"There's a dead guy I want you to photograph," OC Weekly editor Will Swaim tells me. I ask for some background, and he tells me that the dead guy in question is Harold Ezell.
"Wasn't he the Reagan-appointed Immigration and Naturalization Service chief who said, 'Illegal aliens shouldn't be deported; they should be deep fried'?"
As a freelancer, I always ask myself the following questions before I decide whether to take a job:
1) Do I need the money? The answer to this one is almost always yes.
2) Is the assignment going to be easy, or so difficult and/or dangerous that it won't be worth doing?
3) Do I believe in the story enough to take on whatever resistance is offered in order to get in and get the shot?
After 15 seconds of reflection, I decided this job was for me. Will wished me luck. As it turned out, I'd need it.
An integral part of completing any assignment is to bring the right tools for the job. Selecting the right camera, film and lighting often makes the difference and is, in fact, what separates the professional from the amateur. Knowing that I was going to walk into a funeral home and photograph a dead guy in his casket in front of his friends and family, I decided that barging in with a big professional camera slung around my neck was a bad idea.
This required an element of stealth. I loaded up two small autofocusing point-and-shoots. With one camera in each of my front pockets, I entered the fray.
If I'm ever again asked to photograph at a funeral, public viewing, memorial service or any other event where I am trying to blend in and be as unobtrusive as possible, I will wear a suit. I will wear a suit even if it is the absolute hottest day of the year, like it was on the day of the assignment. I will not wear shorts and a white T-shirt. I will not do this because I'd like to think I can learn from my mistakes.
Dressed for comfort and sticking out like a hippie at the funeral of a right-winger, I wait in line to have my private moment with Mr. Ezell. It is an uncomfortable moment. I start to sympathize with the family. They have gathered to mourn the loss of their patriarch, recently expired from a terrible disease, and here is an unkempt stranger in their midst who is definitely not Jesus. I certainly wouldn't want someone like me to intrude upon my private family matters. As my discomfort level rises, I remind myself that this isn't any old private family matter; it's the public viewing of a deceased public official—excuse me, a bigoted public official—who drafted and implemented important public policies and who is, therefore, according to my own ethics and morals, fair game.
After what seems an eternity but is probably only three or four minutes, the child who has been staring quizzically at the body gets up and leaves. My time is at hand. I plant myself squarely in front of the casket. I glance around as unassumingly as possible to make sure no one can see what I am about to do. I take the Nikon out of my pocket and bring it to my waist, holding it as steadily as possible. I trip the shutter and take the one and only picture I am going to get. Hands slightly shaking, I put the camera back in my pocket and turn toward the exit. I stride purposefully out of that building and into the great blast furnace of an Orange County summer. My heart is pounding, and I can hear voices behind me, but I don't look back. I head straight for my car, where I quickly lock both cameras in the trunk and prepare to make my great and triumphant escape.
Now comes the sad part of the story and my second mistake: if you ever go into a funeral home to take pictures of a dead guy and make it out of the building unmolested and all the way back to your car, where you are poised to make your great and triumphant escape, make sure to have your friend waiting in the car with the engine running. DO NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES ALLOW YOUR FRIEND TO BE DILLY-DALLYING ON THE GRASS NEXT TO THE CAR, as was the case for me, as this will unfortunately delay your timely exit.
The car is now surrounded by a hostile mob of about 10 men. Defeat is seemingly snatched from the jaws of victory. Anger is vented, heated questions asked, accusations hurled. The long and the short of it is that I am escorted out of the car and forced under threat of implied violence to open the trunk and surrender the camera to the mob. This I do. With much relish, the mob leader opens the camera and exposes the film to the harsh light of day, ruining it completely. Satisfied, the crowd disperses.
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I climb back inside the car. Understanding her direct, causal relationship to this dramatic turn of events, my friend begins a heartfelt apology. After first making sure we aren't being followed, I cut her off and tell her it's not that big a deal.
"Not that big a deal! The shot is ruined, and Will is going to be pissed," she says.
Will is not going to be pissed. I explain: I had two cameras. By remaining cool in a crisis, I easily duped the angry mob with a classic bait-and-switch: the film they exposed had nothing on it.
The real film came back from the lab the next day and the results were, shall we say, dead-on. And on that note, let's chalk up another victory for the committed photojournalist in his relentless pursuit of the truth