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Getting the Picture

The life of a newspaper photographer isn't what it used to be. There may be hope for us yet.

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The assignments of a newspaper photographer are a bizarre mix. The portfolio of Sun-Times photographer Bob Ringham, for example, includes shots of Gary Dotson's mother, a dog show in Donnelley Hall, cancer victims, baseball umpires, football players, a grain elevator deformed by a hurricane, a painting class for divorced fathers and their sons, a Mexican baseball stadium lined with corpses under dry ice, an orphanage in Saigon, a man whose job it is to turn off illegally opened fire hydrants in hot Chicago neighborhoods, and a father and daughter fishing at a suburban pool filled with goldfish.

Ringham, 38, has been with the Sun-Times for four years. Shortly after joining the staff he was nicknamed "Bunny"--just one of several monikers he's earned at the paper--after being dispatched to Marshall Field's to take a photograph of the Easter Bunny, or rather some Field's employee disguised as the Easter Bunny, who was having breakfast with children from a few of the city's poorer neighborhoods. The public relations woman at the scene, however, didn't want the Bunny's picture taken. Ringham, determined to show his new colleagues at the Sun-Times that he could "get the picture," was insistent. As the war of words escalated, Ringham worked up a bit of steam, and then had an unfortunate slip of the tongue. "All I want to do," he said, "is shoot the rabbit." At that point the woman called a security guard, and Ringham was shown to the door.

Ringham told me this story on a Friday evening last December, as he was ending a week in which he had taken pictures of high school basketball players, Walter Payton, presidential candidate Bruce Babbitt, and a participant in the "Grabowski Shuffle" video. That evening he was to photograph the members of Loyola University's 1963 basketball team, which won the NCAA championship, and I was going along for the shoot.

It was snowing as we drove up to Loyola's Alumni Gym, and Ringham talked about weather shots. It's easy to take a mediocre weather shot, he said, but hard to take a good one. Ringham told me that he once waited for three hours at a farm in Algonquin, hoping that a group of horses would shift so he could get a silhouette of dark fences and dark horses against a field of freshly fallen snow. Finally, one horse ambled into Ringham's frame, and he was able to squeeze off one shot before it turned back to the main group. Ringham returned to the farm the following winter and took another horse-fence-and-snow shot, which the paper also printed, and now, every time there is a major snowfall, Ringham's colleagues joke that they're off to find that farm.

Ringham went on to tell me that one of the first weather pictures he had ever taken had brought him considerable notoriety. Early in the winter of 1976, when Ringham was a rookie photographer with the Pantagraph of Bloomington, Illinois, he was dispatched to a local park to take a picture of some adolescents playing hockey. The game was unorganized, and when Ringham arrived on the scene, he sized up the participants as "one rich kid," who was dressed in a complete hockey uniform, and a group of four other teenagers who had just the bare essentials--sticks and skates. "So I thought what I could do is I could get a shot of somebody hittin' a puck at this net," Ringham said. "I'll lie next to this net here and he can shoot and I'll get the kid in the background. So I told the rich kid to slap one in the net, because he had all the gear and it would look better. Well I didn't realize at the time that he would be slapping one into my camera.

"So I'm layin' there and the puck comes in and the impact pushes my camera back into my forehead. I'm a little dizzy, my forehead is bleeding, and blood starts running down my eye. I've got like a used Kleenex and I'm trying to stop it. The four other kids are panicking, they got their sticks in the air, they start yelling, 'You killed the photographer.' At that moment, the park ranger comes by, sees the blood, sees the kids with their sticks in the air, and thinks these kids are trying to beat me up. He comes down with his hand on his gun, says 'Halt.' I said, 'Excuse me officer, I just got hit with a hockey puck.' He said, 'What?' I said 'Yeah, I got hit with a hockey puck.' He rushes me to the emergency room. I got four stitches in the head.

"So I called the paper, told them what happened, and said I'm goin' home. I was off the next day. A few days later I come in and I process the roll of film, and I have the puck just before it hit the camera--this huge puck and the guy in the background. It was just perfect, the kid slappin' the shot and there it is--boom. So the paper ran the shot and next to it, a head shot of me with a busted lens frame, sayin' that our photographer captured this shot and had four stitches in the head.

