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November 12, 2019

Photographer’s Notebook: From the front lines

By Robert Eliason

After initial reports of a mass shooting at the Gilroy Garlic Festival, I was assigned by the Gilroy Dispatch to go to Saint Louise Regional Hospital in Gilroy.

When I got there, there were small groups of people everywhere, huddling together. There were a few people wandering around the parking lot, looking totally lost. There were ambulances, paramedics. nurses pushing carts of water and coffee, police, security guards, a few stray cats looking for food.

I passed some ministers who were leaving the hospital. They told me about a murdered child. I talked to an ambulance driver who told me the woman he had brought in had just been airlifted elsewhere. My editors then told me of a press briefing that had been scheduled at the Gavilan College parking lot a few miles away, where people were being reunited with missing family and friends. It was like walking onto a movie set. There were television vans everywhere, video cameras on tripods, bright lighting panels, reporters talking to victims, reporters checking in to their home stations, other reporters just standing there.

I listened to a few of the witnesses talking about the tragedy. There was a vivid sense that even they could not believe this had happened, like they were recounting something they had seen on television. I heard angry, frightened people.

Everything was surreal. I’m “press” but I am not really press. I am the guy who goes out to high school football games and little league. To fun runs and carnivals. I shoot portraits of colorful characters and local business people. You will see me at dog shows and rodeos. The Garlic Festival? Shot it six times so far. There is nothing globally earthshaking about what I cover, but it all comes from the heart. Just doing my best to create a record of the daily life of four or five small towns and give people some memories to share.

But here I am, fighting for a little space to shoot some pictures of a press conference. I am standing next to the CNN guy. I get to tell a Fox guy that no, I won’t move so he can put his tripod where I am standing. I get sneered at because I’m local press, not the real thing.

And I tell that guy and anyone else who will listen that this is my town. That I know people who were out there. That students I have followed on the field who had volunteered to work the festival had ended up running for their lives. That one friend was standing right next to the shooter. That one friend had bullets hit the wall right behind her. That one student I had just photographed for a feature risked his life to help two girls escape. That tomorrow they are going to move on to some other thing but I was going to be there in town, covering the memorials and the vigils and the grief. And that I was going to be there to see how these people coped and recovered as they tried to make sense of what they had lived through.

The one athlete told me that he just wanted to make sure the girls were safe. One friend talked about seeing children and seniors crying and being thankful that she only had a hurt leg from falling. Through all this people were texting me to see if I was OK.

But, of course, I was not OK. I was a bit player in a drama bigger than anyone there. I was absorbing pain and grief from everyone around me. I was trying to make the scene real—not something out of a typical newscast. I felt the darkness of the night like I never had before.

Tomorrow, nothing is going to happen to stop this kind of thing from happening again. I could almost feel those thoughts and prayers sailing by, ineffective as always.

Robert Eliason is a freelance photographer who shoots frequently for the Morgan Hill Times.

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