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Interview: Pulitzer Prize-Winning Photographer of Seton Hall Dorm Fire

Image via Matt Rainey Photography, LLC

“It was critically important to me then, and it’s still critically important to me now that I do not take advantage of the subject of any photograph…for my benefits or for my agenda. We saw some really tough things, and it could have become gratuitous.”

Matt Rainey won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography for his series After the Fire, which depicts the recoveries of two-badly burned Seton Hall students, injured in a dorm fire. Mr. Rainey was also part of a Newark Star-Ledger team who won a 2005 Pulitzer for Breaking News Reporting. Speaking on June 14th, Matt Rainey and Merion West‘s Erich Prince discuss how a photographer avoids detracting from the subject, the line between photography and exploitation, and how the changing economics of the media industry have caused many photographers to leave journalism.

Your career in photography now spans almost three decades, and you’re obviously very well known for your After the Fire series, in particular. You were also part of the team that received the 2005 Pulitzer for Breaking News Reporting, covering the resignation of New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey. I understand you’ve also dabbled in product advertisement and other more commercial aspects of photography. How did your interest in photography begin and how did you get to After the Fire from there?

My photography dates back to—believe it or not—the seventh grade. And, very briefly, I can tell you that my world history class in seventh grade culminated in a Roman chariot races event, and every member of the seventh grade was required to participate in some way. Some people were horses, some people made the chariots, others were people in the crowd. Well, I grabbed my camera, and I documented it and then we posted a display board in the hallway of the school. That was my contribution. So that was kind of the catalyst. And through high school, one of the things that continued to interest me was going to parades or going to football games. I always noticed the guy that had the camera could go places that other people couldn’t go. And that interested me greatly. So that’s kind of where the passion started, and then I went to college for it and nearly immediately started in the newspaper industry. I did 27 years or so in the newspaper industry, all told.

I want to ask you about something I read in a profile Rutgers did of your career:  the photographer making himself as least intrusive as possible. Maybe you carry a small amount of equipment. What are some of the strategies you use to avoid detracting from the subject? 

Equipment is a big factor. I always tend to use smaller cameras, quieter cameras, and I’m actually currently using cameras that are completely silent. I recently moved over to the Sony A9 system, which is a mirrorless system. So the cameras don’t make any noise. I generally wear darker clothing. Believe it or not, that makes a difference. And I generally don’t communicate very much with my subjects while they’re involved in whatever they’re doing. I really take on the attitude of being an observer and trying to stay out of the way. There’s a lot of dodging and weaving going on, and I might pop into a situation and then pop right back out again so that I’m not dwelling in the middle of a situation.

That leads me very nicely to another question I want to ask you which brings us to the After the Fire series, probably the photographs you’re most famous for. I know you’ve mentioned watching M.T.V. with some of your subjects and not taking a picture that entire day. Maybe this was already answered a little bit, but what was the role of the connections you had with Shawn Simons, Alvaro Llanos, and their families when you were working on the series?

In any story or any situation, it’s always very clearly indicated that I’m there as a journalist or as an observer, and pretty much everything is on the record. I don’t ever want there to be any kind of question. I may choose not to take a picture of something, or I may choose to invest my time in a situation without the camera being to my eye. But there’s always a very clear understanding that I’m there as a journalist.

I can give you just one example from the After the Fire project. There was an evening that I was spending with Shawn, and he told me that his girlfriend was going to visit. He indicated to me that there would probably be a point at which there would be some physical intimacy involved. This was planned, I guess, for the evening. So I was there to the point where I felt that my presence was going to affect how the rest of his evening went, and I departed. I freely chose to make that decision to depart. They didn’t ask me to leave; it was never that kind of situation. I think he knew that I wasn’t there just to hang out with him. I was there as a journalist as part of the story, and that goes any time I work on a piece of journalism. That’s a really important fact to clarify at the very beginning.

So why do you think that some of these folks, obviously very badly disfigured in this terrible fire, would want to open up their lives for the world to see?

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In the case of the burn project, originally we had planned on documenting their recovery for a year and then publishing a special section, and there were actually three boys who were in the burn unit at the time that we wanted to document. When we approached the families to ask if we could document their recovery, we pitched our idea. One of the families came back and declined to work with us at all. And that was fine. It ultimately made the story stronger because it was more concentrated on the relationship of the roommates, rather than a story about three burned boys. It was about two roommates who became brothers.

When we pitched the idea, Christine Simons came back to us immediately and said, “Yes, we want to participate, and the reason why we want to participate is that we know Shawn, and it will make Shawn recover faster.” So knowing that her son loves being in the spotlight, she knew that our presence would help him. It was a little bit different with Alvaro Llanos’s parents. There was a language barrier for sure. They were less strategic in understanding what we were doing.

The boys were both in comas, at the time, and they could not make the decision on their own; that’s why we went to talk to the families. Alvaro’s family came to us and said,  “We’re okay with it, as long as Alvaro makes the decision.” But, at the time, he was in the coma, and we didn’t know if he would ever come out of the coma. We would lose effectively all that time of coverage, if we had to wait for him to wake up. So we drafted a written agreement that said, “Let us proceed as though we have Alvaro’s permission. If he wakes up and decides that he does not want to participate, we pledge that we will never publish a single photograph or a single written word associated to Alvaro’s recovery before that time.” They were good with that, and we proceeded forward like that.

