Photojournalists Cover the Unimaginable at the Orlando Mass Shooting

Photo by Joshua Lim, Orlando Sentinel

By Tom Burton

 

It was about 4 a.m. when his phone rang. For some reason, freelance photographer Phelan Ebenhack was already awake. On the line was Associated Press staff photographer John Raoux calling to say there had been a shooting at a nightclub in downtown Orlando. Could Phelan check it out?

 

Pulse nightclub wasn’t far and he got there quickly, choosing a cross street he knew would be less likely to be blocked off. What he found was chaos that was about to become the largest mass public shooting by a single gunman in U.S. history.

 

Ebenhack was the first still photographer on the scene when he got to Orange Avenue. There were people along the sidewalk who had been in the club when the shooting started and dozens of squad cars filled the street. And it was dark. He pushed the ISO on his camera to 12,800 and still had to shoot at 1/80th of a second  at f/4. He was discrete with his strobe, pointing it to the side so as not to distract the active police scene.

 

About 5 a.m. he heard and could feel the concussion from an explosion that blew open the back wall of the nightclub. People around him began crying. Rapid gunfire was heard, sounding like the finale of a fireworks show.

 

He was seeing just the beginning of a long and frightening week in Orlando that would also summon photojournalists from around the world, from a senior photographer to the city magazine picture editor to the summer intern who made front pages across the country.

 

(photo by Phelan Ebenhack, Associated Press)

 

FIRST ON THE SCENE

 

Shortly after the SWAT siege on the nightclub, Ebenhack and the other spectators were pushed farther back. The NPPA member filed photos to the Associated Press that became the signature images of the scene for much of the day. The initial report was that at least 20 bodies were in Pulse, a gay nightclub. At a press conference a few hours later, the mayor of Orlando said there were actually 50 dead.

 

“You could hear everyone exhale at the same time,”said Ebenhack. The journalists knew this story just became even bigger with 49 victims killed and the shooter also dead.

 

Anticipating he would have little chance to make it back to his car and would have to transmit on the fly, Ebenhack was carrying all of his camera and transmitting gear as he made his way to the back of the nightclub. Adding to his load, he ducked into an Ace Hardware store and bought a four-foot aluminum ladder. With the stepladder elevation, he got photographs of the massive holes blasted out of the wall through which hostages were able to escape.

 

(photo by Phelan Ebenhack, Associated Press)

 

Ebenhack kept moving to different angles, stopping to transmit and then moving again. He finally got back home about 10 p.m. He’d been running on adrenaline and for the first time, realized he had not eaten all day. He’d been so intensely involved in the story and so close to the scene, he didn’t fully realize the scope of the story until he turned on the television.

 

“I got choked up when I got home,”he said.

 

Ebenhack’s photographs were critical to AP’s coverage, carrying their picture report through mid-day, according to Mike Stewart, regional picture editor for AP. Ebenhack was included in AP’s “Beat of the Week” awards as part of the team that covered the shootings.

 

Stewart said it is “exceeding unusual” for a non-staffer to be named in that honor.

 

“He did an excellent job being a journalist first,” said Stewart.

 

(photo by Red Huber, Orlando Sentinel)

 

THE SENIOR PHOTOGRAPHER

 

Helicopters started circling over the Pulse nightclub early in the morning. By 10 a.m., Orlando Sentinel photographer and NPPA member Red Huber was up in one of them, getting a first look at the scene from above. On the second pass, he switched to a 300mm lens to get a tighter framing. He saw blood streaks leading out of the front patio of the club. He also saw a body.

 

Huber had first heard about the shootings through his Twitter feed, and after calling his editors, he arranged for a pilot. He flew three times that day, and the photograph from that first flight was later a key part of the print edition’s coverage.

 

As the week went on the veteran of 44 years covered the aftermath of the shooting and then, a couple of days later, the unrelated story of a two-year-old boy being snatched and killed by an alligator at a Walt Disney World resort. The night before the Pulse shootings, singer Christina Grimmie was shot and killed by an obsessed fan after a show at another Orlando venue.

