Every year, around the beginning of April, I find myself getting lost in the emotions I felt after witnessing and photographing the aftermath of the explosions near the finish line of the Boston Marathon in 2013. In the weeks and months that followed, I was navigating my own journey of healing, while handling the onslaught of media requests for my photos from the explosions, most of which depict graphic images of victims, survivors, police officers and first responders. Due to this, I’ve spent a lot of time looking at my photos from that day, including a controversial one, of a little boy, which was featured on the cover of Time. Though I’ve learned to live with it, those images haunt me, especially that Time cover photo, and every time I get a licensing request for one of the photographs, I need to open that folder on my hard drive, and try not to fall back into that pit of sadness, fear and anger again. The Boston Marathon will always go on though, and I know that once a year for the rest of my life I will revisit that day and try to reflect positively on what happened and how it changed my life.
I no longer live in Boston, but every year I return from Nantucket to be a part of the city on Patriots Day, and to take photographs of the marathon runners again. It’s my therapy. Last year, CBS Evening News featured me in a segment, which was also picked up by CBS This Morning, because the photos I took of the second explosion ended up being key evidence in the prosecutions case against the terrorist Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Although it’s not lost on me that the photos I took are of real people, very sensitive in nature, and have caused quite a bit of grief and sadness to some, it also helps knowing that, over time, those same photos have come to help as well, so when I noticed a random article online that Boston Casting was looking for extras to be in Mark Wahlberg’s new movie about the marathon bombings, I thought, maybe I can help in some way again?
One Photographer's important role in Boston Bombing case.
An interview with Bill Hoenk on the CBS Evening News
I was pretty sure that eventually a movie about the 2013 Boston Marathon would be made. It’s an important story that I believe needs to be told, and as an eyewitness to the actual events, I know that it’s a story that needs to be told right. I decided to travel to Boston for the open casting call, the largest in Boston Casting’s history, not in the hopes of being an extra in the movie, but hoping that I might be able to contribute in some way to its authenticity. I had no idea in what way that might be, but if I didn’t make the trip I would never know. I hopped on the ferry from Nantucket to the Cape, rented a car, drove up to Boston, waited in line on the street for an hour before scribbling my information on the back of my headshot, dropped it in a bucket and left, hoping for a response but putting it out of my mind at the same time.
Fast forward a month and a half, and a few days after I returned to Boston to photograph the 2016 Marathon, I get an email from Boston Casting asking if I’m available to film for five days, as they have a really big scene coming up the following week (the actual marathon day bombings on Boylston street), and they have me in mind for a very special part- that of a finish line volunteer who is also a first responder that helped the victims of the explosion. Those that know me best, know that I've had a life long dream/fantasy of working in the movie industry as a Unit Still Photographer on major productions. I became so excited at the thought of getting to witness, first hand, what it was like to work on the set of a major motion picture, that the reality of what I would be filming was replaced with pure creative energy and anticipation of the insights I would gain during my time on the production. It only bothered me a little bit that I wasn’t playing one of the photographers from the scene, of which they had cast a few other actors, I was just excited to be a part of what I think is going to be one of the most important films to come out of Boston. The reality check did come back hard though, the moment I arrived on set at the Naval Air Station in South Weymouth two weeks ago. After checking in with several hundred other background actors, I was directed to the wardrobe tent to get my uniform. It was there, as I was waiting in a very long line with the other actors that I realized just how important what we were all about to do was. Along the walls of the tent were bulletin boards with photos and video screenshots of actual footage from the explosions, to show the actors and extras the graphic nature of what we were about to film. Several of the photos hanging there were photos that I took. Such a humbling experience. It certainly wouldn’t be the last humbling experience I took away from that week either. The next several days were a whirlwind of action, drama and excitement. Boylston street was recreated in excruciating detail, from the storefronts right down to the street signs and the bricks on the sidewalks. The makeup and effects used on the actors playing victims were realistic to the point of being indistinguishable from the real thing, and I was right in the middle of all the action, at times mere feet away from Mark Wahlberg and John Goodman (damn John Goodman is a good looking man)! Up to that point I had wondered how I would react to being in the middle of all this carnage again, even if it was all just makeup and special effects, but I was pretty sure once in it I would be fine. At one point, we were in the middle of filming a scene following the explosion, in which I was using my belt as a tourniquet on one of the victims, and I looked up to see several huge movie cameras pointed right at me. It was then that the realization hit that I had just become the subject of the photos I had taken a few years before. Another quite humbling moment.
