Home Edizioneed. 5 “Fire Escape Collapse” – Stanley Forman

“Fire Escape Collapse” – Stanley Forman

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The dilemma between the right to report and moral principles

Written by Luca De Nardo

A dramatic sequence, images freezed forever in order to witness life before death and analyze moments in a pressing and heartbreaking flux. We are talking about “Fire Escape Collapse”, a series of pictures that tell and witness the tragedy that disintegrate the hope of life over death.   

Why are we analyzing these pictures instead of dealing with topics that caress us with the desire for beauty and lightness?
Because it is a transversal, oblique, all-encompassing theme, pervasive to everything that concerns the world of images and, consequently, information; whether it is Glamour or Portrait Photography, Nude, Reportage, Street Photography … whatever the genre.
How far can an image, that encloses a story, go regardless of its content? What are the limits beyond which the right to information, truth, reality, forms of expression and derived rights can and must be told?

Let’s go back to “Fire Escape Collapse” by Stanley Forman, because, beyond the fact that he’s a photographic icon representing also a moral doubt, he’s most of all a milestone, a turning point in recent contemporary history; that is the demonstration of the poignant power of photography. It was 1975.

Stanley Forman (at the time he was working as photographer for the Boston Herald and known for his professional skills) went to the place where a tragedy was taking place: a building was burning and the firefighters were trying to bring to safety its inhabitants.

Stanley, trying to witness the heroic work of the firemen, found himself incredulously witnessing a tragedy within a tragedy.

Stanley will recount the sequence of events as follows.

At the end of the day I was about to leave the offices of the Boston Herald when a call came in informing us of a fire in a Victorian building in one of the oldest parts of the city, on Marlborough Street.

When I arrived at the place, I saw a fire brigade ladder truck climbing up to the top floor of the burning building because there were people trapped there.  When I looked up I noticed a woman and a child (Diana Bryant and Tiare Jones, aged 19 and 2) on the fire escape trying to save themselves from the heat of the fire behind them.
In the meantime, a firefighter named Bob O’Neil had climbed down from the roof to reach and rescue the two waiting on the fire escape and bring them to safety via the fire brigade’s escalator . It was at that moment that I chose the best position to photograph what I thought would be an impending routine rescue at 50 feet. Bob O’Neill had just asked Diana Bryant to hand him the baby when suddenly the building’s fire escape collapsed.

Without realising it, I found myself taking rapid-series of pictures with my camera equipped with a motor-driven drag (it was set at 3 frames per second) while Diana and Tiare fell into the void. Then I turned on the other side. I realised what was happening and I didn’t want to see them fall to the ground. I still remember turning around and shaking.

Their fall stopped behind a fence where the bins were. When I turned around I could no longer see them, but I saw the fireman, Bob, who had saved himself by clinging to the firemen’s escalator with one arm like a monkey, who had failed in the challenge, stunned. Tiare was safe, Diana died late at night. Tiare was saved because she fell onto Diana’s body, who cushioned her fall. 

These are the anguished words of Stanley, recalling the event and telling us the dynamics of the photographic testimony.

For the sake of historical accuracy, ‘Fire Escape Collapse’ is actually a long series of photos. A dramatic ‘reel’ of stills, single keyframes where each shot explodes in its painful desire for the victory of life over death, losing. This is the reality, these are the facts and they leave no room for interpretation.
Irrefutable chronicle, harrowing truth, distressing account where photography, far from its elementary essence as an artistic, oneiric, figurative language, becomes a sharp blade and enters the heart of the spectator with its indisputable axiom.

Beyond the facts, ‘Fire Escape Collapse’, as indeed also other iconic images in the history of photography, such as ‘Napalm Girl’ (insert link in online version), opens up a world of questions, doubts, queries, issues still unanswered today. How far you can go?What is the point of no return beyond which one must not go?  What is the Trade Off between informing, representing, telling on the one hand, and omitting, keeping silent, deciding the ‘omissis’ to respect human dignity, tragedy, pain, on the other?

I think it is a purely moral question that is in the hands of the person who took the shot. To decide whether to make it public or to destroy the cellulose or the binary code of that shot that has or has not passed the point of no return.

Let us conclude by reminding you that when the main picture was published the next day on the front page (and the others on the third page) in the Boston Herald, there was a sharp public reaction. As you can imagine, the photograph was quickly spread around the world, but the media was accused of seeking sensationalism and trampling on Diana’s privacy and dignity.

Despite the controversy sparked and the moral questions raised, one of Stanley Forman’s photographs won the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for ‘Spot News Photography’ and was also nominated for ‘The World Press Photo of The Year’.

A curiosity: it is said that, thanks to the outcry of Stanley’s tragic report, the city of Boston, and later many others in the United States, decided to revise fire safety laws.

Technical note.
The photos taken by Stanley were taken with a Nikon F equipped with a Nikkor-S 50mm f1.4 Nippon Kogaku (manufactured 1968-1971) and drag motor.

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