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I Did Know Jack…

Jun 9

In history at 7:56am

At least a little. LIFE was interested in the whole issue of assisted suicide, so they sent me out to Detroit to sort of live there. Dan Okrent, a rarity amongst editors in that he was remarkable with both words and pictures, gave me very sparse directions. “Go to Detroit and get Kevorkian to like you.”

It’s funny, my feeling is that people outside the magazine business might think assignments for major publications are attended to with lots of planning, forethought, trumpets blaring,  an emergency session of the House of Representatives, a Papal Fiat,  or some sort of whole shebang type of deal. Doesn’t happen that way at all. Many magazine go week to week, month to month on gut calls, hunches, hoped for stories, and reaction to stuff that just plain and simple either does or doesn’t work out. Cut and paste, improvise, and turn on a dime is often the watchword of a pub cycle. Except  of course at the National Geographic, which tends to have life sort of planned out for the next couple of years. At least in the past, there was a certain ceremony to the awarding of an assignment down at the Yellow Border house. It was weighty, ya know? The editor would give you a blessing, recite certain ancient incantations, and you would go forth. (Kidding. Just barely, though:-) All this deliberation was with good reason. Back in the day, virtually every story I did for Nat Geo had a very substantial price tag. The allocated funds bought a lot of Kodachrome, to be sure. Not to mention air tickets, hotels, meals, rental cars, helicopters, fixers, bribes, services of guides, drivers, translators, bush pilots, gifts for locals, and other stuff that ranged from the mundane to the truly exotic.

But LIFE was pretty last minute, seat of the pants journalism, and Detroit has never been accused of being exotic, so without too much thinking, planning or fuss, I just  threw some cameras in a bag and went. I did, I think, get Jack to like me a bit.  Actually, that’s probably allowing too much. He tolerated me. I was, after all, a member of the press, an occupation he was by and large disdainful of, depending on the day, or the nature of the coverage. If he felt criticized in any way, he grew prickly and vituperative. But, for him, I think,  far worse than bad reviews was being ignored. He would rail against the press, and then titter like a schoolkid looking over his clippings. It was this need to be noticed that finally led him to prison, really.

Off and on, I spent about six months with him. It must have been a bit like having a LIFE photographer as a pet, really. I’d just hang out there, and see if he did anything interesting that he would allow me to partake in, photographically. Off the radar, it was obvious he was doing newsworthy stuff. I intersected with him during a time when maids at certain hotels around Detroit would, on a somewhat regular basis, make a housekeeping knock on the door and encounter not a messy room, but a corpse.

I admired him, in certain ways. Love him or hate him, he stuck to his guns in uncompromising fashion, and brought the whole notion of controlling the end of your days into the forefront of the nation’s consciousness. (In terms of disclosure, I do feel it is an essential right, when all alternatives are exhausted, and all quality of life gone, to control how and when you turn your last page.) The tough thing with the doc was that he was just generally so difficult, and irascible, that the issues got swallowed up by the controversies over his personality and methods.

The story was never completed. I had to let go, for lots of reasons.

But, I did hang with Jack, ate with him, played poker with him. He was quite set in his ways, across all the activities of his life. For instance, at breakfast, he liked his toast burned. You know, charred. He would shake his head and complain when it came in a less than blackened state. With issues both small and large, he marched to the beat of his own drummer.  He was, quintessentially, a contrarian.

It was in fact at breakfast at a local diner, after we finished the meal, that he summed himself up. We were leaving, and of course, everybody knew who he was. (At the time, he was probably the most recognizable person in Detroit.) A diner waitress, smiling,  wagged a finger at him, and in mock mothering tones, told him, “Be good!” He shot back an impish (some would have said devilish) grin, and said, simply, “No!”

More tk….

Anna says:

on June 9, 2011 at 8:11 am

Thanks! Really great story about a man I only saw in photos with paparazzi everywhere. I assumed he was quite a curmudgeon but knew there had to be feelings in him somewhere considering what he did,…helping people in their most difficult time. Your photo is a perfect accompaniment. Thanks for sharing!

