
According to one media account of the transaction, there was a tense stare down between me and the Splash guy. Probably was, both of us tethered by phones to those who held the wallets, and the pictures the world would want to see available to the highest bidder. Someone in the scrum suggested splitting rights. That way, Eddie Ho, who will no doubt do well in the business world, gets paid twice.
And that is how it went down. The Star picked up Canadian rights for $1,500. I scribbled out a "contract" on the back of a business card, and thanked Ho. We walked inside Terminal 3, where the Splash guy had his laptop set up. A couple of clicks and drags and Ho's four images were copied over to a memory card I had pulled out of one of my own cameras.
It was now getting close to 11 p.m. One Yonge wanted to know how long it would be before they'd see the pictures. First edition had already gone to bed. In this age of digital, I had plenty of time before next deadline.
It would have been a different story as little as five years ago, when even I was still using film cameras. I would have either hailed a cab or courier to rush Eddie Ho's roll of film to the Star offices, where it would have to be souped, dried, edited and scanned.
An out-of-town crash would have meant finding late night photo lab (unlikely), or heading back to my hotel room, where I would have had a colour film developing kit. I have only had to do that a couple of times, with my own pictures, and the occasions were memorable. Last time was the big ice storm. I thought of the old days as I walked, memory card in hand, over to the lobby bar of the airport Sheraton Hotel, where my laptop was waiting. The Splash photographer had also headed that way to beam Eddie Ho's pictures to the world outside Canada. It took me about 60 seconds to send all four to One Yonge. They landed at 10 52 p.m. I called in to let them know they had gone. Picture editor Taras Slawnych opened them on his end. There wasn't much to discuss. You know it when you see it.
After seeing Frame #2, the one pictured here, he moved the phone away from his mouth to spare me the blast. "We have a new front!"
Jim Rankin is a Toronto Star reporter/photographer.
Credit: CORRECTION: The Picture and 1,000 Words feature published in Sunday's paper referred to a freelance reporter for Splash News and Picture Agency. John Kennedy is the staff reporter for the agency in Canada, not a freelancer. The Star regrets the error. (A2, Aug 9, 2005)