Aside from reliving those worse moments, the energy on set was invigorating to say the least. I did what I was told to do, I stood where I was told to stand, I shouted when I needed to shout, and I pantomimed when we needed silence, (it was very surreal watching hundreds of people screaming, shouting, cheering and clapping without making a sound), all the while absorbing every last thing I could from a creative standpoint. I had an eagle eye on the unit still photographer the whole time watching her work. I was fascinated watching the entire production unfold, observing the production crew, the people in the industry who are some of the absolute best in the world at what they do, getting it done. Through my observations, I came to see how passionate these people were with telling this story and getting it right. Every day on set the director would speak to all of us, to remind us of how important it is that we know this movie is being made to highlight the resilience of this city and its people, and to show the strength and character of these same people who’s bravery and selflessness in the face of horror helped to save countless lives that day and in the days that followed. Watching the director, Peter Berg, sit down on the pavement a few feet away from me between takes to play with and comfort one of the younger actors who was there for a very difficult and emotionally charged scene, was all I needed to see to know that he was the right person to be in charge of telling this story. Seeing his compassion right then, and realizing what scene it was they were shooting, really put me over the edge for the first time and I had to remove myself from the set to regain my composure. I think the fact that my emotions got the best of me is a testament to the humaneness and empathy involved in recreating that horrible day accurately and with tenderness, respect and consideration of the real heroes, victims and survivors.
I have read and heard a lot of chatter and opinions about this movie, Patriots Day, being made, and I certainly entered this whole experience with an extremely critical eye, knowing the nature of the material being filmed, and how important it is to get it right. Peter Berg and Mark Wahlberg must feel extreme amounts of pressure, and they should. Mark doesn’t need to give the performance of his life- he HAS to give the performance of his life! I also understand and sympathize with those who believe this movie should not be made, (it’s too soon, it’s not necessary, it’s just Hollywood once again capitalizing on other peoples pain for profit, etc…). I get where they're coming from but I do not agree with them. As a photographer and journalist, I went through the same onslaught when my marathon images were initially published back in 2013. I received death threats, I was shamed and accused of trying to profit from the event by submitting the images I took to Time Magazine. I went through it all and I understand to a point the pain involved with the people who were directly affected by those bombs, and not wanting to relive the experiences being told and shown through this movie. As I stated before though, this is a story that needs to be told, and after what I witnessed on set during my week of filming, I am very glad that Peter Berg and Mark Wahlberg are the ones telling it. Regardless of what the critics and fans might say about this movie when it is released, I know from watching them work firsthand, that the heart and soul of every member of the production crew was put in to making this movie great, and a true representation of the city of Boston and its people.
As a fan of all movies, and a photographer who always dreamed of working in the movie industry, I have to say that working on the set of Patriots Day was the coolest, most interesting and humbling experience of my life. It was tearing me up inside that I couldn’t be taking any photos on set, as I saw so many moments that I would have loved to have captured and shared. My experiences through all of this have definitely motivated me to continue on a path within this industry, wherever that may take me! Until then though, since I couldn't take any photos while on set, Id like to share some of the photos I took near the finish line at this years 120th running of the Boston Marathon. Enjoy, and come December, maybe you’ll get to catch a glimpse of me for a few seconds on the big screen, in what I think will become one of the best movies ever to come out of Boston!