Picture This

Notes from a life behind the lens

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.

I’ve slept under a long concussion of artillery fire, only to jump awake when it stopped. I have watched Jews and Muslims dash through a lit doorway in view of Catholic snipers to attend Christmas Midnight Mass because, they said, this is what a cosmopolitan and tolerant people do.

I’ve walked down a dirt road with reporter Martin Kasindorf, who wrote as he walked and conducted three interviews in two languages simultaneously. It was nothing, he told me. But it was something.

I’ve sipped warm beer in Northern Ireland with reporter Mike Leary, seen Jeff Fleischman start each day by sharpening his pencils, and counted the new sniper-bullet holes above Barbara Demick’s Sarajevo writing table.

I’ve been under a single hanging light bulb as reporter Craig McCoy peeled away street talk and posturing till the room was filled with eloquence and understanding. I watched staff writer Mike Ruane turn a mob into confidants. I’ve been to Graceland.

I’ve eaten too many beets, drank too much coffee, and downed too much beer. The butterfly-cut steak in Colombia, in the place where everybody else showed up on horses and the cook chopped and served with a pair of machetes—well, that was the best. The women in Bosnia who reached into the fire to barehand a steaming coffeepot—they were impressive.

The waiters in the Sarajevo Holiday Inn closed the drapes when the guests notice the illuminated sniper rounds. The shooting was on and off all morning. I stood in a blown-out storefront. An old man was shuffling head-down across an open area. Glancing up, he saw me and changed his angle to head my way. He arrived in one piece, and stood there, his head still down, wobbling on his cane. His accent was deep, his panting loud, and he said something. He was off on his way before I could process what I had heard, but then it came to me. “We are not animals in a zoo,” he had said.

I’ve seen people strip a washing machine to build a water-powered electric generator—a generator whose sole function was to power a car’s dome light, the only illumination in a home.

I’ve had a .45 automatic shoved in my ear. A soldier in Mexico ripped my shirt open with his gunsight, filed to a razor’s edge. I’ve been hit with rifle butts, pipes, and a lot of other things.

I’ve seen wavy lights make their way across the night sky toward me, followed by a brilliant flash and a concussion . . . that’s a missile strike.

I’ve mixed chemicals with the water in a toilet and processed film over a camp stove. I’ve seen an armed man picking breadcrumbs from the floor of a plane to eat. I’ve spent $100 for a gallon of gas.

I’ve seen all kinds of money and machines in hospitals, but nobody was really cured until somebody reached out and touched the patient. Perhaps that’s true for everything in this world.

Kids at a birthday party during war: Inside a darkened room, they brought the simplest thing wrapped in scraps of paper, and each took turns singing and playing the guitar. There was not a thing to eat. They were so happy together, laughing. I saw a woman savor a tiny scoop of ice cream for what seemed like hours, just touching the tip of her tongue to the vanilla, slowly consuming a scoop just the size of a quarter. This is how it is when people are under siege.

I’ve met Rosa Parks, photographed all the presidents since Gerald Ford, and line-danced the Cotton-Eyed Joe with Walter Cronkite. As for winning first place in the World Press Awards, that was for me, and I loved it.

I’ve needed to be better than I am.

It has been a privilege everyday to work for the readers of newspapers. I regret, greatly regret, that more people don’t respond to newspapers.

Despite it all, I’ve learned that the world is very safe. The world is a safe and lovely place, and lovely people abound.

There’s much that I’m forgetting. I haven’t captured it all correctly. I know an editor could fix this. But it’s time to go shoot. A deadline is a deadline, and it looks like this is it.

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John Costello has been a staff photographer for five newspapers, including The Philadelphia Inquirer, where he spent twenty-five years.