visual arts

Alum's Pulitzer Prize-winning photos featured in Seton Hall fire documentary

If Matt Rainey had his way, he would vanish.

“One of the catch phrases I use is ‘I’m the Invisible Man,’ ” says Rainey, 44, a Mason Gross grad and a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist. “. . . It’s not about me. I’m the conduit that brings one person’s Matt Raineylife to another person’s life. When you become aware of how I shoot something, that picture has failed you.”

Rainey says his visual-arts training at Mason Gross taught him to size up a situation, cut through the visual clutter and hone in on what photojournalists refer to as The Moment.

“I carry as little gear as I can so I’m not impeded to get to the moment . . . My style is fast,” says Rainey, a married father of three who lives in Clinton, N.J. “You must be able to think and adapt fast because moments are happening, and you can’t recreate them. I’m immersed in what’s happening.”

Rainey took home a Pulitzer in 2001 for a harrowing series of photographs published in The Star-Ledger newspaper. The intimate black-and-white images document the aftermath of the Seton Hall University dormitory fire and the arduous rehabilitation of two roommates, Shawn Simons and Alvaro Llanos. The Jan. 19, 2000, blaze in South Orange, N.J., injured 58 and killed three first-year students. 

Now, several hundred of Rainey’s images from that time, some of which have never been published, form the centerpiece of a recent documentary, After the Fire. The 36-minute film screened on campus in September 2011 at the New Jersey Film Festival.

Rainey, who has since left The Star-Ledger to start his own freelance photography business, says he and journalist Robin Gaby Fisher entrusted the story to filmmaker Guido Verweyen because they sensed that After the Fire was his “passion project.”

Rainey understands passion. Anyone who could spend 16 hours a day, seven days a week, for eight months documenting each moment in the burn center at Saint Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, N.J., understands passion.

Disappearing is “exactly his strength,” says Fisher, who was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for her stories on the fire’s aftermath. Fisher eventually wrote a best-selling book on the subject and now heads up the Rutgers-Newark Journalism Department. “What sets him apart is Matt can stand there—on a stool—shooting over nurses and doctors working on horribly burned Alvaro, and no one knew he was there . . . He gets so lost in getting the photo that he disappears. He doesn’t make a sound or show emotion; he just works.”

More than a decade on, the photos manage to retain a visceral power: The images—of numerous excruciating skin-graft procedures, anguished parents, Simons viewing his charred hand for the first time, Llanos opening his eyes in the wake of a nearly three-month coma—spanned 41 open newspaper pages, the most massive project the Newark-based newspaper had ever undertaken.

These days, Rainey is shooting weddings--including Simons' wedding in Cancun in July 2011--doing work for Getty Images and going on assignment for various newspapers, including The New York Times. He’s a journalist first—has been for 23 years; but he allows that a photojournalist’s output may contain elements of artistry as well. 

“I went to art school because I wanted to learn how to see,” he says. “I wanted to learn how to see, so I came to Rutgers.

“I knew I could pick up the technical,” he continues. “I needed to know how to see. I needed to know how to think. That’s what Rutgers gave to me.”

Fisher says she is convinced that her former colleague “sees something no one else sees. I believe that. He sees things I don’t see. It’s much more than just taking a picture. That’s not what he does. He creates.”

And disappearing into the moment? For Rainey, that’s what it’s all about.

“I want you to know those photos are real,” he says. “They’re not re-dos. Those moments happened. I was there, and I caught them.”

Photo captions: Top: Rainey today; above: April 16, 2001, the moment Rainey learns he's won the Pulitzer Prize For Feature Photography. Alvaro Llanos is beside him. View more of Rainey's work.

Matt Rainey, photos from After The Fire: