By Donald R. Winslow
© 2007 News Photographer magazine
BLACKSBURG, VA – Alan Kim, a part-time photographer for The Roanoke Times, shot several news photographs yesterday at the mass shooting at Virginia Tech that today cover front pages of newspapers around the world. It was a strange experience for the veteran 52-year-old photojournalist, who graduated with a business degree from Virginia Tech, to be shooting the unfolding aftermath of the tragedy on the campus that he still knows by heart from his undergraduate days.
The massacre of at least 30 people locked inside a Virginia Tech building is the deadliest shooting rampage in modern American history. Today police identified the gunman as Cho Seung-Hui, 23, a Virginia Tech senior from South Korea.
Kim told News Photographer magazine today that he wouldn’t have been where he was to make those pictures had it not been for “an alert editor who called me in the morning, shortly after I sent my boys off to school.” Kim stays home part time and works part time, based out of the newspaper’s New River Valley Bureau in Blacksburg, where he’s lived with his wife and three sons for some years. Kim was born in Baltimore, MD, and spent 13 years of his childhood in Korea. He can remember the day he got his first camera, at the age of 12, and his father – who was born in Korea – warning him, “Don’t try to earn a living with this.” Kim has been an NPPA member since 1991.
Yesterday morning Shay Barnhart, one of the assistant news editors at the New River Valley bureau, called Kim about the shooting. “I just got the boys to school. Andrew (11) is in the fifth grade ... The older ones kind of knew what was going on. David (9, in the third grade) and Alex (6, in the first grade) were in a lockdown at their elementary school. They were told it was because of the high winds. We had very high winds in the area at the time, and stuff was getting knocked down.”
After the editor called, Kim was on the campus and roaming the grounds shortly before the second shooting was about to unfold, around 9 a.m.. “I was only one of six or more Roanoke Times staff shooters covering the tragedy throughout the day and night,” Kim said. “My part in all of this was perhaps about three hours of confusion, and getting whipped by the winds, and processing and transmitting the pictures. I’m guessing I got there around 9:30 a.m. and left before 11. From home, the first picture was transmitted to our main office by around 11:30 a.m. and then eight more by around noon.”
Kim said he was relying on instinct when he grabbed “an aging 500mm f4 manual-focus Nikon lens, and made sure I had a tripod in the car. The wind was howling and I knew it was going to be difficult to get close to anything. Parking on campus is really tight. Fortunately I remembered a good parking spot.
“Then I kind of knew what to expect,” Kim said today. “I knew there would be hundreds of law enforcement officers and total chaos. I walked around for a while and decided I just needed to go ahead and set up the lens. I ended up across the Drill Field, on the other side of campus, but with an unobstructed view of Norris Hall, I’m guessing about 200 yards away. I ended up staying there pretty much for the duration, then decided to leave while still not really knowing what was going on; I decided to go home and send photos. I was on that spot probably less than an hour.”
When he started shooting, Kim says he didn’t have a clear idea what was going on or how extensive the disaster was, even as police and rescue workers were carrying injured people out of the building. “It wasn’t until several hours later that the scope of the tragedy was revealed,” he said.
Kim says his cell phone service “took a dive during the event, and they had a tough time trying to figure out where I was or what I was up to. One of the editors was finally able to reach me on my landline at home, as I was getting ready to work on the first pictures.”
His photographs were sent to the Associated Press from the newspaper’s main office as soon as his editors received them. “Within minutes they were showing up everywhere, on the Internet and on television news. I got a call this morning from London, from a friend who lives in Brussels; he told me the image of folks getting carried out of the building was on just about every newspaper in the stands.”
Today Kim told News Photographer magazine, “I really owe this to my wife, Susan Chung, for making it possible. Several years ago I had a chance to switch places with her, to stay at home and raise the kids while she worked.” Chung, a physical therapist at a hospital in Radford, VA, is also a first-generation American whose parents were born in Korea. “I left the business in 1999 after 10 years; I kind of walked away from it for the opportunity to stay home with the boys. Then after five years I came back to the paper, they took me back when they needed some help. I’ve always been a ‘bureau rat’ and lived and worked around here, so yesterday I kind of knew what to expect.”
Kim said that last night, after things began to “calm down” and he got his younger sons to bed, he took the older boy, Andrew, aside and showed him his photographs from the day and talked to him about it. “He’s old enough to kind of understand what’s going on. And he knows his dad’s pictures are in papers and on TV all over the world. But it was mostly luck, too. I could have been somewhere else. I knew what to do, but I also knew what not to do. There’s a picture of some guy handcuffed, I think he was trying to take pictures. I think he was released later. But having been around here for some time, it paid off.”