John Costello began work as a photojournalist at fifteen, bicycling to his first assignment at the McKean County Miner in northwest Pennsylvania. He has been a staff photographer for five newspapers, including The Philadelphia Inquirer, where he spent twenty-five years, and where, at age fifty-six, he was downsized this past summer. This is adapted from a memo he sent around the newsroom on his last day there.
Today, after forty-some years, I will shoot two assignments and anything else that pops up, then turn in my equipment and retire from the craft that I love.
Working for newspaper readers, I’ve seen many things. I’ve been inside an active volcano above the snow line in the Andes and in the sewers beneath the streets of West Philly. I’ve witnessed seven births and more than a hundred deaths.
From a fold-down bench attached to the wall of an almost-empty Russian cargo plane, I’ve sipped coffee from a porcelain cup as we flew out of Sarajevo. As the only English speaker I helped a firefighter, a U.S. volunteer in Bosnia, struggle to do dental work on himself, guiding his pliers to a broken bridge.
In a Sudan refugee camp I was stunned to see a child react with little apparent interest as an aide worker sewed shut a golf ball-sized snakebite, using string and a pin, but no anesthesia or disinfectant. I’ve been in an operating room as doctors removed the intestines from the gut of a drug dealer, still alive, though badly shot up. The doctors pulled the intestines through their fingers, rope-like, searching for bullet holes and bullet fragments. The dealer cried, “I’m dying,” when he heard he’d been shot nine times.
I’ve roamed a lab in Princeton where Nobel Prize winners toiled and sat on a scaffold above a drug neighborhood with the paint-splattered muralist, Jane Golden, as she reveled in the power of people and art to build communities and save communities.
I’ve sat high in the Mexican mountains with cave dwellers looking down at the lights of El Paso. There, a man pointed toward the brilliant freeway and fast-food lights miles away and said he dreamed that at least once in his life, he would take his children to McDonald’s.
I’ve seen a man take off his flak jacket, kneel on it, and pray. I’ve seen a soldier read a months-old letter from a girlfriend proposing marriage. The letter included a deadline, long past.
Photography is a contact sport. I’ve been stopped on a switchback mountain checkpoint to sign a U.N. waiver acknowledging that I realized snipers were shooting up ahead and that I could be killed. Then further on, I saw the transport trucks that had rolled off the mountain when bullets struck. I’ve felt my chest tighten when I was stopped by drunken, armed men who told me to “go back,” but I refused to do so.
I’ve sensed the panic in a bread line. I’ve stood amid rioters. Bleeding profusely from a head wound (a brick to the face) and coming across the U.S./Mexico border, I was held for hours while my car was stripped. The customs officers explained that drug runners had driven up using the same M.O.—pulling up with head wounds, saying they needed to get to the hospital, all in hopes of avoiding a search.
I’ve met children who can tell you the caliber and direction of an artillery shell from its impact “paw print.” I’ve seen a hillside full of rape victims.
But I’ve spent most of my career far from war, shooting assignments around the city. Having been where people only dream of a society at peace, I came to cherish making photos of simple events—a wedding, a high school football game, a school board meeting, a society dance, all the ordinary turns in people’s lives.
I’ve found that at the world’s worst places, you’ll find killers, but the loveliest and most caring and selfless people, too.
I’ve learned that some people overseas can’t say the word “America” without grinning. The last “a” becomes an “ah” and it ends with a smile.