Globe’s Tlumacki: ‘I am dealing with trauma & trying to keep busy’ following Boston tragedy

On Monday, veteran photojournalist John Tlumacki captured the iconic image of the Boston Marathon bombing: runner Bill Iffrig knocked to the pavement on Boylston Street in front of a trio of police officers, each seemingly headed in a different direction.

On Friday, the 30-year veteran of the Boston Globe — who’s been a finalist for the Pulitzer prize and honored as the Boston Press Photographers Association’s Photographer of the Year — found that coming to terms with the week’s tragic events required him to complete one more assignment.

So Tlumacki returned to Boylston Street, to the finish line where weary runners had crossed before cheering fans, only to have jubilation turn in an instant to horror, chaos and carnage. During those hours on Patriots Day, Tlumacki’s memory card had captured a wide range of human emotions. On Friday, at a makeshift memorial near that finish line, his own emotions caught up with him.

Tlumacki told me that he found himself “a little emotional, and took the yellow still photographer’s marathon bib that I wore that day, and I knelt down in front of the cross and I placed it. And I went back to my car because this was too heavy.”

For Tlumacki, Friday began with a 4 a.m. ET text message informing him of new developments in the tragic story. At 6 a.m. he was in front of the federal courthouse, on stakeout in case the second bombing suspect was brought in. He then responded to a nearby bomb scare and found himself drawn to Boylston Street, left eerily empty by the order for Boston residents to shelter in place during the manhunt for the bombing suspects.

“It’s like a blizzard or a tornado hit town and there is nobody on the street,” Tlumacki recalled. “And so I wanted to make that photo.”

Late Friday, a section of Boylston Street had become a impromptu memorial, with the items left by way of remembrance — including three crosses, an American flag, cards and sneakers, marathon trinkets … and Tlumacki’s yellow photo bib.

An edited and condensed version of my conversation with Tlumacki follows:

How long have you been at the Boston Globe, and what do you see as your primary journalistic role?

John Tlumacki

I started working part-time for the afternoon edition in 1981 and moved to full-time in 1983.

I am all-purpose — some days you do still, some days you do video and some days you do both. I go out there with a laptop with a wireless card to transmit right away. [For those interested in gear, Tlumacki said he used his “near brand new” Canon equipment -- two Canon EOS 1DX camera bodies, 24mm F1.4 and 70-200mm zoom -- on Monday.]

How many Boston Marathons have you covered, and what was your assignment this Patriots Day?

I am going to say that this was about my 20th. My assignment was the same as it has been for the last the last five years: be in the street position at the finish line, covering the winners as one of the six selected pool photographers. I had my laptop there and continuously kept transmitting from this position back to our website.

What was the last thing that you documented before the bombs exploded?

Standing on the finish line, I can remember hearing the announcer saying, “Let’s cheer them on” as runners crossed the yellow tape, meeting with their families and loved ones. I was waiting for something unusual. As I stood in the middle of the street, there was a middle-aged man holding the hand of a little girl and a woman and then boom! It goes off.

A powerful image of marathoner Bill Iffrig and police responding to the explosions. (John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe)

Was there anything in your illustrious career that prepared you for this? If so, what was it?

I was thinking about this last night. I have seen a lot of things in my career and life — Uganda in the 1980s covering war refugees and killing fields, fires and shootings. But nothing like this. … I learned to be ready at [Boston University], by reading books about photojournalism and from other great news photographers. You’re on the street and using your senses and always, always prepared. I am always fiddling with my camera and checking my exposures — maybe that is what helped me.

Were there times when you saw and/or captured things that you felt you should not be seeing? If so, can you describe one of them?

There were images that I captured that I saw only through the camera. Unless I was walking around, I never took my eye away from the viewfinder. Things were happening so fast, and I knew that my time was limited. There are some images that I am so upset by. I cropped some things… because there were bodies, legs dangling and limbs missing. It took me a few minutes to comprehend the carnage and devastation.

What advice would you offer other journalists covering such a major tragedy in their own communities?

Be comfortable with yourself and comfortable with your equipment. You have to have an inner voice to tell you when to shoot and when not to shoot. Try to be the eyes of the reader — you know that you are there doing your job because other people can’t be there. It is a pretty heavy responsibility.

What mattered most for you as you pursued this coverage throughout the day and now the week?

If something happens today, I want to be there. I am driven by my desire to do my best — driven by my career and my newspaper. I don’t want to be second-best. If I am at the top of my game then everybody benefits — the newspaper, online and the reader/viewer.

One of the many images that illustrates the explosions’ effects on innocent bystanders. (John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe)

How did you stay calm and collected when all around you was completely chaotic?

You can’t give up. If you give up, you are not comfortable with yourself. You have to know your rights as a photojournalist, you have to know what the public has access to and where you have access to be taking photos. You have to tell the police what you are doing – and sometimes you have to bounce off of them and go in a different direction and know how to work your way back.

So how do your react to the comparison between you and Stanley Forman?

When I was at BU, I invited him to my photography class to be a guest speaker and asked if I could cruise around with him for a piece in the Daily Free Press, the campus newspaper. He was Sen. Edward Brooke’s campaign photographer and invited me to join him and got me my first job.

He called me up the next morning and congratulated me — and so it’s like we have come full circle in a way. He was always a role model — I admired him and his news photographer’s license plate. Now I have my own plates. There is a little bit of Stanley in me and a little bit of me in him.

At any point did you offer physical assistance to the injured? If so, when?

In the rush of the initial moment … there was so much confusion. When I got to the fence I did not realize how extremely bad it was, but by the time I got close enough, the people who were lying on the sidewalk — there were maybe 20 — were already being helped by bystanders.

A woman kneels and prays at the scene of the first explosion on Boylston Street. (John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe)

What insights or lessons did this event give you about your role as a visual reporter during times of great tragedy?

When I came back into the office I was shaking and needed to be alone. And I was not prepared for the outpouring of compassion from my co-workers. They all asked me if I was OK. I was not prepared for the outpouring of emails — more than 250 — from people who told me that they were proud of me.

I am dealing with trauma and trying to keep busy by watching TV with my wife — we enjoy the Food Network. Next week, I am on vacation and plan to build a shed in my backyard.

What else would you like to say about this experience?

What newspapers and professional journalists need to realize, and the world has to realize, is that we are news photographers, not somebody out there with an iPhone and a camera, jumping over people to put images on YouTube. Our job is act as professionals and to show the world images that they can’t see because they aren’t there.

I’m so sick of citizen journalism, which kind of dilutes the real professionals’ work. I am promoting real journalism, because I think that what we do is kind of unappreciated and slips into the background.

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  • http://twitter.com/TweetCody CodyPAC™

    It’s only unappreciated because “real journalism” has officially failed the entire world. “So sick of citizen journalism?” Disgusting.

  • James

    A great read on an important moment in time and the photojournalist who had the knowledge and professionalism to document it well, Ken. Thank you for sharing John’s story and his personal experience with us.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kevin-Coughlin/1806750372 Kevin Coughlin

    John’s photos – in this picture editor’s opinion – were among the strongest to come out of Boston on Monday. Such a story shows that photojournalists have hearts too.