When Eric Hylden got to the house at 545 Rhinehart Drive in East Grand Forks the evening of May 5, the police were already crouched behind trees and squad cars, guns pointed at the residence. Hylden, a photographer for the Grand Forks Herald, had picked up the basics of the story on the scanner: A 49-year-old man named Brian Hangsleben had attacked his parents with a kitchen knife, injuring his father and fatally stabbing his mother. Having heard that Hangsleben might have weapons besides the knife, Hylden positioned himself three houses away and aimed his telephoto lens at the standoff.
"We've all covered those situations before," Hylden says. "I figured that they'll probably take him out the back, or sometimes they commit suicide in the house. I didn't expect to actually see the suspect. With the fence in my way, the only shot would be if he came out into the street."
Moments later, Hangsleben did just that. Holding the knife straight in front of him, he walked quickly toward the officers. "I heard the police yelling, 'Brian, Brian, drop the knife,'" Hylden recalls. "But he didn't. He just kept coming at them." His shutter clicked, and within a minute his camera held a set of images that showed Hangsleben charging the police, falling after being shot, and lying dead on the ground as an officer walked away. The next day, those pictures were on the front page of the Herald.Local television news programs picked up the photos; the Fargo Forum and the Saint Paul Pioneer Press also ran them, though not on their front pages. The Star Tribune didn't publish the photos and buried a brief AP story about the shooting in the back of the Metro section.
Star Tribune editor Tim McGuire says the paper didn't get the photos until two days after the event, making them less than timely. In addition, he says, "we decided that it was a long way away from us. Had it been here, it would have been a totally different story. But since it wasn't, we thought it was sensational and had little value."
Half a world away, newspaper editors came to the opposite conclusion. At the Daily Telegraph, London's largest broadsheet newspaper, staffers were going over the day's AP offerings when they ran across what to them looked like shots from a movie set. "We couldn't believe it when those two images came over," says Telegraphpicture editor Bob Bodman. "You could almost imagine [the officer] blowing the smoke away from the barrel afterwards. One can appreciate that the police officer is basically a really dangerous guy.
"By themselves, they are just really good news pictures. But the talking point of those pictures is the callousness with which the officer is walking away...as if [it's] just another job done."
The next morning, two of Hylden's photographs ran on page three of the Telegraph, a spot generally reserved for high-profile court cases and other major news stories. The photos also appeared in newspapers in Edmonton, Ottawa, and Calgary, Canada; de Volkskrant, the daily paper in the Netherlands; The Times, London's second largest broadsheet; and the Scottish Daily Record in Glasgow, the largest daily in Scotland. The Record also ran a story titled "DEATH IN THE STREET: NEIGHBOURS SEE MANIAC GUNNED DOWN" that described the East Grand Forks incident as "a Wild West-style stand-off."
Anna Smith, chief reporter at the Record, explains that "it fascinates the Scottish people that there is still a time and a culture for this sort of thing to happen. People here definitely get the impression that you're still doing that from Western and cowboy times." Smith, who covered the 1996 shooting of 16 kindergartners at the Dunblane school in Scotland, says that while her readers are no strangers to tragedy, they marvel at the regularity of bloodshed in stateside news. The Record's story referred to the gun-control debate in the United States, and the Littleton massacre, and it concluded by calling the East Grand Forks shooting "the latest violent incident to traumatise America."
But was it? Lonnie Schlien, national photo editor at the New York Times, drew a blank when asked about the photos. "I hate to say it," he announced after tracking them down on the wire, "but you've got a guy, he lunges at the cop with a knife, and he gets shot. Big deal. I don't know why the British press was so enamored with it."
The images went similarly unnoticed at the Washington Post. "We have beavers chewing down all our trees here in Washington," says Post photo editor Joe Elbert. "For Washington, that's a front-page story. Now, I'm sure that [the shooting] was a front-page story in East Grand Forks, but you fellas are out a long way off from us."
Steve Stroud, deputy director of photography for the Los Angeles Times, had a different reason for not considering the images: Whenever the Times publishes graphic photos, "the response is generally negative," he says. "In the day and age that we live in, there's quite enough blood and guts to go around without having it dropped on your breakfast table."
Many of the Grand Forks Herald's readers apparently felt the same way. According to editor Mike Jacobs, the Herald received some 150 phone calls and 80 letters after the photos ran, most of them critical of "sensationalistic" coverage. Still, Jacobs--who plans to enter the photos in journalism contests--defends the paper's decision to run the photos. "They are some of the finest news pictures I've ever seen," he says, "and while there was a large [negative] response, it wasn't the largest response ever. I've been editor of the Herald for fifteen years, and the largest response we've ever gotten was when we canceled Spider-Man. We got close to 600 calls."
The reaction to Hylden's photos, notes Jacobs, was about on a par with reader response last summer, when the Herald ran a photo of a bloody mark left on the street after East Grand Forks police shot and killed a dog. "In fact," he says, "the chief of the East Grand Forks Police told me that they got more complaints about killing the dog than they did about killing [Hangsleben]."