Throughout my newspaper career, I chased spot news – police action, fires, accidents, people doing a bad thing to other people. No matter when or where I had one ear to the police scanner. Most of the newspapers I worked at encouraged the practice. There's a reason why the old saying "if it bleeds it leads" is out there. At one time I had three scanners mounted in my car along with a car phone (pre-cell phone days), CB, and dock for the company's two-way radio. My cop friends would joke I had more antennas on my car than they had on theirs. It was true.
One afternoon I was sitting around in the news office when an emergency call came across the scanner for a man who fell off a retaining wall. None of the other photographers wanted to go because it didn't sound that serious. I said I was going. Nothing else was happening so if it panned out as nothing, no significant loss but a few minutes drive.
From a news perspective, it wasn't much. A man, who most likely had too much to drink, fell off a wall. What made it important was the intensity the rescuers worked to help this gentleman. As I stood on the wall from which he fell, the rescue squad below surrounded him to aid his rescue, in doing so they formed a perfect circle.
Life is full of serendipitous moments, and this was one. As I looked down thru my Leica M3 and 90mm lens, I waited for the squad to begin lifting the man to the stretcher. In that brief moment, the composition formed. From my high angle, I could see the victim's face and his hand, reaching out, touching one of his rescuers. One frame it all came together, and in a blink of the eye, gone.
In the darkroom, I did a significant amount of burning around the subjects. I wanted all the emphasis on the rescue, not on the rocks and brush where the man landed. On the original silver print, I used potassium ferricyanide to bleach the man's head bandage and face. As W. Eugene Smith once said in a Camera 35 (magazine) interview, "My prints are not dark, everything you need to see you see."
The next day the newspaper displayed the picture prominently on the front page. It wasn't because of the news value. It was a minor event. But this picture captured something greater than the sum of its parts. In that brief moment, the photo became a display of love and selfless service to humanity. Even though you can only see the victim's face, the image is more about the rescuers.
The man who fell was banged up but not seriously injured.
He made a full recovery.