David says:

on June 9, 2011 at 8:14 am

I love reading your stories. Thanks for sharing.

Scott Frederick says:

on June 9, 2011 at 8:18 am

Next time someone tells me to be good I’m going to steal Jacks line! :) “NO”

Rebekah @ It Only Gets Better says:

on June 9, 2011 at 8:44 am

Joe, not that you’re already too busy but I certainly hope that one of these days …very soon…that you will compile all your stories into a beautifully worded book! You are as much a story teller with your words as you are with your camera and I can’t get enough! And I’m not just blowing smoke up your arse but I genuinely believe you have enough material to publish something like that.

Rick Rouse says:

on June 9, 2011 at 8:58 am

This is an interesting post Joe. Regardless of what one thought of Dr. Kervorkian and his mission in life, you had to admire his ability to command the world’s attention. It must have been a real adventure walking in his shadow for half a year.

Tina Blum says:

on June 9, 2011 at 9:01 am

Great story, and as always, another vocabulary lesson! (I learned what vituperative means today!)

Linda Shapiro says:

on June 9, 2011 at 9:08 am

Joe, thanks for sharing your unique insight into this man. And for laying out so clearly your position on the controversial issue that made him such a polarizing character. What a long, strange trip your career has been! Thanks for sharing some of it with us.

Kimla says:

on June 9, 2011 at 9:20 am

Mr. McNally…I want to thank you for sharing these moments in your life. As a late-bloomer in photography, I am always inspired to pursue my dreams and be myself. Your generosity is greatly appreciated. I may not ever have a career anywhere close to the adventures you’ve partaken, but each adventure I do have is going to be incredible.

david says:

on June 9, 2011 at 9:23 am

thanks for sharing, Joe, and a nice sentiment towards the man, even if briefly, that was defined by and will likely only be remembered by most people through such a controversial issue.

Billy Mitchell says:

on June 9, 2011 at 9:42 am

“NO” is the right answer. We don’t think of it often enough.

Jim Frazier says:

on June 9, 2011 at 9:45 am

“to control how and when you turn your last page.” Wow. Say, you’re a photographer too, aren’t you? 😉

Ziv says:

on June 9, 2011 at 9:56 am

Joe, are we going to have to take away your thesaurus?

Rob says:

on June 9, 2011 at 10:41 am

(seems prev comment beat me to it) “vituperative”…. Shit Joe really… I had to google (yeah that’s now a verb) that to know what your talking about…. Still not sure….. but how about cranky old codger ?

Lee Love says:

on June 9, 2011 at 11:11 am

Joe, I know you understand this better than anyone but, this post is an example of one of the reasons why I love being a photographer. The fact that people allow us into their lives and are willing to share a little bit about themselves.

In many cases, if we listen, as photographers we come away with the greater gift in the process.

Alessandro Rosa says:

on June 9, 2011 at 11:25 am

Joe, Any chance you will write a Memoir? I realize that many of your lighting books and blog posts are written in that thoughtful form, but I would love to read more long form stories about the behind-the-scenes interactions you had with editors or on assignments. In the age where people with nothing to say are saying far too much, you have lots of truly insightful wisdom that many could benefit from hearing more of.

As far as Jack goes, in a way, it is a shame that he became so vilified. While not always condoned, doctors in Europe will routinely give their terminal patients a “cocktail” which helps to ease them along to the hereafter, if that is they or their families wish. I think that in a way, acceptance of this as a society would help more people come to terms with their mortality and maybe let them choose a gentler end. Fighting is the opposite of Peace and unless the person is up for it, isn’t it really more noble to say “They went peacefully?” But we are Americans! We have to fight tooth and nail for lost causes, no matter what the expense or the toll to humanity and dignity. People who choose not to fight aren’t cowards, aren’t failures, aren’t un-American and shouldn’t be viewed as such; they are just people who want to exercise their freedom to be at peace, and we, as a society, should respect and embrace that choice.

