World Press Photo win is ‘bittersweet’, says John Tlumacki of his Boston Marathon bombing image

Boston Globe photographer John Tlumacki wins second prize in the Spot News (singles category) at World Press Photo

Gemma Padley 14 February 2014

Marathon TerrorTWO TERRORIST BOMBS EXPLODED AT THE BOSTON MARATHON KILLING THREE PEOPLE AND IJURING AN ESTIMATED 264 PEOPLE. THE FIRST BOMB EXPLODED LESS THAN 50 FEET FROM THE FINISH LINE ON BOYLSTON STREET IN A CROWD OF SPECTATORS. FIRST RESPONDERS ACTED QUICKLY TO HELP THE INJURED, SOME USED T-SHIRTS TO WRAP AROUND LEGS TO STOP THE BLEEDING. IT WAS UNCERTAIN AT THE MOMENT WHETHER ANOTHER BOMB WOULD EXPLODE NEAR THE FINISH LINE. IN A CRUEL TWIST OF IRONY, THE IJURED WERE RACED ACROSS THE FINISH LINE WHERE MINUTES BEFORE JUBILANT RUNNERS HAD CROSSED.

Boston Marathon Bombing. Carlos Arredondo (left) climbs over the barricades on Boylston Street to get to the injured on the sidewalk at the site of the first bombing near the finish line at the Boston Marathon. Image © John Tlumacki for The Boston Globe

“It was a dark day for Boston,” says American photographer John Tlumacki of the bomb that exploded during last year’s Boston Marathon. “To win an award for an image of such a horrific event is bittersweet. I feel proud that I’m able to show what happened, but I feel a certain sadness every time I look at the image. Something was taken from Boston  that day.”

The American photographer won second prize in the Spot News (singles) category for his image taken at last year’s Boston Marathon. His winning image shows a man climbing over the barricades to get to the injured, and was taken moments after the first bomb exploded in the city on 15 April.

“The man’s first reaction was to jump over the fence and to help someone else,” Tlumacki tells BJP over the phone. “It says a lot about the spirit of an individual.”  

Tlumacki, a staff photographer at The Boston Globe for more than 30 years, was standing at the finish line when the first bomb went off. “It was difficult to get to the victims at first. A minute after I took this photo, an opening on the sidewalk meant I could get through. I kept taking photos.”

Tlumacki describes the chaos that ensued. “It was confusion – there was so much smoke and you couldn’t see the pavement. At first I thought it was an accident, but what I saw was the worst thing I’ve ever seen in my life. I saw five or six smoldering people with their legs blown off – one woman died right in front of me. It wasn’t Hollywood, it was real life, but through all that you have to keep taking pictures. It was my responsibilty to record what was happening. A police officer came up to me and said that another bomb could go off, and another officer asked me to shoot with dignity, but they let me stay.”

Of the experience, Tlumacki says that while it will remain with him forever, it has strengthened his resolve to continue working as a photojournalist. “It has reaffirmed my commitment to my profession. On that day, I ran forward. I didn’t run backwards, and I wasn’t afraid. As photojournalists we’re on the frontlines and take the emotional hits. The image will live in my head forever, but you have to deal with that.

“There were so many great photographs taken in 2013, including some really beautiful images of terrible things. I can’t say that about mine, but it’s a photo that is compelling and horrific, and tells the story of the day. The Boston Marathon should have been a beautiful picture of people celebrating, but it wasn’t. But I’m glad I contributed to people’s understanding of what the victims went through.”