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Castleton Alum T.J. Hooker wins AP Bruce Comie award

The following story is a compilation from students in Professor David Blow’s Newsgathering and Writing class.

Former Castleton State College student T.J. Hooker held an expression of sadness as his photograph of sheet-covered bodies was shown on the large screen behind him.

The photograph showed a police officer kneeling, overcome by grief, behind a few of the elderly victims of the Ethan Allen tour boat accident on Lake George, N.Y. that killed 20 people last fall.

Hooker, a 25-year-old 2004 graduate, recently re-told the story of that day to Professor David Blow’s Newsgathering and Writing class as part of an interviewing exercise.

He told students how when the initial police call came over the scanner, it mentioned three people in the water, leading him to believe it was a canoe that had flipped, and that he’d be photographing soggy – but rescued paddlers.

When he got to the lake and saw the sheet-covered bodies, however, he said he knew it was much worse.

“I wasn’t really prepared for what I was going to see. I looked up and there was this lawn full of bodies,” he said. It was a shock. It was like being punched in the stomach.”

After collecting himself and changing lenses, Hooker was able to snap two quick images before he was ushered from the area by police.

The one photograph, showing the officer and the sheet-covered bodies, went out on the Associated Press wire and was shown on front pages across the world – from Los Angeles to London. It also won Hooker the Associated Press’ Bruce Cromie award for spot news photography.

But his road to minor photojournalism fame has been bumpy.

During his hour-long discussion with students, Hooker talked about being shunned by The Rutland Herald, whose editors said he needed more experience to get a job there. He took their advice and went to work at a photo shop to gain some experience.

His big break came when Blow, then an adjunct, saw his senior photo project and told the head of the Post-Star’s photography department that Hooker might be worth a look.

The department head saw the show, liked what he saw, and offered Hooker an interview, which led to his part-time post that he’s held for two years.

He recalled for students his first assignment at the paper, shooting a circus elephant.

“It was nothing too spectacular, but it felt great to see my name on the photograph,” he said.

Within two weeks of that photograph, however, Hooker said he was on the scene of his first fatality. An elderly man had climbed a tree to hang a rope swing for his grandson and had fallen, hit his head on a rock and rolled into a nearby river where he drowned.

Hooker vividly recalled the bloodstained blouse of the man’s wife who had held his head trying to bring him back. It was a picture, he didn’t take.

“I didn’t photograph it because I couldn’t handle it,” he said, adding that he thinks he would be able to shoot the photograph today, even though he often still sees the look on the woman’s face.

But as a self-proclaimed “sensitive guy,” Hooker said it’s often difficult to be shooting pictures of grief-stricken people.

“It’s counter-intuitive to put my camera out instead of my hand,” he said.

As for the name, T.J. Hooker, made famous by former Trekky William Shatner, Hooker said he’s heard it all before, and takes the ribbing with stride.

“It’s the bane of my existence,” he said with a smile, before quickly pointing out that Shatner copied him. “I was born six months before the show even started.