Two days after his 19th birthday, Rob Carwile leaned over his dying brother, put his own mouth on his brother’s, and breathed life into the motionless body.
A few minutes later, a woman from the fire department, en route from another accident, stopped on the highway, called for help, then aided in the resuscitation.
Joe Carwile (Joey, as we called him during his years at Western Kentucky University) is five and a half years older than Rob. Growing up together in Hardinsburg, Kentucky, it was evident the boys had different talents and different dreams.
“We were different,” says Rob. “He went to college, I didn’t. I always turned wrenches. I’ve always been a mechanic, and he’s always, you know, loved photography – for years, all the way back in high school.”
Rob Carwile, left, with older brother Joe
I have never met Rob Carwile; I have spoken to him only once on the phone. But I’ve known Joey for a quarter of a century. I was his teacher for Basic Photography.
A tall, gangly, fun loving, “Opie Taylor-like” country boy, Joey loved photography and planned on being a photojournalist the rest of his life. He especially liked shooting sports and news, anything active. After completing three photography internships for newspapers in Ohio, Indiana and Michigan, he graduated from Western Kentucky with a photojournalism degree and moved to Hartford, Connecticut to free-lance for Courant. Joey seemed to have everything a country boy could want – a pickup truck, a steady girlfriend and a great job doing what he loved most – taking pictures for a newspaper.
But real life dreams can change as quickly as those in our sleep.
During a break from work, Joey drove home – one thousand miles – for his little brother’s 19th birthday. Two days later, on September 14th, 1994, the brothers decided to take a drive to buy a car stereo for Joe’s pickup. Neither could have known how quickly, how drastically, their lives would change in the next 30 minutes.
“I’ll never forget, I was following the dude and he was in a van,” Rob said, remembering the accident that happened 20 years ago this week.
“He had his signal on for a long time. He would slow down, then he’d take back off, so I started to keep a little bit of distance. Then we come up on an intersection, and he went to turn off the right hand side of the road, and I’d let off the gas and was slowing down, coming up on him.”
Without notice, the van suddenly made a U-turn in the intersection and t-boned Rob’s truck.
“Joey was siting there, looking at CDs in a case in the floorboard of my truck. And he looked up, and I’ll never forget it, he goes, ‘No!’”
“The guy hit us right in the front driver post of the pickup on Joey’s side. We lost control and started barrel rolling. We flipped almost four times.”
As Rob tells the story, reliving that day, his voice begins cracking, and I can hear him fighting tears.
“I stayed in the vehicle; he got thrown out. I felt his feet hit me in the head when he got ejected.”
“The truck was lying on the driver’s side when it stopped. And I crawled out of it and I looked but I didn’t see him. I walked around to the other side of the pickup and I seen him lying there. My first thought was he’s knocked out. You know, he’s going to be fine, he’ll get up. We’ll get our stuff and get out of here.
“I went to grab him and he was stiff as board. I checked for his breathing and he was barely getting air.”
“Wow, makes my eyes water,” Rob said, choking with the memory. “Whew, you caught me off guard.”
“I thought he was dead.” He could barely get the words out.
“He’s my only brother.”
While most of Joey’s injuries were to his body, his brother Rob’s wounds were invisible, emotional. He walked away from the accident with a few cuts and bruises on the outside, but inside, he was deeply wounded.
Though he was not at fault for the accident, he struggled with the nagging guilt of not being able to avoid it.
“It’s all you think of when you go to bed or get up,” Rob said. “No matter who you got with you, when you are driving anything, you take that responsibility of being in control. And you soon realize you are not in control. You only control what you can do, but not what happens, not what everything else is going to throw at you.”
“He loved being able to go out and get pictures and write a little bit about it. He was so happy when he went to Flint, Michigan, and he was at Hartford. It was him doing it! I could tell he had a sense of pride. When you can take nothing and make something from it…”
His voice cracked.
“Seems like his dream got cut short.”
A long road to recovery
Joey was in a coma for 11 days. He spent a month in the Davis County hospital before being transferred to a rehabilitation center in Durham, North Carolina, where for four painful months he struggled to walk and regain control of his arms, legs, hands and speech, and to learn new job skills.
His career as a newspaper photographer was over.
Hoping to lift his spirits, one of his therapists let Joey use her camera to shoot some pictures. But the experiment failed.
“The pictures were out of focus and poorly composed and the list goes on,“ Joe remembers. It was one of the many low points he would endure the next two decades. He thought to himself, “Who is going to hire a photographer that can’t even stand up?”
Meanwhile, back home his parents were getting divorced, his father blaming the breakup on the stress of the accident.
Joe said during his time in North Carolina, he plummeted to an “especially low point” and contemplated suicide more than once.
Unable to continue as a shooting photojournalist, Joe determined to become an “imager,” a technician that prepares other people’s pictures for publication. This allowed him to stay in the profession he loved. He worked for three years for the Tribune in South Bend, Indiana, as an image technician and then seven months for the Herald-Leader in Lexington, Kentucky. But as he openly admits, the workflow was too fast and he couldn’t keep up.
It’s been a long and often lonely road to recovery for Joe, littered with many days of frustration and self-doubt. But as difficult as it has been, he has never put the camera away and has continued trying to find a way to make a living doing what he loves most: making pictures.
Two decades after the accident that almost ended his life – and years of rehabilitation and therapy – Joe says, optimistically, “I can walk now, I can run. I can drive. I can do whatever.”
“I have never met nobody as strong as what he is,” admires Rob, Joe’s greatest admirer. “He’ll get down and out for years, but he’s always striving to do better.”
He never quit photography
And however difficult, Joe never quit making pictures. “The camera helped me get back to some sense of normalcy,” he said.
Even while working at Wal-Mart for the past six years and holding a second job at a Lexington rehabilitation center as a “companion,” who helps other people recover, the camera has always remained in Joe’s life. He still dreams of the day he can make his living again with photography.
He continues trying to build a portrait business but admits it has been challenging. He says, with no hint of jealously, “There are just so many other talented photographers in town.”
A new dream appears
And then, a couple of years ago, when it seemed photography would never again bring him the joy it once did, a new dream flew into his back yard. Literally.
Joe began photographing insects – bugs, beetles and butterflies. He soon realized his back yard was a world he could manage, and photographing the tiny creatures brought him great joy.
“Before the accident, I would wake up with my camera and go to bed with my camera,” he said. “Now, I am not as mobile as I was before, so I have to take full advantage of shadows and light and the insects flying in the area. I can keep up with some of those. I photograph the things that come to me.”
He adds, “I feel at peace when I am out in nature. I focus on the smaller things most don’t pay any attention to, like an ant crawling on a leaf.”
Joe is especially fascinated with dragonflies. His photographs of the mysterious creatures, often seen as symbols of emotional and spiritual change, have become his signature. They are extremely symbolic of the change in his own metamorphosis.
Joe’s smiling dragonfly
Finding hope and comfort
I asked Joe where he found comfort during the many dark and lonely days.
“Knowing that my brother was hurting. Anytime I got even a little better – the tiniest amount of improvement – that made me feel better,” Joe shared. “Anytime I get better, he gets better. Anything good happens to me, and Rob is on top of the world.”
He adds, “My brother is the world to me. He gave me rescue breath for his 19th birthday.”
Click here to see Joe Carwile’s Photography