Saturday, March 1, 2014

Protect Yourself - A Few Thoughts on the Tragic Death of Sarah Jones

I don't normally talk about much other than writing, but today is a little different so please bear with me.

In 2004 I graduated from The College of Santa Fe with a B.A. in Moving Image Arts, but due to one thing and another, I have not yet turned my full attention to a career path in the film and television industry. Writing fiction, believe it or not, was a more lucrative opportunity to make a living. However, I still have a number of friends who are working in the industry as actors, camera assistants, editors and so on. And it was because I them that I really became aware of the tragic death of Sarah Jones last week. (There is building news coverage of the accident and the efforts to add her to the Oscar night In Memoriam segment, but, quite frankly, I might never have seen any of it if not for friends bringing it to my attention.)

When I was in college it was very clear that some folks get that much the industry has a high level of risk on a daily basis. And some don't. The first time I helped my production class set up lights with power running off the grid in the studio, the first time I touched a main power cable and felt it buzzing in my hand because the voltage running through it was so much hotter than anything you will ever find in your home, I knew that there was a lot of risk in the job we were doing.

Let me be clear, that does not mean there has to be a lot of danger in the industry. But handling 50,000 volts of electricity is inherently risky. You do it wrong and people get hurt. Or die.
You hang a light wrong or fail to tighten something down properly and people get hurt. Or die.
You go out to a location without the proper prep work, without permission, without the appropriate equipment or without medics and people get hurt. Or die.

Some folks instinctively get this. Some folks don't.
I knew, almost from the very beginning, that I did not have the balls to be an electrician or gaffer. (Nor, probably, the kind of natural math skills necessary to distribute power and remember which gauge cable can handle what kind of load for what distance.) There was an element of risk there I could not handle on a daily basis.

But I have friends who work on camera crews, who do deal with those risks on a daily basis, who know that the difference between having a job that is risky and a job that is dangerous is dependent on doing things right. Every time.

But some folks don't get that. Some folks think it's okay to cut corners. That having permission to be near the tracks is the same as having permission to be on the tracks. That if a train comes when you don't expect it, everyone can just jump out of the way. And that changes a risky environment into a dangerous one.

Add into that the naturally competitive nature of the industry and you have smart, talented folks who understand the difference between "risky" and "dangerous" still putting themselves into the latter environment because they want to work and they are afraid that saying "No." or "Let's double-check this." will mean they no longer have a job. But it is painfully clear that these smart, talented folks have to protect themselves from the corner-cutters. Because sometimes you're working with (or for) someone who is looking out for you, and sometimes you're not. 

Sarah Jones friends and co-workers and union mates (as well as folks like myself who are not in the industry but have friends who are) are fighting to bring something positive and productive in the aftermath of her horrible, senseless death and calling for better working conditions and stricter enforcement of safety standards. Because there is no excuse for "good enough" when someones life is on the line.

You're probably wondering why I'm talking about this at all. So, here's the deal.

As a fiction writer, I can pretty much guarantee I will never ever EVER be in the same kind of risky situations on a daily basis that my friends in the film and television industry are. Short of a freak power surge or a lightning strike it is highly unlikely that I will do something wrong while sitting at my laptop and accidentally electrocute myself. Or anyone around me.
A freight train will not come hurtling through my living room at 58 miles an hour.
There is not, and never will be, the same kind of physical danger. EVER.

But there is still a small lesson to take away and apply to our own efforts.

The desire to be successful, to make money or gain recognition, is not any different between the film industry and the publishing industry. Too many authors jumping in bed with small presses who burn first publication rights and then fade into the night without the author ever seeing a penny. Too many "editors" offering to do us the favor of publishing our story for free but giving us a shot at "exposure". Too many folks willing to pay someone to publish their book instead of looking for a publisher who will pay them.

Protect yourself. Protect your friends. Do not sacrifice your hard work on the assumption that everyone you work with will have your best interests in mind. Do not get into business with corner-cutters. Do not get into business with those who will exploit you.

Protect yourself. Protect your friends. Protect your industry.

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