"So then the wires picked it up and it ran everywhere in the United States and even in Stars and Stripes, and they ran my name in the caption. So then I get these letters from all these hockey fans, saying, 'Boy, this is really nice that you're doin' this. You must really love hockey.' And I hate hockey."

I told Ringham that I was amazed he hadn't flinched, and for that he credited his military training. "I was a Marine," he said.

Ringham enlisted 20 years ago, leaving behind a blossoming career as a grocery clerk. "The manager of the store, George Baxter, would always greet every customer who came in, shake their hands, say hello," Ringham told me. "You don't see that anymore. Now you have computers that talk back to you. But old George, he had pride in that store. He claimed I was the best frozen food man in Indianapolis. I was in charge of the department, ordering, and when you're 17, 18, and you have command--what power!--'Let's order two boxes of green peas this week.' You'd always have the rep come out, you had an apron on, you had your stamper for marking prices, so you were somebody."

Ringham joined the Marines, not in any display of patriotism, not to fight the spread of Communism in Southeast Asia, but because he wanted to learn photography. His uncle, a lifer in the Marines, told Ringham that the Marine Corps had the best photo school in the country, and a local recruiter said the same. Ringham, fearing the draft, enlisted in August 1967.

"I went through the basics out at San Diego, went through all that craziness for eight weeks. The last day you get your orders, and everybody's an 03. It gets down to 'Ringham' and it's '03.' I said to myself, 'Damn, there's 80 guys here and we're all gonna be photographers. Some of these guys can't even write, can hardly sign their names.' So I raised my hand to the DI and he comes right up to my face and I said, 'Sir, does this mean we're all going to photography school?' He said, 'Photography school? You're in the fuckin' infantry,' and he hit me with a karate chop on the neck and knocked me down. I'm layin' on the ground, I said 'Wait a minute, I wanted to go to photography school, I don't want to go into the infantry.'"

On January 1, 1968, Ringham landed in Vietnam and a short time later was sent to defend a hill outside Khe Sanh. He joined a platoon of 55 men. By March 1, Ringham hadn't shaved, taken a shower, or brushed his teeth in more than two months; his underwear had rotted away; and 47 of the original 55 were either dead or wounded. Real food was a rarity, as supply helicopters came under heavy fire, and even C rations were scarce. Ringham's 19th birthday was on March 15, and on February 28 he buried a C ration pound cake, intending to dig it up for his birthday celebration. The pound cake is still there.

Late in the afternoon of March 1, Ringham and four other soldiers were rebuilding a command center when a mortar round landed in the hole they were digging. One man lost his nose, another his lung, another his life. A fourth soldier had a concussion, and Ringham was hit in both legs and in his left arm. His first thought was to yell for the medic--then he remembered that the medic was dead.

He was bandaged by another Marine, and the following day was being taken off the hill when a sniper opened fire on the stretcher-bearers. They dropped Ringham and fled for cover. The sniper didn't shoot Ringham, but instead used him as bait, waiting for someone to come to his rescue. Rescuers got through four hours later, and the following day Ringham was taken away by helicopter. Ringham marked his 19th birthday in a hospital in Japan, his leg looking like a piece of raw meat, the bone and muscle exposed.

A representative of the Marine Corps called on Ringham's parents and in the most sympathetic tones told them their son had lost his leg. Ringham's mother was then under a great deal of stress from a recent family move, and had another son about to enter boot camp; she suffered a nervous breakdown after the Marine's visit. When the family called Ringham in the hospital, they refused to believe him when he told them he still had both legs.

Today the injured leg still has about 30 pieces of shrapnel in it. The scar tissue tends to interfere with the knee's movement, and five years ago Ringham had an operation to cut some of the tissue away.

The Marine Corps never did teach Ringham photography, but he believes that the Marines made his career possible, that if he hadn't been wounded, he might today be a damn good frozen food man in Indianapolis. "When I got wounded and laid in that hole for three days, I said, 'Hey, if I get outa this, I'm gonna do what I want to do for the rest of my life--be a news photographer,'" Ringham told me.

As a disabled veteran, he was entitled to free tuition, and he finally learned photography at Southern Illinois University, graduating at the age of 27 and moving on to the Bloomington Pantagraph.

