David DiCanio shares how God led him to use media for the Lord.
I was one of five children brought up in a Christian home in Somers Point, New Jersey. We were all taught from a very early age that our lives should be totally given to the Lord for whatever He would have us to do. I remember a poem my mother had on the wall in our kitchen; it said, “Only one life twill soon be past, only what’s done for Christ will last.” I was impressed with that poem, and I believed it was true; but I had other plans for my life.
At age 10, I was bitten, as they say, by the camera bug. My parents had an old Argus 35mm camera that was given to them by my grandfather. We really weren’t supposed to touch the camera, but curiosity got the better of me one Saturday morning while the rest of the family was still in bed. I took the camera off the shelf and began secretly experimenting by taking photos of our cat. It never occurred to me until later that the photos I had “secretly” taken would eventually show up on the prints. My parents questioned each of us kids, and when it came my turn to answer I had to admit that I had done it. I was surprised and relieved that my parents were not that upset, and from that point on I really fell in love with photography.
I got my first camera at age 12, it was a Polaroid land camera—the kind where the picture comes out the front instantly. I think I shot all the photos in one day and then saved up my money for another case of film. It was about this time that a house caught on fire in our neighborhood. Of course I had shot all my film, but I remember standing across the street watching in fascination as the firemen attacked the blaze, thinking to myself, “I wonder if there is such a profession as taking pictures of fires." It was strange that it never occurred to me that someone could have been hurt, or even that the fire was consuming someone’s home. Not that I was insensitive, but it was just that the whole scene captivated me.
I was age 13 when I got my first professional camera for Christmas-- a Pentax K1000. And while in the photo store to buy some supplies, I noticed a book on the shelf with a cover photo of a jetliner that had caught on fire as it sat on the runway. It was charred, smoking heavily, and covered in foam as several firemen were obviously trying to keep it from exploding. I picked up the book to read the title. “Photojournalism, the Professionals Approach.” I remember saying to myself, “So there is a profession where people actually do shoot pictures of tragedy.”
I bought the book and read with great interest as Boston Globe news photographer Ken Kobre described how to photograph tragedy in a way that will capture the eye of a newspaper editor. He tried to show what makes something interesting, and why certain shots are not interesting. He also discussed things about privacy and when it’s right and wrong to shoot photos.It was about 6 months later that I bought a police scanner and began to ride my bike to all the tragedies that happened in our city. I was captivated by the idea of being a photojournalist, and especially of being able to capture events of interest on film. I have to admit in shame that I didn’t always have much sympathy until much later for the people involved in those tragedies. I don’t think I was really rude, or at least I hope I wasn’t, but I was just taken by the thought of capturing history.
I’ll never forget August 1, 1982. I was 16-years-old. I was awakened at 4 am to the blaring alarm on my police scanner reporting that a car had crashed into a telephone pole about 4 miles from our home. It certainly crossed my mind that it might be dangerous to leave the house at 4 am and ride my bike through the empty streets – you couldn’t drive at 16 in New Jersey – but I ignored the fears and raced to the scene as fast as I could. I shot off nearly a whole roll of film, and headed later that day to the local newspaper, the Atlantic City Press, with great doubt that they would use one of my shots. I remember handing my roll of unprocessed film to the chief editor, Ed Hitzel (I still remember his name), practically begging him to use one of the shots. He just said, “We’ll process it and see what you’ve got.” He told me to come back later that day to pick up my negatives. I came back late afternoon and nervously entered the reporter filled newsroom. I walked up to the editor's desk with great hope, and said, “Well, Mr. Hitzel?” He looked up and said, “Oh yes,” handed me my negatives, and went back to doing what he was doing. I was crushed and said sadly, “Oh, so I guess you couldn’t use anything?” He looked up again and said, “We’re going to use it.”
Well, of course I was ecstatic! I shouted with excitement. The whole news room looked over at me. UPI photographer Donna Conner was there. She came over and said, “Well, congratulations!” I said, “Thanks! You just made my life!” She said, “Well, actually, we made your day, not your life.” “No,” I said with a huge smile, “you made my life.”
Even though it was press time and Ed Hitzel was busy with deadlines, he took some time to give me some photo advice. He said, “Well, you know, we almost didn’t use your shots because so many were under exposed. So you need to watch your exposure.” He also showed me my contact sheet and pointed to one of the photos he had circled with an orange wax pencil. “This is the photo we wanted to use” he said. “It had the best composition, but you had some damage to the film. There's a black line on that actual negative, so we had to use a less interesting shot.” He told me to be careful with my film, and then went back to work.
I left the newsroom that day determined to be a better photographer, and in the days following I showed up at Mr. Hitzel’s desk more times than he would care to remember. He rejected all my photos and hinted that he didn’t want to see me any more. To my mind he meant, “You need to do better!” It was a bit discouraging, but I felt that if I had a good shot, he couldn’t resist it. I left the newsroom determined to come back with a front page photo!
