Justin Fowler, a photographer with the State Journal-Register in Springfield, Ill., headed out to Harrisburg, Ill., to capture images in the hardest-hit areas after deadly tornadoes and storms swept through the state.

Justin Fowler, a photographer with the State Journal-Register in Springfield, Ill., headed out to Harrisburg, Ill., to capture images in the hardest-hit areas after deadly tornadoes and storms swept through the state.


What was your plan of action going in? What thoughts were going through your mind as you walked around?


I didn’t have a ton of time there. When I got to the area, the first thing I did was to get out of the car and see what’s going on.


I found a place to park and started walking.


You stop and think, people have lost everything. You go into a mode where you know you have to tell this story – that’s what you have to do. You know its bad and there’s no sense standing around. You have to hit the ground running,. You have a job to do – to get the story out about what happened.


Tornado damage is horrific – it’s hard to comprehend.


How did you approach the woman who was searching through the ruins of her daughter’s home?


Like any other person I do. I never go up with my camera. I go up with my hand – for an introduction. When I found here, she was going through things like any other victim.


Through about a minute and a half of conversation, she told me she was looking for her daughter’s things. Then she told me her daughter was killed.


You’re trying to think of the right thing to say. It’s the worst feeling in the world to stick your camera in the face of someone who just went through that.


I spent a lot of time talking to her. It’s a weird connection that you have with the subject as a photographer. They accept the fact that you’re there, even when they’re at the worst moment of their lives.


But she wanted to tell me who her daughter was and how special she was — and she’s there finding her daughter’s shoes, and purses, makeup bag.


The whole time, I feel bad that I have to do what I’m doing, but there’s a connection you make with the subject. They give you the right to be there. That comes through talking.


I was ready to walk away. But she wanted to talk to me.


What was the most challenging part of your coverage?


The challenging thing is going into peoples’ lives that have just been wrecked. I’m a softie when it comes to that stuff – I don’t want to do that. That’s the hardest part of my job.


My mother’s home burned down, and she lost everything. I know what that feeling is like.


That’s the hardest part for me – knowing what these people are going though and having to take pictures of them.


The logistics stuff is just logistics. That’s 101. When you have to send stuff back, and data’s crawling. My air card didn’t work – the signal wasn’t strong enough. So you troubleshoot. You think, what do I have to do to make this work? You drive around with your phone on trying to find WiFi.


But that’s not the hard part. The hard part is finding ways to talk to those people.


Can you describe the overall emotional tenor of the people you talked to? Where they still in shock? Anxious to begin rebuilding?


People were relatively upbeat, considering what they just went through.


I talked to people who were in their houses when it hit and had their houses fall in around them. Most of them were like, it was the craziest thing. They were like, this happened, and this is what we have to do next.


You know, they said, it was a crazy ride. I talked to one guy whose house had been in the family for 100 years.


He said, man, you’re not going to believe what happened.


It’s not a state of shock – but it’s hard that early on to comprehend what just happened to them.