"I think being wounded affects things I want to cover," he told me. "A lot of things I've photographed are connected to something that happened to me personally. I did a story about a successful Vietnam vet, followed this black vet on the south side for eight months. He'd also been wounded. I did another story about a high-risk nursery--my wife and I lost a baby about ten years ago. I'd rather be wounded again than go through that pain. The baby lived for three days. That was our first. Since then we've been tryin', but it's been real difficult. I went to Washington to photograph the wall, and I looked up the last two guys that were killed before I was wounded. I kind of carried this guilt about these two guys, 'cause one of 'em stopped and offered me some peanuts. I don't know where he got them on this hill, but I said no, he went around the corner, the rocket round came in and killed him and another guy. Weideman and Szymanski. It always haunted me, what would have happened if I would've taken some of those peanuts and shot the shit? Maybe it wouldn't have happened or maybe it would have. It's just the way things are. The ranger there helped me look up their names, and all this emotion started to come up. I started crying, and I'm not a real emotional guy. It's just all comin' out. Some guy comes up out of the middle of nowhere, hugs me, and says it's gonna be OK. And he's right, it is OK. It's just the way life is. We were all dealt cards, and my cards were that I was gonna survive, and their cards were that they weren't. You just have to live with that. It kind of changed my outlook on photography. I started seeing more things. I had gotten rid of this burden."

The photo of the 1963 Loyola team was logistically difficult. Ringham set up his lighting on the gym floor and in the balcony, and then we waited while the players were rounded up. They were attending a reception held in their honor, and it took some time to pull them together from different parts of the room and get them over to the gym. A few players drifted in early and began to reminisce. In 1963, Loyola's starting five was made up of one white and four blacks, and one of the white players on the team's second string recalled being jeered as a "nigger lover" at southern schools, where it is now rare to find a white face among the players on the floor. The men in Loyola's gym that night were playing when the nation's civil rights battles were being played out on the streets. In Louisiana, many blacks boycotted the Loyola (Chicago) versus Loyola (New Orleans) game because the stands were segregated, and local authorities threatened to arrest the black members of the Chicago team if they were housed together with the whites. As the NCAA tournament began, the players of Mississippi State challenged an injunction in order to play Loyola; Mississippi law forbade them to play against an integrated team.

When the members of the team were finally assembled, Ringham had about 15 minutes to get his photographs before the players were expected back at the banquet ceremonies. Fifteen minutes isn't much when you are shooting color in a gymnasium, trying to get a championship pennant and a scoreboard into the background. Ringham had been told to imitate a photo that had appeared in a recent issue of Sports Illustrated, and retired Loyola coach George Ireland told us that that photo session had taken three hours.

Ringham finished in his 15 minutes, and we packed up his gear and headed back to the Sun-Times photo lab, where he hoped I'd get to meet Jack Lenahan. Lenahan began his career as a professional photographer in 1949, reporting for duty six days before Ringham was born. "Guys like Jack, they were in it when photographers had power," Ringham said. "Today it's all TV. Newspapers have no power. I go to a press conference and they count how many TV stations have turned up."

The main room of the Sun-Times photo lab contains six beat-up typewriters, half of which need serious repair. Two radios, one tuned to the fire department, the other to the police, would interrupt conversations except that no one pays them much attention. The entire room could be fairly described as low-tech, and it feels more like a clubhouse than a place where people sweat for wages. A great deal of kidding and joking goes on there, and Ringham and Lenahan play no small part in it.

Lenahan, who had been at a fire off Wells Street while we were at Loyola, was sitting behind a typewriter when we walked in. He is 60, of average height, and wore a cardigan sweater and a tie. He is the son of Irish immigrants and the father of four sons and three daughters--all of them college educated, none of them photographers. "My son wanted to be a photographer," Lenahan told me. "I disowned him. Would you want your son hanging out with a guy like Ringham?"

I asked Lenahan about the fire he'd been sent to cover. "There was nothin' there," he said, "it was all smoke. And there must've been 40 or 50 people there with better equipment than I had, just walkin' by."