It was very shortly after that, just a few weeks later, that I heard the panicked voice of a police officer crackle over my scanner, “a tanker truck just went over the bridge into the water!” I jumped on my bicycle and raced as fast as I could the 5 miles or so to the Ocean City bridge. I was on my way before the fire department had even been dispatched. I was absolutely determined to get a good shot. When I arrived I was immediately discouraged to see that the Atlantic City Press had both a reporter and their chief photographer already on the scene. It crossed my mind to go home, but I determined that I would try to get a better photograph than their photographer. I noticed below the bridge, along the shore line, that the mayor was stepping into a police boat along with the chief of police. They were getting ready to head out to the truck that had fallen into the water--- I didn’t know it at the time but the driver was still in the cab that was submerged and stuck in the bottom of the bay. I could see that the back of the tanker was floating on the surface of the water.
I thought to myself, “This is my chance for a good shot.” I quickly ran over to the boat just as they were getting ready to leave the shore, and asked, “Can I get in and get some pictures?” The police chief kind of frowned and then I said, “I’m Vince DiCanio’s son, I’m sure you know him.” My father was a police officer about 30 miles away. He was the president of the Police Benevolence Association. Everyone knew him, and he was well liked. The mayor said, “Oh, you’re Vince’s son?” He looked over at the chief, they both shrugged their shoulders, and said, “Okay, get in! Quickly!”
I had just bought a brand new pair of shoes, and hesitated for one split second because the boat was already about five feet way. But I just decided to plunge into the knee deep water and jump into the boat. We raced out to the wreckage and I saw they were not driving the boat to the best vantage point for a good shot. So I asked if they would drive around the perimeter. They nicely agreed and I managed to get some unique shots. In my mind, one shot particularly seemed to capture the entire scene. It was a shot of the truck in the foreground with the bridge in the distance. I felt it was a good shot, and decided that this was my photo!
After getting back to shore, I raced home, cleaned up, and went straight to see Ed Hitzel again. I will never forget the expression on his face when I entered the newsroom. It was sort of like, “Not you again!” I didn’t know it but his chief photographer had already arrived back, processed his film, and they had already picked the shot for the front page of the paper. I marched right up to Mr. Hitzel’s desk and said, “I have shots of the tanker truck that went over the bridge in Somer’s Point!” He looked at me and said, “We already have our shots, and it’s too close to press time to process your film! We already know what we’re going with.” My heart sank, but I noticed on his desk that he had the front page mock-up of the paper. I saw that this story actually did make the front page. As I took a closer look I saw the photo that they had decided to use.
It was a shot exactly opposite to what I had taken. The Atlantic City Press photographer had shot a picture from the bridge out to the tanker. I didn’t think it was a very good shot. It didn’t tell the whole story. So I said to Mr. Hitzel, “That shot you are using is not very good. I have a much better one. I got into the boat with the mayor and have a shot of the tanker truck close up with the bridge in the background. You want my shot, not that one!”
He got very angry, took my roll of film, and yelled to his chief photographer, “Process this guys film!” Since he was irritated I didn’t say another word but immediately left the newsroom and decided I’d wait to see the next day’s paper.
I could hardly sleep that night. Morning finally came. I was actually a paper delivery boy for the Atlantic City Press, so I got my stack of papers at 5am. I heard the Press truck pull up, and saw the driver throw the stack of papers onto my driveway. It was dark so I quickly grabbed the bundle and ran into the house. I immediately cast my eyes upon the front page. My heart nearly stopped. There it was, the picture I had taken, smack dab on the page! "Yippee!" I think I woke up the entire family.
I continued shooting photographs over the next months and sold several more to the Atlantic City Press. Ed Hitzel was more friendly to me after that, and actually seemed glad to see me at times. But it was during this time that the Lord began to speak to me about two things. One was preying on people's tragedies, the other was that He didn’t want me to be a secular news photographer, He wanted me in the gospel ministry. The gospel ministry was not an overwhelming thought at this time, but just a nagging that wouldn’t go away. I have to say a word here about photographing tragedy. I trust I was a sensitive photographer. And not every picture I took was tragedy (See: "When the Cars Honk..."). I do think there is a place for recording tragic events. Obviously if a photographer is photographing the tragedy of terrorism, he must be sensitive, but he must capture the event so people will not forget. I also think that some of the journalism during hurricane Katrina helped to inform the nation of the tragedy. It aided in Katrina victims getting donations, and even in the eventual emergency response of the government. So there is a place for it, but photographers have to be sensitive and use discretion.
But, back to my story. I started to get more and more bothered by some shots I was taking. I started to see more of the horrors of crime and tragedy that people dealt with. That burdened me. I actually started to have more compassion for people's souls and their need of Christ as the Lord was working upon my heart about the call to the ministry. But there was still more for me to learn about photography. It was at age 16 that our family moved up toward the Philadelphia area. That part of New Jersey seemed to have more news worthy action. It was surrounded by larger suburbs. At this time I began to shoot a lot for our local paper, the Camden Courier Post. Not as their photographer, but just as a stringer, freelancing just like in Atlantic City.
