Safelight is the spare, haunting story of Frank, a young paramedic and amateur photographer working the streets of New York in the 90s. It is a time of crack wars and blazing neighborhoods, and Frank responds to a constant stream of carnage with disconnected apathy, shooting meticulous pictures of the injured and dead while his partner shields him from onlookers. Back at base, medics pass the photos around rating the best shots of degradation, not entirely oblivious to their artistic potential. Frank seems to be sleepwalking through life, a response to his father’s recent death and the wading through constant trauma day in and day out.
Then he meets Emily and something begins to shift.
The medics of New York (all male) are detached, numbed, and calloused. There is no altruism here, merely survival. Most are doing the job because there’s really nothing else they believe they can do. They run the streets unsupervised in two man crews. It’s a time in New York’s history when crime and violence reigned and medics worked with little oversight or accountability. Frank and his hardened partner, Burnett, respond to patients as they see fit. They are good medics, but short on compassion and devoid of empathy, operating with a shattered moral compass. Patients may be beaten, narcotics may be stolen. It’s all in a day’s work.
Frank walks a thin line of self-destruction, yet despite his apathy, striking even for this crowd, he has a different perspective. Something is there, a consciousness, slumbering beneath his laconic exterior, waiting to break through. It’s on a call ending in bloodshed that he meets Emily and very slowly begins to wake up.
Emily is young, wounded, and HIV positive in a time when AIDS was laden with superstition and fear. No one at work is surprised that Frank is drawn to her (they all know he has a thing for the sick, dead, and broken) and they do their best to try and protect him. Yet, Emily is not the real danger– they are, with their coldness, their numbness, their hardened hearts, all side-effects of a job shutting them down and disconnecting them from humanity.
It is through Emily that Frank gradually becomes humanized, sensitized. By coming to know a dying girl his view of the world is slowly reborn. Emily is a lifeline that if embraced has the potential to reconnect Frank to the world and to himself. But will he take it?
As a medic, I find it interesting how the men of Safelight close themselves off and shut down a part of themselves in order to do their jobs. But what happens when the compartmentalization crumbles and the detachment begins bleeding over to the rest of their lives? What happens when you see tragedy on a constant basis, year after year, with too little time to decompress? How do you stay open to the tender beauty of life? Often, it is the ones we love who keep us tethered to our humanity and reveal the meaning of our existence. Without them there is not much to stop us from drifting off into the cold, dark void of emptiness.
Shannon Burke is a wonderful writer and Safelight is a fast, deep read. The writing is spare, haunting, and beautiful with a thoroughly believable character arc. Safelight, so named for the red light that illuminates Frank’s otherwise blacked out darkroom, starts out emotionally sparse and grows more intense as Frank begins to heal and awaken. By the end, I could not stop reading and when it was all over the story stayed with me a long time.
Haunting. Hopeful. Beautiful.