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Erik Eisele: Through another lens

What is news?
What makes a story, a quote, a photo worth printing? There has been a lot of discussion on that topic in The Conway Daily Sun office this week, stemming from our decision to put an injured moose on the cover of Tuesday's paper.
The moose, which had been struck by a passing vehicle, lay next to the brick sidewalks of North Conway Village, its hind legs in disarray. A fire engine idles in the background, captured in soft focus as it blocks traffic.
The photo captured a heartbreaking moment. It is, without a doubt, uncomfortable to look at. And the caption does nothing to ease that discomfort: "The occupants of the car were not injured, but the moose was euthanized by a Conway police officer at the scene."
The photo ran in full color on the front page, prompting many responses on Facebook as well as through letters. Readers called the photo unnecessary, tasteless and disgusting. They expressed disappointment and frustration with the Sun for choosing to publishing it, particularly considering there was a festival dedicated to kindness the same day.
The photo struck a nerve, which, considering the content, is understandable. So is the criticism. I am not writing to defend our decision to print the photo — I have no idea if printing it was right or wrong — but I would like to explain why I believe that picture is one of the most beautiful, powerful, extraordinary photos to grace the cover of the Sun in the three years I've worked here.
I didn't start out feeling that way. I came into work Tuesday without having seen the picture, and when I first looked at it I, like many readers, was uncomfortable. What was the value of this? I thought. Was this really necessary for the first paper to hit newsstands following the Be Kind Festival?
I am, of course, intimately familiar with a host of journalistic reasons to run the photo — anything closing Main Street will always be news, as is a moose in the downtown (face it, we're a small town) — but that isn't where my thoughts went when I first saw it. My first thought was, "Why?"
Most readers, it seems, shared my reaction. Unlike most readers, however, I work next to the man who shot the photo, Conway Daily Sun photo editor Jamie Gemmiti. When the question popped into my head, I had someone right there to ask, and his answers turned what had seemed a photo full of ugliness into a moment of immense beauty.
Jamie heard about the moose over the police scanner. At that point it was walking around the village, causing a scene, but otherwise alive and healthy. Jamie grabbed his camera and hopped into the car, excited to capture a shot of this beautiful, majestic animal as it lumbered its way through downtown North Conway.
It was on his drive to the scene that the assignment suddenly changed, Jamie said. He heard over the scanner that the moose was hit, and instantly his heart sank. Instead of a breathtaking shot of nature's intersection with modern life, this was going to be akin to shooting a funeral.
I have a hard time imagining what I would have done in that moment. I might have stopped the car. I might have turned around. I might have decided I didn't want to see what was about to happen. But it wasn't me in that car, it was Jamie. He took a deep breath, and kept driving. That's how documenting life works — you record what transpires, without judgement. He has years of experience, so that's what he did.
Jamie cried when he saw the moose, he told me. He cried more as the Conway officer pulled the trigger. And through it all he kept taking pictures, kept capturing the moment. The power of what was unfolding in front of him was not lost on him, he said, even as he peered through his lens.
After it was all over Jamie went up to the police officer to thank him. That officer had taken on the ultimate responsibility, Jamie said, a task no one wanted, and selflessly released the moose from its suffering. He took on that burden without malice or greed, and he acted out of compassion and love. There was immense beauty in that moment, Jamie said, as well as tremendous weight.
Saturday was part of the Be Kind Festival, and Jamie was there throughout. He spent the weekend peering through his Nikon, shooting photos of butterflies and concerts, free hugs and smiles. Through it all, however, he saw nothing that exemplified uncompromising selflessness on a scale comparable to what that Conway police officer offered to that injured moose. That moment, Jamie said, was the most pure embodiment of kindness he could imagine. He was just thankful he had the strength not to turn his camera away.
That is what Jamie sees when he looks at that photo, and now that's what I see too. Instead of ugliness, I see a man willing to accept a great burden to free a fellow creature from fear and suffering. I think of the responsibility the officer assumed as he pulling the trigger, and I am overwhelmed by his selflessness.
I look at that photo now and see beauty, grace, kindness and compassion. I see the very consciousness the Be Kind Festival was created to nurture.
I didn't see that beauty on my own, however. I needed someone to show me.
First I needed to ask, "Why?"

Erik Eisele is news editor for The Conway Daily Sun.

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