Behind the Photo: The Evacuation of Sandy Hook Elementary School

By Edgar Allen Beem

© Shannon Hicks/The Newtown Bee

Shannon Hicks, associate editor at The Newtown Bee and a volunteer firefighter in Newtown, Connecticut, first heard that someone with a gun had entered Sandy Hook Elementary School on the police scanner at the newspaper office just over a mile from the school. Hicks was on the scene immediately and captured what turned out to be the most published image of that tragic day: A line of children, some with their eyes closed against the horror, being led to safety by state police and teachers.

Hicks’s Sandy Hook photograph is a powerful image of innocence lost, a picture of caring and compassion in the midst of chaos and mayhem. And Hicks says she was something of an innocent herself when she took that iconic photograph. She really didn’t know what she was seeing.

“For me, the photo of the children being evacuated from the school captured a time when we still thought this was a much smaller event,” writes Hicks in an e-mail to PDN. “At the office, we had heard that there was someone in the school with a gun, and then a report that one person had been shot in the foot. We thought that was all that had happened, even while I was at the school photographing the students and faculty being evacuated.”

Hicks had been relieved by another member of the Bee staff and was back at the office before she began to grasp the full magnitude of the terrible event. As the world soon learned, a deranged gunman, who had killed his mother before arriving at the school, had slaughtered 20 children and six staff members at Sandy Hook before taking his own life.

“I am hoping that my photo has a lasting impact because it shows just how young some of the victims of December 14 were,” writes Hicks. “The children in that photo were right around the same age as those who had been killed. They’re just so young, so innocent.”

As a member of the media, Hicks has found herself “disappointed in a number of major news outlets” for the inaccuracy of their reports about Newtown. Even The New Yorker, much vaunted for its fact-checking, made “nearly two dozen errors” by Hicks’s count in an article about how The Newtown Bee covered the Sandy Hook massacre.

Hicks’s advice to photographers who unexpectedly find themselves coming face-to-face with a tragedy in their own backyards?

“Photograph it! Any photographer worth their salt will always have a camera within reach at all time. But then fellow photographers already know that as well as I do.”

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