When Lenahan started at the Sun-Times, newspaper photographers used Speed Graphics cameras, recording images on four-by-five inch sheets of film. The sheets were bound in "holders"--metal frames that held two sheets of film. A photographer would take one picture on one side of the holder and a second shot on the other side. "Years ago," Lenahan said, "if somebody was covering a fire or something and they had a high position, everybody would pass their holders up and he would take the shot for ya. There was a guy on the Tribune, worked the midnight shift, there'd be a story and he would show up, get out of his car, and never take a camera. He'd give a holder to someone else to shoot a picture for him. A photographer in those days was only issued 20 holders, so you could take only 40 pictures before you had to go back to the paper. Now a guy can shoot 400 without any problem. Bob Ringham shoots 36 on a no-show."

Lenahan had been to a photo school and was working for a commercial photographer when he was hired, at the age of 21, by Tom Howard, then the Sun-Times's chief photographer. "He was famous. He made Ruth Snyder's--she was electrocuted, he made her picture in the electric chair. He strapped a camera to his leg, and while everybody was watchin' her, he lifted up his pant leg and made one shot. It was a blurry shot and everything, but still she had the hood and everything on and was electrocuted.

"On electrocutions they used to always have the press as witnesses. Some guys used to fight for the tickets. It's unbelievable. We used to be able to go into the cells with the guy on the day he was dying, take pictures of him and everything. One of the last guys was Ciucci. Vincent Ciucci--it was this time of the year--his whole family, his wife and three kids, died in a fire. He supposedly ran in to try to save 'em. We went to make a picture of him as a hero, then when the bodies got to the morgue, there's a bullet hole in each of their heads. He had a girlfriend, wanted to get rid of his kids. Just before he died in the electric chair, we had a reporter by the name of Ray Brennan, and he got to Ciucci, and his story was that his wife had killed the children because he was foolin' around with this girl, and then he in turn killed his wife. He didn't deny that he had killed his wife, but he claims he could never have killed his kids. But he died in the electric chair.

"How things were done in those days, Ciucci's mother was sitting there in the jail all day on the day he was electrocuted, and the Chicago American photographer didn't think she looked sad enough--the poor woman, she was in shock--so he gave her a handkerchief, set her up like she was crying. Larry Nocerino, he always carried a shoe, a broken umbrella. If there was an automobile accident, he'd throw the shoe down in the foreground, take a picture of "the victim's shoe.' If it was a weather picture he'd take out the broken umbrella. We used to do all kinds of corny pictures. Frozen underwear out on the lines--it always made a funny picture, a guy's long johns frozen in the wind, a woman out there trying to break 'em. I remember pilin' up snow around a parking meter and havin' a guy layin' on the snow tryin' to get his coin in, and there wasn't enough snow--we had to keep pilin' on more. That was an acceptable practice then. But then the writers weren't perfect either."

Twenty years ago, at roughly the same time that Ringham was bleeding in a ditch in Khe Sanh, Lenahan was bleeding in a street in downtown Chicago. "Cops were beating kids," he recalled. "You got used to seeing that. When a club would come down on a head, it would be like a ssswwiiisshh, and then the club would come up, and then--it's just like the sea parting--the guy's head would just split open and all of a sudden just gush up the blood. I had seen that so many times--heads bein' split open--you got used to it. Must be a lot of kids goin' around that have brain damage. That's what I was thinking of when I was down on my knees and the cops were hitting me with their clubs.

"It was the April before the convention. They had a peace march taking place in Grant Park and then they ended up at the Civic Center. And it was an all-day deal. And they were carrying the Vietcong flag, and there were a lot of veterans among the cops, and they were seething. So it erupted into a real brawl, and the cops started chasing 'em all over. They chased them down into State Street, into the Loop area. Cops were knocking old women down and everything. And up until that time we had a close relationship with the police, they never really bothered us. So I was takin' pictures of it and one cop tried to run me over with his three-wheel motorcycle. And I went over to him. I said, 'Hey, you know I'm with the Sun-Times,' and the guy hollers 'Help!' and about 15 cops jumped on me and started hittin' me and kickin' me. And some of the cops knew me, which really saved me--they were pulling the other cops off. Jimmy Smestad of UPI was takin' pictures of me being beaten up.

"So that was a big, big deal. We had a meeting with the police superintendent, they issued us with armbands, and this was never gonna happen again, and they apologized. I had relations on the Police Department, I didn't file charges. I just figured they were hot and I was standin' there. But then comes the convention in the summer and I realize I was just a prelude. I had cop friends of mine that were couriers picking up film for TV stations, and they got beat up even as they were trying to get their badges out.

