A Day in the Life

By Jon Hillenbrand In Photography

Recently, the town I live in held a small photo contest on facebook.  They asked local photographers to shoot “A Day in the Life of Evanston”.  I thought this could be a good idea if people participated.  So I put the date into my calendar and set myself up to take some shots.  During the week prior to the magic date, I thought of several ideas that would say, “Evanston,” but which would also showcase a certain time of day or be cool to look at.  I considered setting up a camera in the middle of the main street and doing a kind of photo mosaic, dividing the image into 12 strips and putting a different time of day in each strip.  This would take 12 hours plus editing.  Scratch that.  Then I considered shooting the Evanston lighthouse, but I thought that was too predictable.  Everyone is going to shoot that.  So I considered driving around and looking for something to document like a childbirth, a fire, a wedding, who knows.  Maybe I could spend the day in the Emergency Room of Evanston Hospital.

As the day went on, I figured no one would shoot the lighthouse after all because it’s too predictable!  It would also be a popular choice among the people running the contest because the lighthouse is the symbol of the town.  OK, cool.  So how to shoot the lighthouse so that it’s not the standard shot that was on the parking permits.  Oh, I know!  I’ll shoot it just after dark when the sky is cobalt blue but too dark to see as blue unless you do a time-lapse shot.  I had a few hours to kill so I watched The Bang Bang Club.  This is the story of four combat photographers who were capturing the fighting and effects of war in South Africa just before and after the fall of apartheid.  These were very violent times and two of the photographers in this club won Pulitzers for their photographs of the extreme violence and famine there.  But the movie also tells how each of these men were separately affected by the violence and their own role as documentarian in the face of what to do as a human being in a life or death situation.  It shows the personal struggle each of them encountered as thinking and feeling artists trying to inform the world visually as to what was going on.  My own career has not been focused on the exploitation of violence or combat but I’ve always flirted with that as an exciting and important move.  Once people start paying you for your images, what you photograph takes a front seat to “what makes money”.  I took a lot of documentary film production classes in college and I still remember the lessons well.  So I realize that the role of the documentarian isn’t an exclusive or transparent one.  Through the very act of observation, you change that which you study.  I also know, or think I know, what it means to be a modern photojournalist and unfortunately a lot of the important imagery is going underappreciated and flat ignored by the desensitization of the West (and the world).  We’ve frankly been so overexposed to ultraviolence that the prize-winning shots aren’t making a dent on most peoples’ psyche.  Do we continue to fight the good fight and show the world the reality behind war?  Do we stop covering it because people don’t care?  Are we simply making art at the expense of others?

After the movie was over, I threw my equipment into the back and got into the car about 10 or 15 minutes after sunset.  I started driving.  It was becoming a very dark night and the headlights of the other drivers were glaring into my eyes.  I figured I’d drive just past work, make a right and it would take me straight to the lighthouse.  But as I approached the dip that goes under the train bridge, there seemed to be an accident up ahead.  The cops blocked off the road in front of me.  Another cop blocked off the road behind me.  There were people running around the front of a stopped minivan just on my side of the intersection about four cars ahead.  As the police started to clear our cars from the intersection, I knew I’d be driving right past the accident.  I considered double parking and photographing whatever it was as this was my chance to cover something that was definitely happening on this “Day in the life of Evanston”.  The stars were aligning, so to speak, with me carrying quite a lot of camera equipment in the trunk and looking for something to shoot right then and there, I could see the shot ideas forming in my head.  The cops near the front of the minivan had blue-white flashlights which would light the scene beautifully and contrast with the orange sodium lights under the bridge.

From my driver’s seat, I could see that the accident wasn’t between two cars.  Rather someone was down on the ground, having been hit by the minivan.  This was more serious than I had thought.  I continued forward in the caravan as we left the intersection and I drove to within 10 feet of the body.  People weren’t running anymore.  No one was around her.  Her eyes were locked unblinking on the stars.  A splash of black blood had flowed from her mouth where it remained.  The rotating red and blue lights traced the outline of her body and her surprised face.  She was alone.

I drove to the lighthouse and completed my photo shoot.  I lay on the ground steadying my hands and arms against my face and chest, breathing slower to a standstill and clicking off the one and two second handheld shots.  Afterward, I watched the long beam of the lighthouse extend out and blend with the darkness of Lake Michigan. 

I thought any time you want to extend the human experience into a new and rewarding area, it is a risk however you do it. Some people join the coast guard to jump out of helicopters into the ocean at night so they can save lives and so that others can benefit from their experience, knowledge and training. It is the same whenever you take that leap from the status quo and try to find a great photo, a new job or love. My sister has been going through a divorce for the past four years. It is something that will scare anyone away from ever getting into a serious relationship. Often I’ve said to myself that it is better to just play it safe and stay alone. But loneliness is self-destructive and great joy can be found in the eyes and lips and soul of another. Unfortunately, that kind of reward only comes after really knowing someone and risking embarrassment and rejection. I guess all we can do is find someone you think you can trust and put your trust in that person. Will that seed grow into something wonderful and lifelong? No one knows. I suppose it is a decision made every day by both people in the relationship. Every day you decide that this is the person I want to be with. Hopefully those decisions are only difficult at a very small number of times like at the beginning, at vows, after a challenge, and every other day is a promise kept to each other and to yourself to be true to your ideals, to the teachings you were raised with, so that when you look up to your reflection you can smile with sunshine in your heart, sunshine that grows that seed of trust into a tree of life.

For some, life is short.  At the end, hopefully you have a view of the beautiful post-sunset star-speckeled sky so you can stop for your last moment and wonder what it was all about.

1 Comment
  1. Nadia November 23, 2011

    Beautiful shot! I love that the colors are so rich and vibrant!


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