It’s hard to think of anyone more “Boston” than John Tlumacki, though he doesn’t have an impossibly thick accent or use the stereotypical “wicked” modifier. Growing up 20 miles north of the city, he attended Boston University to pursue journalism. He got his start in the field as his high school’s yearbook photographer, and even had a stint as a campaign photographer for U.S. Sen. Edward Brooke of Massachusetts. Indeed, his Boston bonafides check out. A Boston Globe photographer since 1981, he was at the Boston Marathon finish line in April 2013 on a routine assignment to photograph the iconic race. The day was anything but routine. By the end of it, he’d have witnessed the explosions that killed three people, and jumped into action taking pictures. One in particular you’ve most likely seen: A white-haired runner, Bill Iffrig, has fallen to the ground, shaken at the finish line by the explosion. Iffrig is surrounded by police officers with guns drawn. It became the visual symbol of the bombing and the immediate aftermath, and made Tlumacki and his subjects into sought-after interviews for TV news. It has also earned Tlumacki accolades — which have taken him a year to reconcile with his feelings about the bombing — including being a Pulitzer Prize finalist and winning this year’s Sigma Delta Chi Award from SPJ for breaking news photography.
What was it like having taken what was for a time arguably the most viewed picture in the world after the bombing?
It’s interesting to put it that way. It thrust me into a position that I was never used to. I was always a private person. I’m not on Facebook or Twitter. I never wanted to be in the limelight. That photo kind of put me on the other side of the camera. That night I did a CNN interview, and Polish television, and back to CNN the next day. That photograph kind of summed up what happened in Boston that day without being too gory. It’s all in one photo. And it also showed a bit about the photographer.
Can you reflect a bit on that day at the finish line, what was going through your mind as you were taking photographs? Did you have an instinct of “I may be in harm’s way,” or “just do your job”? Anything else?
I just reacted by running forward. I didn’t hesitate at first. I just started clicking. Someone told me it’s the same thing that soldiers in combat experience, where it’s fight or flight and you have that instinct to run forward. As I was seeing it through the camera, a Boston police officer said, “You shouldn’t be here, there could be another bomb going off.” I didn’t dwell on that, I didn’t want that to take over. I went into that mode of “I’m a journalist, I need to keep shooting.”
You wrote about going back to the finish line a year later for the memorial service. What kinds of emotions did that stir for you?
Anybody who says they aren’t affected would be lying. It took me a long time to go back to Boylston Street in my car. I avoided it. Then I sucked it up and said it’s the one-year anniversary, I need to be there. It was my assignment for the day. I wanted to walk back to the scene of the first bomb. I had a vision of where I was that day and could see the people as I photographed them. It’s almost a map that’s in my head, and I knew where everybody was. In a way it felt like closure and that I didn’t need to worry. I felt that compassion from a lot of people that day. I felt part of the city.
You’ve also stayed in contact with some of the people you photographed. Is that normal for you, or was the Boston bombing different in some way?
This was so different. In the past when I’ve done longer stories or followed a family, I’ve had connections, but not like this. I needed to reach out. I had the guilt of that I left people there and not knowing how they were. I had to do something to give back. I wanted to know where they were. CNN was doing a story on my photographs, and they got a hold of Sydney’s (one of the victims) phone number, and I reached out. And from that day on we’ve been friends.
Have you ever considered getting out of photojournalism at any point for perhaps more stable or lucrative gigs as a portrait or wedding photographer?
Yeah, I mean I’ve had those thoughts. And I’ve photographed weddings. But you feel like you want to help (by talking to journalism students), and the days that I go to work and you say that you have a stupid assignment, like a press conference, you have to get through that. You know there’s going to be bad days, and you know that there’s great days. The day that you wake up and you say you can’t do it anymore is the day you don’t.
Any photographer heroes you looked up to or whose work inspired you?
I always used to get Life magazine and National Geographic, and I used to deliver the paper (as a kid) and would look at the pictures. That inspired me. I was always amazed by war photography. I was like, how could a photographer go into a war zone, without a gun, and come back with these images? There are historical photos that stand the test of time, and I hope my photos do.
The Chicago Sun-Times and other news outlets have made waves in the recent past for relying less on full-time photojournalists and more on training writers/reporters on digital photography, particularly with smartphones. How do you convince people that what you do is still necessary in such a digital-now, Instagram age?
I think the proof is in the paper and what we published. I think of photojournalists like a self contained unit. You can communicate through your photography, just like you can communicate through your words. And obviously you can do both, but if what you do best is you’re a photographer, there’s a need for your outlet to have photographers. The talent it takes to take a photograph is not something you can learn overnight. Certainly there are lucky ones (whose photos go viral but they aren’t photographers), but on the day of the bombing, people were running away. The true photographers were documenting.
There’s this constant “debate,” if that’s the right word, about photographers (and journalists in general) being passive observers or intervening when necessary. You’ve obviously had to deal with that, not just with the marathon coverage, but in many situations. How do you square that interaction of journalist versus being a compassionate human?
It think it’s different in every situation. It’s old school thought in journalism school that you should distance your emotions. I don’t think that can happen anymore. I don’t think you can be a photojournalist and not be emotionally involved at some point. We’re doing a story about heroin and meth. One girl has been an addict since high school. She brought me to a cemetery where her friend was buried. And she was crying. I hugged her and told her it was OK and that I knew the hardship.
It’s not like I’m crossing the line. I want people to feel comfortable, that I’m going to be someone who can understand you.
A lot of people have become interested in photography because of the availability of quick editing and sharing apps, like Instagram. I wonder if you think it’s a good or bad thing (or something else) for making people think photography is just about clicking a button and adding a filter.
It’s sort of like doing surgery at home by yourself. Years ago when there was no automatic focus, and everyone had 35 mm cameras, people realized it wasn’t that easy. Since the advent of digital photography, it’s the same in terms of quality, and also in terms of dignity.
Imagine if I had taken photos of the marathon with my iPhone. I think it cheapens it. Anyone can take a picture with their iPhone and put it on Facebook. Does that make them a journalist? No. With the Sun-Times, I think that’s the biggest mistake that they’ve made. They’ve robbed people of storytelling images. That’s why when you go out on assignment, you have a reporter and a photographer.
For those coming up through the ranks as students or young professionals, who have an interest in visual journalism, what advice do you have?
When you go to college now it’s an investment in your parents’ money. You better go 100 percent, full force into what you want to do. Early on in high school is a point of commitment you need to have. I just spoke to 500 high school students about photojournalism. There was not a person falling asleep. I told them they have to make that commitment now. You have to understand your equipment, you have to know how to tell a story with your camera, and the more chances you take, you’re going to excel above others.