When a medical transport plane brought 22-year-old Otto Warmbier home from North Korea this week, a Reuters photographer stood on the corner of a dark tarmac behind a chain link fence – more than 300 yards away from the action.
The contrast of the black Cincinnati night sky, combined with Lunken Airport airport’s bright spotlights, made it nearly impossible to see anything that was happening as medical personnel carried Warmbier’s limp body down the plane’s steps, says Reuters photographer Bryan Woolston.
That didn’t stop Woolston from taking the shots that captured the world’s attention this week, a series of photos which show Warmbier, held as a prisoner in North Korea for 17 months, being carried off the plane without the use of a stretcher. The photos brought home the disturbing news that the University of Virginia student was effectively comatose because of a brain injury.
More than any words that would be used to describe Warmbier’s condition in clinical terms by doctors and government officials, Woolston’s photographs told the stark story of his medical state with profound impact.
Not only was the photographer dealing with a night sky, several vehicles, including an ambulance, blocked his view. So he sprinted away from the pack of photographers and videographers he was in, running 100 yards along the airport fence.
There, he found an unobstructed sightline and used a 400-millimeter long range telephoto lens, usually employed by photographers shooting sporting events.
That split-second decision to move away from the pack meant that five minutes later the world had its first pictures of the American student since we last saw him pleading to be released from a 15-year sentence of hard labor.
“The last time the world saw him he was a virile, young man,” Woolston said. “The image of him being carried off that plane was very important.”