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After the Fall: Capturing a Plane Crash

Tuesday October 16th, 2012

What’s it like to watch a plane fall from the sky? You can ask San Francisco-based photographer Vance Jacobs. Not only has he recently witnessed a plane crash, but he has the photos to prove it. Out in the Mexican desert, 80 miles away from the city of Mexicali, Vance captured a Boeing 727 be deliberately crashed—all in the name of science. As the sole photographer on this exciting assignment, Vance was able to photograph images of something most will (hopefully) never experience. I was lucky enough to catch up with him about the shoot. Enjoy!

- Maria Luci

Who hired you to shoot the plane crash?

I was originally hired by one of my favorite photo editors, Jamie Fry at Channel 4 (UK)—Channel 4 is similar to Discovery Channel here in the U.S. It was Channel 4 that came up with the the idea for this program and then they partnered with the Discovery Channel closer to the crash date. Channel 4 contacted me about photographing several programs over the years, but I was always booked, so I was very happy to get a chance to participate in this show. Their shows are really interesting and they’re known for taking big risks.

How was the assignment presented to you?

When Jamie contacted me about photographing the crash, he said he wanted pictures that would really humanize the experience. The challenge, of course, is that the crash was intentional and that when it finally crashed, all humans had already exited the plane. For me, that meant I had to tell the story primarily through the experience of the scientists, inanimate objects, airline seats and, of course, the crash test dummies.

What attracted you to this project?

Several things, but first and foremost I knew that if Channel 4 was doing the show, it would not only be interesting, but edgy—and if they were going to crash a perfectly good airplane, they were going to make sure that it was captured in a unique and spectacular fashion. The second thing that attracted me was just a morbid fascination with what really happens when a plane goes down. I fly all the time for work and I have been on my share of scary flights.

What was the shoot day like? What was the experience like watching the plane crash?

The actual assignment was four days because I had to photograph the scientists, the plane, the crash test dummies, etc before the actual crash happened. As for watching the crash, I had to watch the show on TV just like everyone else because I was photographing people on the ground reacting to the crash. Due to the inherent risks of crashing a plane, we were all located about two miles away—it was pretty eerie when the plane flew overhead on it’s final descent though. One thing I remember is the tension in the air as the emergency crews, Mexican officials and the producers all waited for the plane to crash in to the desert because until it hit the ground no one knew for sure how this would all play out.

One of the things that was most surprising about seeing the actual wreckage, was how thin the plane’s skin is. Planes are designed like a race car where the real structural integrity isn’t the outer metal shell but the frame underneath, so when it crashed the skin peeled back like a Coke can. Another thing that was surprising was what happens to the overhead compartments and the wires running along the roof of the plane. It was hard for me to get around the inside of the plane after it crashed and that was under the best of circumstances, I can’t even imagine if it was dark and the cabin was quickly filling with smoke.

Were there any challenges on this assignment?

There were really two big challenges: First, how do you humanize something that doesn’t include any living humans, and secondly, how do you make compelling pictures when you have to work around the film crews. One of the highlights of the days leading up to the crash was when I saw the crash test dummies being dressed in different color t-shirts. I knew at that moment, that those shirts would really humanize the dummies for the viewing audience. I knew that, for example, I could produce some powerful imagery by taking before and after pictures of specific dummies. Working around the film crews was also a challenge because there were at least four different camera crews (a producer, director, cinematographer, camera operator and sound) covering different events at all times. Not only did this not provide me much time to photograph any particular thing, but I also had to be very aware of being in their shots as well. For the pictures taken inside the plane after it went down, for example, I had maybe two minutes to take the pictures and get out. The film crews not only needed to get on with their job, but it was also treated like a crime scene, so no one could touch anything and the longer a person was in there, the more likely it was that something would get disturbed.

Which is your favorite image and why?

I really like picture of the crash test dummies before they’ve been dressed with the plane in the background. It was the first picture that allowed me to create a human link between things that are both machines—the crash test dummies and the plane.

What was the client’s reaction to the work?

On my last night in Mexico, I sat around the hotel pool with people from the Discovery Channel, Channel 4 and Dragonfly Productions. We drank cold Tecate beer, tended to our sunburns, and reviewed pictures from the day. The response from all the different groups was really positive, so I felt good about sending in my final edit of 100 pictures to Jamie a couple of weeks later.

What were some of the results from crashing the plane?

Well, I don’t want to give too much away, since I think the show is well worth a watch, but one thing that surprised me was that this was just the second time a passenger plane had been intentionally crashed in the name of science. With so many people flying every single day, I would have thought that the FAA and the manufactures themselves would want to know what happens in a controlled environment—outside of what can be learned through computer modeling and simulators or from study crashes that include human victims.

Did you learn anything new on this assignment?

I learned a ton of things. From a craft point of view, it was really interesting to see how a show with a very high production value is produced. I do quite a bit of motion work for my corporate, NGO and editorial clients, but I’m working with relatively small crews. Their crews were using lots of gear I had never seen before in real life: miniature drones, a helicopter with a camera mounted on the front, and $80,000 cameras designed to survive a tremendous impact.

What kind of publicity have you received because of these photographs?

I’ve gotten a ton of calls from publications and media companies around the world wanting to license the photographs. Most saw my name with photographs when they appeared on the nightly news shows (CNN, Fox News etc). Unfortunately for them, the embargo on the photographs stretched to the day after the program aired in the UK and in the U.S., so I am only now able to license pictures.

View more at vancejacobs.com. Watch a promo for the Discovery show here.

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