Having a Heart, in the Heart of a Storm


Tuscaloosa News photojournalist Dusty Compton captured Wednesday’s tornado from a quarter-mile away

On Wednesday afternoon, a massive tornado swept through Tuscaloosa, Alabama, killing more than 200 people in the south. As tornado grew closer, Tuscaloosa News’ Executive Editor Doug Ray asked photojournalist Dusty Compton and fellow photographer Michelle Carter to get whatever photos they could.

Compton, Carter and online staffer Cory Pennington drove to the highest point in Tuscaloosa and listened to the radio and the scanners to see where the tornado was headed. They drove farther west to a parking lot in front of a strip mall in order to get closer to the tornado.

Compton, Carter and Pennington drove up to the curb in front of a shoe store where a bunch of scared hid. The three journalists told the people in the store to take cover at the back of the store where there were fewer windows.

In a Poynter article by Mallary Jean Tenore, Compton states, “There were so many things going through my head at the time. Should I be getting these people to the back of the store? Should I be taking photographs and reporting the news? Should I be calling my family?”

As the tornado approached the three of them, Compton and Carter began taking pictures while Pennington took video of the tornado. Compton would not have imagined that his photo of the massive tornado would land on the front page of The New York Times, USA Today and dozens of other newspapers around the country.

When Compton went to photograph the aftermath of the tornado, he was conflicted as to whether he should be taking photos or “lifting up boards.” At one point, while Compton was taking photos of a destroyed house, he saw two people calling out a woman’s name. The people said that they were looking for a friend who had been in the house that Compton was photographing. Compton states, ““I put my camera over my shoulder and started calling for this lady’s name. We didn’t find her there.””

I understand the internal conflict Compton faced when it came to either taking photograph or intervening. Many photojournalists have been scorned for their photos because sometimes the public wants to know why they were taking photos and not helping or intervening.

One situation that stands out is Kevin Carter’s winning photo, which shows a heart-breaking scene of a starving child collapsed on the ground, struggling to get to a food center during a famine in the Sudan in 1993. However, what makes this photo controversial is the vulture that lingers in the background–stalking the emaciated child.

I think Compton did the right thing. I think Compton should have taken pictures and give advice to stranded people near him in order to keep them somewhat safe. I think Compton did the right thing when it came to shouldering the camera while he helped call out for the missing woman.