Social shots to cap eventful photo career
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Greg Henshall takes his digital camera wherever he goes -- and he goes everywhere. The gregarious gadabout loves taking pictures of people having a good time.
At 64, he's finally free to do that.
He paid his dues on the staid and serious stuff as a photographer for Union Carbide and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Grim scenes from the catastrophes he covered for FEMA remain as sharp and vivid in his mind as the pictures he took of them. No photographer could forget the wrath of Katrina and Sandy.
But all was not doom and gloom. At Carbide, along with routine headshots and scientific subjects, he photographed Carbiders at company social events, the part of the job he most enjoyed.
Now, his social shots will appear regularly in the Sunday Gazette-Mail's photo feature, "On the Town." He says he can't be as omnipresent as retired "On the Town" shutterbug Lucie Mellert, but he promises to do what he can.
A boisterous personality masks the sadness that haunts him over the untimely deaths of his father, wife and grandson. Photography keeps him going.
"I grew up in northern New Jersey. My dad was a decorated military pilot in the Korean War. He went to work for TWA but stayed in the Marine Corps Reserves. He was a lieutenant colonel. He would fly a jet fighter once a month on active duty. Once a year, he would go for two weeks. In 1963, he took the whole family to the base in Cherry Point, N.C.
"His jet came in for a landing, and the front wheel collapsed. The plane caught fire and he ejected. He survived for about an hour and died.
"I have two sisters and one brother and my mother, and we were all there. I was 13. It hit us like a sledgehammer.
"I tried to get into the Marine Corps as a pilot, but I had taken some tests and they told me no. I wasn't sure I wanted to go to Vietnam. My lottery number was 151, and I never got called.
"I wanted to get out of New Jersey. I applied here to Morris Harvey [now the University of Charleston] where I met my wife. She was from Long Island. After two years, we got married.
"My degree is in psychology. To go to graduate school, I would have had to drive to Marshall every day, and I had to work.
"I worked for places that no longer exist. My first job was at McClung and Morgan, a department store in South Charleston. I left them for the S. Spencer Moore Co., and sold cameras. I worked for the West Virginia Air Pollution Control Commission, and they were absorbed into the DNR. Then I went to work for Carbide.
"I was in the camera club at Morris Harvey and fell in love with photography. I had an old Argus C3 from the early '50s, a basic film camera that was my father's. The college had a darkroom. This was magic. Seeing a picture develop for the first time is incredible.
"I learned more and more about photography at S. Spencer Moore. A photographer from Carbide came into S. Spencer Moore and said I should apply at Carbide. I went to work there in August of 1975 in the photo department, industrial photography.
"It was very boring at first. Scientists want to do a research presentation so you go photograph their lab. They have word slides and picture slides and diagram slides. Then you photograph people for portraits because they got promoted. You photograph people for passports because they're going overseas. And you photograph things at the plants. It's not exciting, but it was a better-paying job, and I liked it. I just like photography. I did that until 2004.
"It was a thriving place until Bhopal in 1985. That changed everything. Carbide finally decided that it was due to sabotage from a person who had been fired in India. It wasn't Carbide's fault, but Carbide got blamed.
"Carbide's fortunes went downhill. Carbide was like a family. When Dow bought Carbide, the culture was different. It took a lot of adjustment.
"In 2002, I was given early retirement. I was 50 and got full retirement. I stayed on as a contract employee. I heard then that I was going to be let go. On a whim, I applied to FEMA.
"I applied online. I thought they would get back to me in two or three months. They called me three days later, on a Sunday. FEMA was a whole different animal. Government regulations and procedures. You have to go to class to learn how to do things. It's difficult, almost like the military.
"But it was interesting work. My first assignment was flooding in Southern West Virginia in 2004. I went to places I'd never been before. My next assignment was a year later, Katrina.
"On Aug. 1 2004, I had an operation for a bunion. On Aug. 29, Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. FEMA called me twice. My doctor wouldn't release me until two weeks later. FEMA rented an empty department store, and there were 5,000 people in there.
"I was there 4 1/2 months. We went to New Orleans to record why 80 percent of the city flooded. In the lower Ninth Ward, a barge broke through its mooring and broke through the levee wall. It wiped out the whole Ninth Ward.
"They had all these people they had to put somewhere. What most people call a trailer park, they call a group site. They brought in about 600 trailers. People complain because they expect FEMA to rebuild their house. FEMA is just there to give them temporary housing until their insurance rebuilds their house.
"The next major disaster I had was Greensburg, Kan. You can see my pictures on the FEMA website if you type in my name. An F5 tornado made a direct hit. They had 11 deaths. The town was gone. When Mother Nature gets mad, get out of the way.
"FEMA brought in a bunch of people. We had no place to stay. They got a circus tent and cots and put us in that. FEMA photographers use their own equipment, so there's definitely a threat of theft. After three days, they found me a hotel room.
"I had to reapply by a certain date, and I didn't do that. When Sandy hit, they called me anyway. If I wanted to stay after that, I had to reapply, and I didn't want to do that.
"After I photographed Greensburg, they had a 500-year flood in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Water came up eight feet in the middle of town.
"While I was there, on the other side of Iowa, where Iowa State is, there was a Boy Scout camp. A tornado killed four Scouts in a shelter, and they sent me to record it. The director of FEMA came, and I photographed him with the people who ran the camp.
"I was out of it four years. I just made myself unavailable. FEMA work is very difficult. At the start of a disaster, you work 12 hours a day, seven days a week for at least a month. That is physically demanding and emotionally stressful because you are dealing with people who have lost their homes. People want more than FEMA can legally provide.
"I haven't actually resigned. My last deployment to New York with Sandy caused some problems for me. They sent me as a videographer. I'm not a good videographer, but I got some good stuff.
"On Long Island, the wireless microphone came apart, and I tried to fix it. I took my shoe off because it had sand in it, and the camera fell on it and broke my toe. The toe got infected, and I had my toe taken off.
"I've had tragedy in my life. In 2000, on her birthday, my wife and I were going to a Marshall game. She said she didn't feel good. She went to lie down. Twenty minutes later, I checked on her, and her speech was slurred. She had an aneurysm in her brain stem. Three days later, I had to sign the papers.
"My grandson, Braxton, was 15. He was a great kid, straight-A student, went to a private school, an athlete. Everybody liked him. Three years ago, he shot himself. He had gotten into religion, and they said he indicated that he wanted to have dinner with Jesus.
"I will never get over it. You can't. Most of the time, I think about it, and it goes right by. But when I talk about it, I get emotional. All we can do is say, 'Thank you, Braxton, for the time you gave us, and I'm sorry you decided you had to leave. I hope you are in a better place.'
"One of the advantages of being a Carbide photographer was that they had frequent dinners and social events, and I got in the habit of taking pictures of people, and I enjoyed it.
"That's how I got into photographing people. My legacy will be the pictures that I leave for people, because that's all I've got -- photography.
"I met Lucie Mellert at an event for Dow. We've been fast friends ever since. I like the idea of going out to cover events like she did. It's satisfying to take good pictures that people enjoy.
"I can't tell jokes, or sing or dance, and I don't date, so that's about all I can do. And it gets me out of the house. People enjoy seeing themselves in the paper.
"I try to be pragmatic and take advantage of all the good things I have. I don't have much. This is a messy, run-down house, and I'm an old guy without much money.
"The death of my father, my wife and my grandson were all very hard. But there have been good times, too, and West Virginia is a great place. I love it. It's under the radar as far as the rest of the world goes, but that's the way I like it." Reach Sandy Wells at email@example.com or 304-348-5173.