 

Huber asked, “What else can happen to this town?”

 

 

THE INTERN

 

The text messages from his friends Sunday morning were confusing.

 

“I hope you are safe.”

 

“I heard about the news.”

 

Joshua Lim didn’t understand what was happening until he turned on a television.

 

Lim had been in Orlando only a couple of weeks as a multimedia intern at the Orlando Sentinel. A recent graduate from Ohio University, the Malaysian international student had originally applied for a reporting internship, but he had included his videos and still photographs in his application to show the range of his media skills. The newspapers senior editor for visuals, Todd Stewart, saw Lim’s work and took him into his department for the summer.

 

Lim was not scheduled to work that day, but he couldnt stay home.

 

“I didnt want to be a spectator. I wanted to be part of a team,”he said.

 

Lim called in and his supervisor asked him to come in at 3 p.m. to help with the late shift coverage. His assignment was to photograph rainbow lighting on a giant Ferris Wheel attraction, but at 6:30 p.m., there was still too much daylight. He called a reporter and heard about a vigil at a downtown club.

 

Another Sentinel photographer was there, so Lim gravitated toward the back of the room for a different angle. He saw Brett Morian there, holding candles and grieving. Lim changed to a 70-200mm lens, and saw Morian embrace another person, and made a photograph.

 

He went back to the newspaper to file and told his editor “this might be a good picture.”He then went back to the Ferris Wheel lighting.

 

Later in the evening, when he returned to the office, he caught a glance of the proof for the Sentinel’s next day front page. He gasped when he saw his photograph on the page. It would also be used as a centerpiece photograph on the front pages of USA Today, the Chicago Tribune, the Detroit Free Press, Newsday, and many others.

 

Lim is still in disbelief that his picture was published so widely. He is also uncomfortable taking credit for photographs that are born out of tragedy.

 

“This picture is not something I want to say I’m proud of because of what has happened,”he said. 

 

(photo by Roberto Gonzalez, Orlando magazine)

 

THE CITY MAGAZINE PHOTO EDITOR

 

Breaking news was the focus for the first few days following the shooting, but NPPA member Roberto Gonzalez had another focus. As a photography editor for Orlando magazine, he was looking for a larger story about the community and this never-imagined event.

 

On that Sunday he made photographs of hundreds of people standing in line in the summer heat to donate blood. On Monday he covered an evening vigil that drew more than 10,000 people to downtown Orlando.

 

The shooting at Pulse was personal for Gonzalez, like it was for the majority of Orlando journalists covering the story. He has lived in Central Florida more than 25 years, working for the Orlando Sentinel for much of that time. Gonzalez had been to Pulse on assignment, once doing a fashion shoot there for the newspaper.

 

His history in Orlando helped him during coverage because he could call on long-established contacts. During that first vigil he was able to get a rooftop angle through a city hall source that allowed him to get an iconic photograph of the candlelight vigil.

 

“You can’t get that kind of access unless you build those bridges over the years,”said Gonzalez.

 

As the week after the shooting went on, the influx of national and international media made the coverage more intense. Broadcast journalists set live sets on the blockaded Orange Avenue and photographers, both still and video, were thick at every event and location. On the Monday after the shooting, an Orlando LGBTQ activist organization had more journalists on site than they did volunteers.

 

For Gonzalez, the scale of the speed of the medias response hinted at how big the story was outside of Orlando. For him, it was personal. Many of the victims were at the club for Latin Night and Gonzalez, whose parents immigrated from Mexico, identified with the sobering impact the attack had on the Hispanic community. 

 

Orlando, however, stood strong in the spotlight. The Washington Post published an essay about the “other” Orlando that is more diverse and dynamic than the tourist town label. Counter-protesters blocked from view the infamous Westboro Baptist Church demonstrators. Journalists who had once worked in Orlando came back to cover a city they considered home. 

 

 (photo by Roberto Gonzalez, Orlando magazine) 

 

 

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