So one question I want to ask you, and it’s similar to a question I asked Jeff Widener, the photographer of Tiananmen Square, when he joined us a couple weeks ago. It’s about the toll that some of the subjects might have on the photographer, and I gave [to Jeff Widener] the example of Kevin Carter, who had taken that photograph of the famine in Sudan, and, in a suicide note, suggested that some of the things he witnessed there contributed to his decision to take his own life. Is there a psychological toll that is common among photographers when they’re photographing very difficult events? Burn victims—something about burns or fires, I think, can be very troubling to a lot of people. Is there a toll it takes? 

I can obviously only speak for myself, but I would say that my experience has shown me that photojournalists are generally very emotional people, to begin with. Compassion and empathy are at the heart of photojournalism. So yes, I believe that there is a significant toll in witnessing and documenting strife. It impacts the photojournalist’s psyche and their well-being. For me, the burn series was at times very, very difficult to experience because we did have complete unfettered access to the lives of everybody involved in that fire: caregivers, doctors, girlfriends, family members, and the boys.

Generally what would happen is Robin, the writer whom I worked with on the project and on many other projects—we would go through a two-week cycle of breakdown. I’d be driving home from the burn unit at ten o’clock in the evening and I’d be sifting through all the emotions involved in the day, and I would start weeping. I would call Robin, and Robin would metaphorically put an arm around my shoulder and just talk me through it on the drive back home. The same thing would happen to Robin a couple weeks later, and I would do the same. One of the reasons why my relationship with Robin Fisher has been and always will be as tight as it is, is because we suffered together. We felt the same thing, and we’ve helped each other through it.

I think that the journalism community and the photojournalism community operate the same way. You build a small network of friends, and those friends are there for life. They really help you through the hard times. I covered 9/11, I covered the tsunami in Southeast Asia, I went to the earthquake in Haiti, I covered the Virginia Tech shootings, and these are things that weigh heavy on your heart. You need a way to process through that, and I think turning to colleagues— and, of course, turning to family—is a huge way of sharing the experience.

Do you still keep in touch with any of the subjects from the After the Fire project?

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I do. I have not spoken with Shawn and Alvaro directly in maybe a year—but only because it’s just been busy and crazy, but they’re both very good friends. We stay in contact on social media and things like that. A couple of years ago, I photographed Shawn’s wedding for him. He got married in Cancun. We flew down, and I shot his wedding for him.

A more cheerful occasion to be sure.

Yes, and ever since the project our relationship has been very positive. I mean it’s always been that way. It’s always been a brotherhood. They were present when I won the Pulitzer. In fact, the day before the Pulitzer announcement happened to be Easter Sunday. Both of the boys were at my home that afternoon to share Easter with us. So yes, the bond is permanent.

I’m thinking of the photo a couple years ago of the Syrian toddler, who had washed up on on the beach during the refugee crisis, and I remember there was a quotation from an editor at The New York Times talking about the debate that they went through in deciding whether or not to run that particularly powerful and disturbing image of that toddler. One of the undertones is this balance between depicting events as truthfully as they are and then this concern about possibly exploiting the subject. Is that a balance that you were ever sensitive to? 

That inner monologue took place every day. It was critically important to me then—and it’s still critically important to me now—that I do not take advantage of the subject of any photograph, any story for my benefit or for my agenda. We saw some really tough things, and it could have become gratuitous. We needed to balance why we were publishing the words we were publishing and why were we publishing the pictures we were publishing. There were scores of long conversations about what the right thing to do was. When dealing with a very, very sensitive subject, it is truly at the core of who I am and who I have been as a journalist.

My last question is about the changing economics of the newspaper landscape. I was reading recently that the Star Ledger’s daily subscription has fallen to something like 114,000 for its daily, non-Sunday readers. How has the market changed for photojournalists because of the shifting economics of regional papers in the past ten years or so? 

Well, I’m a perfect example. I’m not working in journalism anymore. I can’t make a living in it anymore. It’s a very sad situation that so many people have been displaced in the industry. I live in New Jersey, and I like to keep up with the news. Unfortunately, we have no local journalism anymore in the county where I live. You can’t find anything that’s going on, unless you jump on the local Facebook or Patch to see some kind of informal or unofficial story. There’s nobody covering town council meetings or local court that night.

I always considered myself to be a community journalist, and I really enjoyed covering the county that I lived in. That doesn’t exist anymore. Just as an aside, when I was hired at the Star-Ledger in 1995, I was one of 34 staff of photographers. Now, I think there are five. All of those people, everyone is still alive and on the planet, but very few are working in the industry. The risks are that the checks and balances are disappearing. We were pretty dogged, ragtag, go after them kind of paper, and we were really proud of that. That doesn’t seem to exist anymore—or, at least, certainly on a much smaller basis. I think it gives rise to the bad guys getting away with more.

So there’s almost a kind of sense of justice that might be suffering?

Yes, I think so. It’s like when the cat’s away, the mouse plays. The cats are all working somewhere else now.

Thank you for an interesting conversation today. Mr. Rainey.

Sure. I hope it was a help.

Erich J. Prince is a co-founder and the editor at Merion West. Erich has written for a variety of publications including The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Hartford Courant, The News & Observer, and the Orlando Sentinel. His writing has been honored with two awards from the Columbia University School of Journalism. He studied political science at Yale, completing his thesis on the history of polarization in the United States Congress. Contact Erich at erich@merionwest.com.