"The Police Department is so different now. There was a statistic the other day, there's only a real small percentage of policemen left who were actually involved with the convention. The majority of those cops have retired. The Police Department was old at that time anyway. And you had goofy cops. I lived in Marquette Park, and they used to have open-housing marches in the neighborhood, and you'd see little old women comin' out screamin' and hollerin' at the demonstrators, and the cop would walk up to them and bang, give 'em a shove. There was one poor old guy, one time he got caught in a chain fence, there's two cops around him--boom, boom. Another time they're marchin' down 63rd Street and the taverns are hollerin' out insults, the cop in charge sends the cops into the taverns to beat up all the guys in the taverns. A lot of these cops lived in the neighborhood. The neighbors used to taunt them. It was a weird scene."

When I asked Ringham and Lenahan what their worst assignments had been, both agreed that in general the worst assignment was being sent out to collect a photograph of a dead person. Those jobs are known as "handouts" at the Sun-Times because the photos are "handed out" by the victim's family. Ringham explained that he either copies the image at the site (taking a picture of the picture), or he brings the photo back to the Sun-Times, copies it there, and returns it by mail the following day.

"It's hard to talk to people," Ringham said. "You feel like a real jerk. I had to go to a place on the south side--a girl got killed, burned in a fire--I had to go to her grandmother's house to get the photo. I went in and she just pointed to the picture on the mantel. I picked the photo up, took it by the window where there was enough light for me to copy it, and a cockroach ran down my arm. You make the picture, you say you're sorry, and you get out the door as fast as you can."

Lenahan recalled being sent for a handout when three carpenters were killed during the construction of Marina City. He and John Austad, a photographer from the Tribune, arrived at one widow's house simultaneously. "So we walk up to the door, and you could hear the radio playing, and the woman answered the door all friendly," Lenahan said. "John and I looked at each other and said to her, 'We have the wrong address, sorry to bother you.' We both knew she didn't know. So then we went next door and we asked the woman if she knew the people, how well she knew 'em. We said, 'Her husband has been killed and no one has called her. Would you go in and break the news to her--because it's going to be terrible if she hears it on the radio--and while you're in there, would you mind getting a picture?' The last little line, you know. So then John and I are sittin' outside and we hear her screaming and hollering. The construction company just didn't bother to call her. She could have literally heard it on the radio."

Lenahan told me that his worst single assignment was the night of the fire at Our Lady of Angels School on December 1, 1958. In the wake of the fire, which killed 92 children and 3 nuns, Lenahan was dispatched to the morgue. "The kids were all lined up in the basement. They had to stand the parents up outside, like you were waitin' to get into the theater, and they'd take 'em down two at a time. The line was hundreds of people."

The conversation turned back to fires then, and Ringham said that the spread of smoke detectors had nearly eliminated the photogenic blazes of days gone by. Lenahan agreed. "You very seldom see a good fire anymore," he said. "The fire department is so much more efficient. Communications are so much better. Before it was common, it was nothing to see a building really ablaze. You don't see that hardly at all anymore, and the second they get there and hit it with a line, it's gone. Unless it's set, like that last good one the Korean businessman was supposed to have set, which killed the three firemen."

At 10 PM, with the shift over, Lenahan and Ringham headed for home. Lenahan's coat was heavy with smoke, and Ringham suggested that Mrs. Lenahan might smell her husband before she saw him. The older photographer said it was one of the hazards of duty--I wasn't sure whether he meant his or his wife's--and with that he walked out the door.

I caught up with Ringham again on December 23, during the hours when the day and evening shifts overlap, and the photo room was jammed. Ringham had photographed the release of a wounded state trooper from Northwestern Hospital earlier that afternoon, and his film was still being processed when the photo desk called with another assignment. After a brief conversation, Ringham hung up, gathered his gear, and with considerable nonchalance announced that there was a "hostage situation" at Fullerton and Mannheim. I walked out the door with Ringham, but not before I noticed that I seemed to be the only person in the room who thought this might be an interesting assignment.

