A day in the life of the TSB photographer
29 June 2014
Posted by: Tony Gasbarro
Most people would think that being a photographer solely consists of walking around with an expensive looking camera, taking, editing, and publishing photographs. Well, trust me, there is so much more to this wonderful profession. Otherwise, why would they say a picture is worth a thousand words?
Working for the TSB, I can say that a picture is worth a lot more than a thousand words. A picture can be a key element to an investigation: it can help to identify the cause of an accident, it can lead to improvement of our transportation system’s safety, and most importantly, it can save lives by preventing future accidents.
My career in the transportation safety industry started back in 1986 with the Canadian Aviation Safety Board (which was merged with other organizations to create the TSB in 1990). When I showed up unannounced with my portfolio, the reaction was unanimous: “you should work here.” Having been involved in the Royal Canadian Air Cadets, I always had a passion for aviation and photographing airplanes was no mystery to me. It’s a good thing that they hired me on the spot, because at the time, I was debating whether to become an aviation/transportation photographer or, as weird as it may sound, a fashion photographer. Today, looking back, I’m convinced that I followed the right path.
Most of my work is conducted at the TSB Engineering Laboratory in Ottawa. However, when an accident occurs, I have to be ready for deployment. When the Investigator-In-Charge or investigation team members need professional image documentation support at a high level, whether it’s a small railway crossing accident or a large-scale air disaster, that’s where I come in. Since my expertise is professional site documentation, I respond as the Photo/Video Chairperson to accident sites.
Investigators are usually the first people to arrive at an accident site, where they are gathering bits of information under the scrutiny of all interested parties including the national media and members of industry. While I’m travelling to the accident’s location, I’m planning the documentation of the site in my head. I usually have a general idea of what I’m about to head into. Upon my arrival, the Investigator-In-Charge and team members are relieved of the burden of intensive onsite documentation. My work ensures success in obtaining, as soon as possible, the important images required of the perishable evidence at the site. Perishable evidence is anything that may be altered due to the passage of time or changes in the weather like rain or snow. It is, in most cases, the main focus (no pun intended) of the early stages of site documentation. This type of evidence could include the position of switches or throttles in the cockpit of a crashed airliner, or a charred and smoking logbook lying in the rain. Sometimes, I’ve had to race against the onslaught of an oncoming snowstorm that could cover all the debris and wreckage of an accident site and have it documented before the snow fell. Murphy’s Law reminds me to always have a back-up plan ready in case I’m compromised in carrying out the highest possible quality imagery of an accident site. So far so good – knock on wood!
My equipment is also an important part of my work. It travels all over the country with me, from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans or up to the North Pole if required. Canon DSLR cameras are mainly used for onsite still image documentation as well as for short high definition video clips. I also use Canon HD ENG video cameras for higher production quality video capture. In addition, I always bring with me a wide array of lenses from extreme fisheye to telephoto for professional documentation of accident sites.
On major investigations, it’s not uncommon to capture over 500 images in a single day. Each day, all the images are backed up to a laptop and external hard drives. Images are then distributed to all members of the investigation team. Essentially, that’s what the field work is about. Once back at the TSB lab, there is still a great deal of further imaging work that needs to be done such as testing, experiments, teardowns and simulations if required.
Regarding the emotional aspect, it’s always a challenge because we’re all human – we feel for the victims and their families, as well as for everyone else affected by the accident. However, the TSB investigation team is determined to work towards improving safety and always focuses on the work that needs to be done. Personally, I can say that it was much harder at the beginning of my career, because deploying to accidents was new to me and I wasn't used to the catastrophic sights and smells of an accident site, or to the investigation pressures. I learned to not watch the news on TV or read the newspapers while I'm deployed, as this could influence what I've seen or what I’m about to see. Today, because of my experiences, I feel better prepared. I understand and expect the things I’m about to witness, rather than being surprised by them.
On a brighter note, what I enjoy the most about my 24 years with the TSB is the conviction that my work matters, that what I do makes a difference. Even though I’m not looking forward to it yet, the day will come when it will be time for me to bow out. Fortunately, I will never be able to say that I’ve had an average or uneventful career.
Tony Gasbarro is the Senior Multi-Media Investigation Imaging Specialist for the TSB and has nearly 30 years' experience in documenting accident sites throughout Canada. Tony spends most of his free time as a passionate drummer or playing soccer. He is known for travelling to warm exotic locations favoring destinations of the South Pacific.
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