How photographer James Palka captured Giffords shooting aftermath with images that defined the event

In photography, timing is key.

On January 8, 2011, 63-year-old native Chicagoan James F. Palka’s timing saved his life. It also allowed him to document the tragic aftermath of an attempt on the life of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and a crowd of her supporters.

Photographer James Palka has worn an eye patch since the age of 16 due to a condition called Myasthenia Gravis.

Palka arrived late to the “Congress on your Corner” event and by the time he did, his choices were not about shutter speed settings, frames per second rates or tripod selection.

Overcoming physical disability, outside of his normal comfort zone, and experiencing the mental shock of human tragedy, Palka captured a compelling and exclusive photographic sequence that the Associated Press shared with the world.

In a first-person account, Palka describes his experiences on the day of the shooting, when time seemed to stand still and then accelerate forward. In the interview that follows, he explains how the photos came to the AP and why no cell phones captured the shooting.

In his own words, here is Palka’s account (edited for length and style).

I had received a pre-recorded phone call from Gabrielle Giffords on Friday the 7th, alerting me to her “Congress On Your Corner” event the following day — which was only a few miles from my NW Side home.

I had intended to get there half an hour late (10:30 a.m.), figuring things wouldn’t really get going until them. Boy was I wrong.

En route down Ina Road, several speeding paramedic vehicles passed me; I assumed there was a car accident or a house fire ahead.

By the time I arrived at the Oracle/Ina strip mall where the event was being held, I had a sinking feeling that someone had tried to kill Gabrielle Giffords.

The place was full of emergency vehicles and police cars, all with lights flashing manically. The main entrances to the mall had been blocked by wooden police horses and yellow tape, but I noticed a side entrance that was still open.

I parked inside, walked toward the Safeway, and asked a tall, scruffy-looking man what had happened. I knew the answer before he replied, but I still couldn’t believe his works. “Someone shot Gabrielle Giffords!”

I felt weak and nauseous, hoping I was dreaming and would wake up and begin the real day. “Why her?” I thought. In my mind, this beautiful woman was one of the few kind, honest and truly progressive politicians on the national scene.

I walked up to the yellow tape barrier in front of the Safeway grocery store and tried to make sense of the scene that was now only a few feet away. Northwest Fire District paramedics and multi-uniformed police, from both the county and city, mingled with eyewitnesses and the walking wounded.

The worst cases were on the ground with sheets over them while others, apparently still alive, were being tended to. Among them was Gabrielle Giffords.

I stood there in shock for several minutes, forgetting I had a camera around my neck. A white-bearded man who looked to be in his fifties, stood to my left and said, “The police got here right away, but it took the paramedics a whole twenty-five minutes!” A woman to my left said, “That’s right. I was here the whole time.”

This perplexed me, because there was a fire station a few miles away on Orange Grove Road. Perhaps the police held them off, for their own protection, until the area had been secured. (Later, I heard that a single fire vehicle with paramedics had arrived on the scene shortly after the police did.)

I finally lifted my camera. Still in shock, which would last the rest of the day, I began pressing the shutter. Back home, I had attached a 70-300mm telephoto lens and set my camera appropriately, thinking I would begin with close-ups of Gabrielle “meeting and greeting.” Instead, I was getting close-ups of emergency personnel scurrying about, people being lifted onto gurneys, and hospital helicopters landing in the parking lot.

I stayed at the crime scene half an hour but was not allowed to leave the mall for another forty-five [minutes], awaiting a busy cop who needed my contact information; they were still looking for a possible accomplice to this mass murder.

Since my state of shock was not the debilitating kind, it had an ecstatic quality in the sense that I felt my whole self  “in the flow” of what was happening in front of me. And this — along with skill, preparedness, and practice — guided my photography.

Palka provided additional information in an e-mail Q&A, which follows.

Kenny Irby: Had you photographed [Giffords at] other such events?

James Palka: The only other event [where] I photographed her was a Fourth of July celebration three or four summers ago in Oro Valley (just north of Tucson) where she performed (read a patriotic text) with the Tucson Symphony.

What camera brand do you prefer and what was the model that you used with that 70-300mm lens?

Palka: I used a Canon 5D Mark II with my 70-300 zoom. I also used my Canon L Series 24-105mm for some of the shots.

This photo of a wounded U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was on the front page of many newspapers Sunday (James Palka/AP)

Why was it important to you to share these photographs with the Associated Press and how did that connection come about?

Palka: As I was leaving the shopping mall, I ran into a friend who works as a reporter for the Green Valley News (G.V. is about 25 miles south of Tucson). That evening, he phoned to ask me to send samples to his editor because his shots were very bad and Congresswoman Giffords was already gone before he arrived.

The police kept the press much farther away from the scene than I was allowed to be. In fact, none of them even noticed me taking pictures for half an hour! One policewoman on the other side of the barrier finally said, “No pictures,” and I immediately complied then walked back to my car.

Anyway, the Green Valley editor promised to pay me an agreed upon amount for four shots and he also gave me the AP phone number for wider distribution. He was the key to helping me get these images out to the world, since I lacked such experience and know-how.

Did you ever consider the possibility of capturing some video with your camera?

Palka: I have done video with my Canon 5D II a few times, but it didn’t occur to me to do so at the scene. You have to go into the menu to switch, and even if I had thought of it at the crime scene, I wouldn’t have remembered how to do it on the spot.

You seem to have an exclusive set of photographs. With the ubiquitous nature of digital and cell phone cameras today, why do you think that there are no others who covered this tragic event?

Palka: What I can say is that by chance (or perhaps by destiny), I was the first photographer on the scene and this remained so for at least 15 minutes. There were others — perhaps mostly people who worked in adjoining stores along with shoppers and those who wanted to see Rep. Giffords — but I didn’t notice anyone else taking pics even with their cell phones. Maybe some did, I was highly focused on what I was doing.

You have been wearing an eye patch since age 16, what was the nature of your eye condition and how does it affect your photography, if at all?

Palka: I have a condition called Myasthenia Gravis, and while it is mostly in remission, I still suffer from atrophy of many of my voluntary muscles. This includes my eyes (external eye muscles) and left hand. Both do affect my photography. I sometimes miss shots because I can’t zoom quickly enough with my left hand. My right hand is semi-numb from another problem, and many times I can’t feel where the shutter button is and I have to look. If both eyes are too badly strained, I don’t even leave the house and I have missed many photo opportunities because of this over the past several years. Also, I rarely drive at night here in Tucson, where the street lighting is very poor in many places because of the astronomical observatories requirements.

In your e-mail, you acknowledged being in shock, how are you coping with the post-traumatic stress?

Palka: I’m getting better every day. I still don’t have my normally positive energy … and there is always a feeling of grief for Rep. Giffords’ condition. As she gets better, so do I. She was the person I knew among all the victims. I’m pretty sure that if I had been there for the shootings, I would have been much more traumatized or possibly wounded or murdered.

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  • Anonymous

    Clearly the discussion that needs to be brought up is why did the policewoman say no pictures. If Palka was on public property behind police line he should have argued with this instead complying. Actions like his only further disqualifies the media and their legal rights.

  • Anonymous

    It’s a real shame Americans don’t have that sense of respect for dead Iraqis or whoever the enemy du jour happens to be. Isn’t it?

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  • Anonymous

    Perhaps the policewoman had a sense of — and respect for — rights of privacy of the victims.

    I wouldn’t expect the media to understand any of that.

  • Anonymous

    If the photographer was behind the police barricade, why was he instructed by a policewoman to stop shooting photos? He wasn’t in the way, wasn’t interfering in any way. The policewoman had no right to stop him from doing his job.