The Story Behind the Iconic Photograph from Sandy Hook

Shannon Hicks—Newtown Bee/AP
Shannon Hicks—Newtown Bee/AP
The following photos were taken on Dec. 14, 2012.
Connecticut State Police lead a line of children from the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

At 9:59 last Friday morning, Shannon Hicks pulled her 2006 Jeep Wrangler off the road just outside Sandy Hook Elementary school. As associate editor and photographer for Newtown, Connecticut’s local paper, The Newtown Bee, she was responding to a radio dispatch heard over a local police scanner.

“I thought it was going to be a false alarm,” Hicks tells TIME, remembering the call last week. Gunshots fired inside an elementary school? No. Not here, she thought.

But as she pulled up to the school, what she saw and heard removed all doubt.

The New York Times/Newseum

“Parents just started yelling their children’s names,” remembers Hicks, careful to grab her camera off the passenger seat as she climbed out of her vehicle and into the chaos of the scene.

The screams echoed loudly as Hicks tried to stay focused, composing each image though the eyepiece of her camera. She remembers watching a state trooper drive past her, get out of his vehicle, don his flak jacket, and announce to the panicked crowd that the scene was “not secure.”

She snapped frames of police and emergency personnel rushing to the school as well as of anxious parents — already on scene — pressed against police barriers, straining to see if their children had emerged from the building. Among armed police officers and weeping parents, she kept watch, diligently clicking the shutter.

At 10:09 am, 10 minutes after she climbed out of her vehicle, she snapped the shutter on an elementary school class being led out of the school by two Connecticut State Police officers.

“I knew that, coming out of the building — as terrified as they were — those children were safe,” Hicks said, of the photograph soon to grace the front pages of newspapers, magazines, and nearly every breaking news website around the world. “I just felt that it was an important moment.”

The picture wasn’t sensational or disturbing, said Hicks, but it captured a feeling — at least for the subjects and their families — of relative safety amidst a maelstrom of fear and the harrowing unknown.

Los Angeles Times/Newseum

For the children freed from the school, parents rushed to their side, sweeping them up in firm embraces as they walked the 1100 feet to the nearby fire station. Hicks, camera in hand, followed them every step.

“I’ve heard from a few adults who anonymously called us [at The Newton Bee], and said it was very, very wrong to publish that one photograph.” Hicks said, “But I’ve also had people come up to me — mothers in particular — who’ve said that the photograph was important because it showed that those children were safe.”

By 11:30 that morning, Hicks, who is also a volunteer firefighter in Newtown, had “passed the baton” to another reporter from the paper, and had returned to the Bee’s office to coordinate the coverage.

There, for the next week, the small editorial staff would pull near-24 hour shifts, updating the website — the paper is published weekly — with news, community response and the obituaries of the 27 victims left in Friday’s wake.

As a journalist, Hicks is proud to have documented the event, but issues caution to many media outlets now trolling the grounds in Newtown.

“There are different levels of journalism out there, and ours [at The Bee] is not to follow people when they go to the funeral home, or the cemetery. We don’t go knocking on the doors of victims of anything,” said Hicks. “It’s very hard for us to watch other journalists do this to our neighbors.”

Regarding her photograph’s popularity — for lack of a better term — Hicks said it came as a surprise and brings little personal relief. It is the cache of photographs buried on her camera’s memory card, she said, that are hardest to look at and impossible to forget.

“I’m sure I will look through them someday,” Hicks said, cognizant that the photographs she took that morning are now part of history. “I just kind of wish that there were some that I could erase from my memory.”

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