When Taking a Photograph Becomes a Matter of Life and Death
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, CO- After a few minutes of noteworthy radio silence from the start house, I turned around and looked down the mountain to see ski patrol furiously performing CPR. I was in the middle of the Lower Bashor run, photographing the NASTAR race championships, when an elderly competitor collapsed near the end of the race, requiring serious medical attention.
NASTAR stands for National Standard Race, the amateur championships of ski racing, and this particular age group was for folks 70 and older. Far more ginger than their younger counterparts when ripping past the gates, these older ladies and gents have an admirable athletic grace for their age. Skiing is not a sport for the feint of heart, and it takes a toll on your knees, core, and leg muscles. Seeing someone in their 80s compete in such a grueling setting is admirable. Sure, the thought had crossed my mind that some of these people look a little bit old to be doing this, but all I could think was Kudos to them. I hope I’m like them at that age.
By this time, ski patrol had been circled around the man for a half hour, and it was clear that the outcome wasn’t going to be good. In sporting events if a competitor is down on the field, the first thing they’ll do is cart them off and provide medical attention away from the field of play. Sure, skiing is a bit more complicated…there’s much more equipment to deal with, it’s snowing and icy, and flailing limbs always leave you at risk for a twisted ankle or a torn ACL, injuries which must be treated with care. It's not like carting someone off a football field. But half an hour, forty-five minutes, in these conditions—that doesn’t bode well. Especially for the elderly.
There was nothing to do except sit in the snow and watch—wait, and say a prayer or two. I really had no idea what happened, I could only surmise that the situation was dire and hope that everyone was OK. When they finally cleared the fall zone, I could make out a ski patroller walking around with orange cones and a digital camera, taking photos of the area. It was at that moment that I knew what happened.
It’s a somewhat jarring experience to watch someone pass away, even if it’s from afar. I had the added burden of knowing that I likely had a photo of this man, taken just a minute or two before his death. Solace can be taken from the fact that he was doing something that he loved when his time came, something all of us can only hope happens to us. 87 years old, and competing in a ski race…one can only hope that life is lived with that much vigor the world over.
I still had another day of competition to shoot, and I was determined to photograph everyone like it’s the last shot that would ever be taken of them. Fortunately, I captured a great shot of this guy as he clicked past the gate in front of me, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes you are out of focus, off-center, or maybe you were just getting a ski-away shot of the previous competitor and you didn’t turn around in time to snap them going past your gate…
A job that I’ve enjoyed, but which always seemed slightly meaningless in the overall scheme of the world, took on renewed importance. I kneel there and take 2,000 photographs. It seems boring. It can be at times. You need to spend a good deal of your morning setting up to ensure you have the right shot—is the sun right? Is the background attractive? Will you be able to capture skier in the middle of their turn? But once you find that shot, it’s nothing but sitting there and replicating it, over and over and over and over again. It might seem repetitive, and it is.
But sometimes, it takes on an exceeding degree of importance. Whatever I’m doing, I want to take pride in it. I want to excel, even if it’s just at ski photography. I want the product I produce to be something worthy of awe, and there was no better motivation to keep doing this than to have this gentleman’s son come into our shop a few days later and be able to get a print of his father in action—doing the thing he loved most, right before he died.