Kim J says:

on June 9, 2011 at 12:37 pm

Gotta say, I agree with Rebekah. How does that work though? Are your images “your” images or do they belong to the entity for which you took them – like LIFE or Nat. Geo?

Doc says:

on June 9, 2011 at 2:06 pm

Thanks for the post Joe. Even though Mr. Kevorkian was not one of my favorite people you did bring some of Jack’s feelings and personality with it.

Is Time going to let you post any more pictures? I’d love to see some him working on his paintings.

Carl Schaefer says:

on June 9, 2011 at 2:21 pm

Joe, thanks again for a great blog post. You teased us a bit in your story about the preparation required for a NatGeo shoot. May I suggest a detailed blog post of a typical NatGeo shoot? What happens between the time you’re awarded a story from NatGeo and the time it’s finally published? That would be a great read!!

emily says:

on June 9, 2011 at 3:13 pm

Joe, The humor in your blog post allows us to see Jack as human.

Antonio O says:

on June 9, 2011 at 3:39 pm

Its nice to hear that the man was an actual human being. The images of him in the media vilified him to no end ad although many would not agree with his line of work, we all have to agree that he had courage for “sticking to his guns”

Mr. McNally, Thanks for another great post.

Chris Santos says:

on June 9, 2011 at 4:10 pm

Awesome post, you are not only an excellent photographer but you also can tell a good story.
I do not agree with Dr. Kevorkian, my believes tell me otherwise but he was an interesting person, hope he can find his way wherever he is now.

Phil says:

on June 9, 2011 at 6:41 pm

Thanks for sharing this story with us. Great picture, you nailed it.

Ray says:

on June 9, 2011 at 7:22 pm

There is a great movie from the 80’s called Who’s Life Is It Anyway? that deals with similar issues, that you might like.

Love ya!


Jim says:

on June 9, 2011 at 8:58 pm

He served a Great purpose to those whom wanted HIS Service. May he Rest in Peace.

Andy says:

on June 10, 2011 at 2:36 am

That is a killer photo of him. So often the press just gives one side, not the truth but only the sensational side that sells newspapers.

Thanks Joe for sharing this!

Sunday Grant says:

on June 10, 2011 at 2:22 pm

I had to look up a few words to figure out what they mean but I still love your writing! So happy about your big blog win and so happy you write a blog. I can’t wait to see the pictures you do from the 10th anniversary 9/11 shoot. I am sure they will make me cry!

Rich Cave says:

on June 10, 2011 at 5:09 pm

Joe, cmon as a photographer you must know that toast is never burned just over exposed, never heard of the guy in the UK so googled him, interesting fellow


DaveB says:

on June 12, 2011 at 11:05 am

a love him hate him kind of guy… nice to hear a little about the person…

Linnea says:

on June 12, 2011 at 12:09 pm

Interesting. Thank you!

mark daniel says:

on June 13, 2011 at 12:34 pm

i like it when people write in a way that forces me to reach for the dictionary and expands my vocabulary. great story joe.

RC says:

on June 13, 2011 at 8:25 pm

This picture is always been one of those shots of yours that’s fascinated, terrified, and calmed me on many occasions. The amounts of levels that there are two it is just so intense… and every time I see it I just sit and stare at it…

Thanks for that.


Lyle says:

on June 14, 2011 at 7:24 pm

In addition to being an interesting and superb writer, you’re also loquacious !

JerseyStyle Photography says:

on June 15, 2011 at 3:45 pm

I was hoping you were going to do a post about your time with Jack. Thought of you when he passed, and when I was Pacino in “You Don’t Know Jack” on HBO recently. Love the image, love the post.

~ Mark

Andy says:

on June 21, 2011 at 10:27 am

article published quite interesting & informative so that adds new value to me

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