Ringham explained the group's low-key reaction as we drove to the expressway. "Everybody's been on one of these things," he said. "Everybody knows that you're not gonna get a picture. Now if there was a fire and they were throwin' babies out the window, you'd see everybody jump out the door. But with this, when we get out there we're gonna be half a mile away from the scene. The cops bring in their SWAT teams, you can't see anything, so you just sit out there waitin'. Every one that I been at, when they get the guy, they hustle him right out the back. You might get a picture of the ambulance or whatever they put him in, but that's about it. The only one good one I had--remember the guy that buzzed the restaurant up on the Edens, he was all mad at his wife? Well he got out of jail on bond, and a couple months later he was over at his parents' house, he was holding them hostage. I snuck down the street as close as I could. It was across the street from where he was at, and the guy let me sit in his kitchen. So I sat in his kitchen and I had a nice picture, 'cause he came outside with the shotgun. It was grainy as heck, but it made a good picture.

"It just depends on how close you can get, if a resident will let you in. The one where the guy shot a couple dogs and a cop, I was at the police station all day waitin' for them to bring him in. But [Sun-Times photographers] Barry [Jarvinen] and Al [Podgorski] were there all night in this house. Barry had a shot of him actually throwin' a dog out the window after he shot it. He gave up in the middle of the morning, but then, you're so far away.

"It's a whole different ball game today than it was 30 years ago. The police were more friendly, you could get in more situations. Now they want to keep you as far away as possible." Ringham compared working in the United States to his experiences covering the earthquake in Mexico in 1985. In Mexico, he said, he had climbed on collapsed buildings with rescue workers unhindered by local authorities. He imagined that if the earthquake had happened in California instead of Mexico City, the police would have arrested him for attempting the same shots.

He got no chance to prove his point that night. A half hour after we had set off, as we crawled with the traffic on the Eisenhower, the assignment desk called on the car radio and instructed him to "return to base." The Franklin Park police later told me that what we thought was a "hostage-type situation" had in fact been a false alarm. The police were after a culprit who had allegedly shot another man whom he had caught philandering with his wife. The police believed that the gunman had taken refuge in a house near Fullerton and Mannheim, and the Cook County sheriff's police had cordoned off the area, only to discover that the man they were after was not there.

Later that night Ringham was dispatched to a Blackhawks game, which he photographed with considerable aplomb given his nasty history with hockey pucks, and after we got back, he showed me slides and prints of some of his work. He told me that he thought 1986 had been his best year, as he had done two series in a seven-month period that had moved great numbers of people. In the fall, he had recorded the last months of a friend who was dying of cancer, a 25-year-old mechanic with a wife and three children. The photographs and the accompanying story by Mike Cordts brought the widow several thousand dollars in unsolicited donations. In the spring of that year, Ringham returned to Vietnam with a group of other veterans; his photos and accompanying story provoked scores of veterans to write and call the photographer in sympathy and congratulation.

The rest of Ringham's portfolio contains a great deal of mourning, sadness, and violent accident, in part, I think, because of the nature of the news business, and in part, I think, because of the nature of Bob Ringham. Yet for all the tragic images, it's hard to think about Ringham, Lenahan, the pictures they've taken, and the years they span without feeling a good deal of hope. While it's true that you don't see grocery store managers shaking customers' hands anymore, you don't see segregated gymnasiums either. Reporters no longer clamor for tickets to executions, and photographers no longer fake shots as a matter of course. Nineteen-year-old Americans aren't bleeding in foreign trenches, Chicago policemen aren't beating up photographers, and it's damn hard to find a good fire.

Ringham's experience in peacetime Vietnam left him with a similar feeling. When he got off the plane in Hanoi in 1986, he was stunned to find the Vietnamese didn't hate him--that in fact, many seemed to like Americans. The Vietnamese, he found, had forgiven him, and he concluded that it was time he forgave himself. "It was just a time of my life that I went through and I thank God that I don't have to think about it every day or talk about it, and it bothers me when I am around those who do," Ringham told me. "To me, it was a part of my life, I survived, and I'm on to somethin' else."

Some things, however, jog his memory. "The smell around airports automatically puts you back," he said. "And still today, if I am out playing golf and hear those helicopters come over, I have to stop. I always think one time they're gonna come down and motion for me to get on, and I want to make sure I can get away."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Mike Tappin, Bob Ringham, Chicago Sun-Times Inc..

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