You Have One Chance. Don't Screw It Up.

How do you handle a situation when you have one shot to get it right?

Posted Sep 23, 2020

Those were the words ringing in my ears, Private Investigator Matthew Spaier. I was no more than three months into my business. Sure, I had about six or seven years behind my belt, but I was not ready for this.

It was a Friday and I received a phone call from a business associate. He specialized in legal photography. He had been in business for about 30 years and was the best of the best. We started our relationship about seven or eight months prior. I had told him If he showed me the ropes, I would help him with his overflow work. It was a good way to drum up business and to learn from the best.

When I answered the phone that Friday, my friend seemed a bit stressed out. He was up to his ears in deadlines and he had just been called with a very important photo assignment. The call was an inquiry as to my availability to go to the Westchester Medical Center Burn Unit to take some photos.

It seems earlier that week, there was a terrible accident on the Tappan Zee Bridge in Rockland County, NY. An 18-wheeler rear-ended a car and it caught on fire. The passenger of the car, engulfed in flames, jumped off the bridge and lived! He was scooped out of the water with burns over 75% of his body.

My job was to photograph the dressing changes. This was before the day of “point and shoot” cameras or "set it and forget it" photography. You really needed to understand what you were shooting and how the lighting affected everything. Obviously, my answer was yes.

When I arrived at the hospital, I greeted the man’s wife. I made my way to the unit. Right before I went in, I prayed. “Please God let me get the photos I need to get this job done correctly. I have one shot to get this right.”

I proceeded to the staging area and got suited up in protective garments. My eyes had no idea what I was about to see. My ears had no idea the screams I would hear as the bandages were removed. My focus remained and I pressed in to make sure this man got exactly what I needed to get for him.

I had photographed human remains before and the thought doesn’t really bother me. The challenge that day was the sound. This person who was suffering was alive and in obvious pain. As an investigator, sometimes we need to block out our own emotions and focus on the job at hand. This was the only way this job was going to get done.

To this day, almost 15 years later, it still stays with me. I remember driving the man's wife home to the Bronx and telling her everything was going to be ok. I never learned what happened in that case, other than the fact that the man is still alive and the case is now over.

Compassion and focus were absolutely needed that day. These types of skills come naturally to a good investigator. This was a rare extreme circumstance that helped me grow as an investigator and as a human being. The importance of compassion can never be taken lightly, especially when you face adversity. But sometimes as an investigator, compassion can be a strength, or it can be a weakness.

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines compassion as the sympathetic consciousness of others' distress together with a desire to alleviate it. Private investigators can fall prey to the sense of being a “white knight” at times and this can prevent objectivity. In the situation above, it was more of a task at hand. The compassion related to the circumstances of the injured man and his family. My desire to alleviate the stress was to do the job properly so the family could get a good representation of his pain and anguish at the time.

In other instances, compassion can lead an investigator to overlook facts or rush to judgment. Sometimes, the heart of the investigator and their willingness to help can cloud the necessary methodology required to provide proof of fact or theory. The best step to combat this is to be honest with yourself and focus on finding the truth. Listen to that inner voice that says, “You have one chance; don’t screw it up!”

I am thankful for the lessons and the guidance mentors have given me over the years. I am thankful for the experience I gained that day. I know it made me a better investigator and more importantly, a better person. This was not the first time compassion played a factor in my line of work and it certainly was not the last.