The Camden Courier Post was a bigger paper. You didn’t really have access to the actual editor, but you would work with the photo editor. The photo editor was Jack Wolfer. Jack’s claim to fame was his work of putting a camera in the back of a goalie cage in ice hockey. He was the first photographer to do it. He actually ran a wire under the ice behind the cage at a Philadelphia Flyers game and controlled his mounted camera from the stands. That’s now done all the time with a remote control camera, but it was something Jack invented.
Jack always got angry with me because I was more concerned with getting a photo than getting the name of the person I photographed. Every time I would come into the paper with a photograph he would always say, in an irritated tone, “Did you get an ID!?” I think in a larger city, it was more difficult for the news editor to call the police and get information. There were so many things happening. More often than not I didn’t have an ID for my photos, or, for that matter, any information. I think I was just a dumb teenager and I didn’t feel it was important. I just kept showing up with photos and no information. I still seemed to sell photos (see picture), they always found the information, but, at the end of the day, I do think Jack Wolfer impressed me to think not just of photos, but about words-- telling the story. It’s true that a picture is worth a thousand words, but sometimes unless you have words to go along with the picture, you really don’t have a story.
It was during this time that the Lord started to very strongly convict me about the ministry. I wanted so much to be a news photographer, and yet the Lord wanted me to be a gospel minister. Finally one night, after not selling photos for some time, I felt very clearly that the Lord was speaking to me. It was not just that I failed to sell photos, but it was clear to me that I could do nothing else but be a preacher. It’s hard for me to explain. Nobody was telling me this, it was a strong impression from the Lord. It was clear to me-- I was called to be a preacher and to give my life to the gospel ministry.I finally yielded to the Lord to follow Him wherever He would take me.
I believe that I actually came to a saving knowledge of Christ at this time rather than at age 5 when I had made a profession of faith. My whole life really did change. Now, I have to say that I still shot photos. As a matter of fact, after not selling photos for quite some time, it was the very next night after yielding to the Lord that a house fire occurred not far from our home. I hesitated when I heard the police scanner raise the alarm, but I decided to head out anyway. I’m rather glad that I did, because I can always date my call to the ministry. I sold the photo, it was a lousy picture, but the editor liked it because it showed some fire in it (See: "Fire in the attic"). I gave my life to the Lord on June 10, 1983, and sold the picture the very next night.
I knew that I couldn’t get out of the ministry, but I still decided to take pictures until I went away for college to train as a Bible major. By this time I had my driver’s license, and the ease of travel increased opportunities for picture taking.
One of the last pictures I took sticks out in my mind. It was a very sad scene and it brought home the suffering that people go through when trouble comes into their lives. I probably should not have taken the photo, but I did. I need to give you a little background. I attended Faith Christian High School in Collingswood, New Jersey my junior and senior years. I was the photography editor for our yearbook. On the photography staff with me was Frank Saia, who became my best friend in high school.
Frank started coming along with me to watch me photograph fires and other events. He had eventually become so interested in what I was doing that one night he showed up to the school darkroom with a brand new camera and portable police radio in hand. Frank and I started selling pictures together, but I made him agree to let me have the first decision of where to sell my photos. He was very nice about that, I was probably very rude!
One night, as we began to start developing the film we had shot for the yearbook, the police radio sounded the alarm that there was a house fire in Camden, a nearby city, and the dispatcher added those dreaded words, “Report of people trapped!” We immediately dropped everything, grabbed our cameras, and raced to the scene. We arrived a little late but early enough to hear firemen yell the words, “We’ve got one!” I wasn’t quite sure what that meant, but we thought we should shoot pictures first and worry later. It was quite dark and hard to see, but the camera flashes lit up the scene. The firemen had found a boy on the bedroom floor and they were bringing him out to see if they could save him. He ended up dying but we didn’t know that until later. It was a pretty horrible picture. Just after that the dad arrived on the scene and panicked, and started to run into the burning house to rescue his kids. The police stopped him, and pressed him against a car windshield trying to restrain him. I lifted the camera and shot the picture of the dad – the Philadelphia Daily News bought it that night (see below).
That was one of the last photos I took. I just really began to face up to the fact that the Lord would not have me do this type of work. I still shot for a short time, but covered less tragic events.
As I headed off to college to train for the ministry, Frank continued taking pictures and became an outstanding news photographer. He ended up becoming a staff photographer for the Camden Courier Post, shooting all types of features and general news. He got access to all the sports games-- the Philadelphia Sixers, Eagles, and Flyers. He had pictures appear nationally in papers like USA Today, and magazines like Firehouse Magazine. He’s even photographed presidents. I have to admit that I was a bit jealous of Frank’s career, but the Lord changed my heart during my freshman year in college and gave me a true desire for the gospel ministry, above photography. I was happy for what the Lord had called me to do, and happy for what the Lord had called Frank to do. Frank photographed so many fires and tragedies that he made the decision one day to put away his cameras and become a fireman. He recently retired as a battalion chief with the Camden City Fire Department in Camden, New Jersey.
One of Frank's most published photos was of the One Meridian Plaza fire in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The photo appeared on the cover of Firehouse Magazine and was purchased by lawyers for a lawsuit that occurred in relation to the stand pipes being improperly set in the building, contributing to the death of three fire fighters.
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