Lessons from the Sarah Jones Tragedy

Steven Poster, ASC was busy prepping his latest feature when I reached him. The movie is a Tier 1 project, and Poster plans to shoot using Canon C500 cameras, Codex recorders and a 2K 12-bit file format. The shoot will take place in Los Angeles, on stages and at practical locations in Hancock Park and Long Beach.

Of course our conversation quickly turned to the Sarah Jones tragedy, in which a 27-year-old camera assistant was killed and six others injured on a film set in Georgia. I asked Steven for his perspective as ICG Local 600 president, and as an experienced filmmaker.

“One of the issues is that we are working in show business,” he says. “Nobody should ever be injured for the purposes of entertainment. We must work with a sense of shared responsibility. As a community, we need to get that message and that lesson across. It’s not a matter of rules — there are rules and guidelines for everything, and in this case they were not followed. That’s the crux. Had they been followed, Sarah and her fellow crewmembers in Georgia would never have been up on that trestle. We all know that ours is not a safe business, but if the rules are followed, you’re far more likely to have a safe workplace.

“In our contract, it says that every crew person has the absolute right to refuse work if that person feels concerned or unsafe,” says Steven. “We have the right to make that refusal without negative consequences. There are always filmmakers downplaying the risks saying, ‘C’mon, let’s just grab this.’ This is combined with our can-do attitude, and the culture that teaches us to always find a way.

“But this tragedy underscores that it’s imperative that we be vigilant in watching out for ourselves and for each other,” he says. “I’ve had enough experience that I can usually tell when something doesn’t smell right. That’s an extremely important part of the job. I’ve shut down a number of shows for safety concerns, but I am in a different position. People have to understand that there are consequences. But we also need to trust our instincts, and have the confidence to step up and say, ‘This is not right.’”

“The safety of our crews is of paramount importance to this union and we will work tirelessly to ensure that a tragedy of this kind never happens again,” Poster told the L.A. Times. “There is no way we can mitigate the pain and the loss of Sarah. But we hope that something productive can come out of this very unfortunate situation.”

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The March 6 candlelight vigil in Hollywood was attended by more than 1000. A similar events occurred in Jones’ hometown of Columbia, South Carolina and in Atlanta Local 600 hosted an event that was attended by as many as 700. At the Hollywood event, Poster read from a letter that Jones wrote to the cast and crew of Army Wives 2, her first professional job.

“I believe everything happens for a reason, good and bad,” she wrote. “It’s been the most stressful, tiresome, best summer of my life. I wouldn’t have wanted to spend it any other way. I know I’m young and I know I still have so much to learn, but being only 21 and just knowing this is right is an incredible feeling. I feel I can conquer so much more and handle situations better knowing what I know now.”

Poster addressing the crowd. Photo by Craig T. Mathew.
Poster addressing the crowd. Photo by Craig T. Mathew.

Poster concluded his remarks by saying, “We are here to commemorate her life. We’re here to etch into our memories this tragic event. And we’re here in solidarity. We will never forget Sarah. Her memory is our beacon, guiding us in the right direction… Let’s celebrate Sarah’s life every day by watching each other’s backs. That is the human expression of union solidarity. Thanks to all of you, we’re showing the world that our union is a family. And this union vows: Never forget, never again!”

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