I just completed shooting what may be some of the best work of my life and none of you may see it. In fact, I have not looked at it. The story I am about to tell you will, hopefully, enlighten and teach you, as it did me. So, if you have time to read something that made me do things I have never done in 35 years of being a professional photographer and forced me to see and feel things so personal and so deep that I felt it in my soul, read on.
I arrived at the funeral home before the viewing just prior to them. The family, usually, has a private viewing before the public arrives. As I watched them enter the room, I decided not to enter with them. I couldn’t. This was something they didn’t need to see again. I shared a few moments with my friend after they came out of the room that were deeply personal and meaningful to me and that I will never forget.The entire family was so gracious to me. It was unbelievable. Here was this awful situation but it felt very natural for me to be there for them. I have shot highly emotional events in the past, and it is quite different when they don’t want you to be there.
The entire time I danced on the tightrope of my training and my humanity. I stayed back and didn’t shoot some of the highly emotional moments I saw. I did this at the request of the family. But there are some very emotional photos that I shot because I am still a journalist, and I shoot what I see. Some of those photos triggered the breakdown I had later that day.
Christian’s son “Mack” was a goalie for a youth soccer team, and I was aware the team was coming to the viewing. I saw them before anyone else did, and all I could say, out loud, and to myself was, “Dear God.” The team walked into the room, the boys wearing their team jerseys. It was so emotional for all of the adults. It tore you up inside. But the kids, his buddies, his teammates — what could be more gut wrenching? Some of the boys were just fine, but a few were just gone with emotion. This is when the tears streamed down my face. They hugged the family, they saw their friend, they were crushed and so was I. I was surprised at my reaction from the back of the room. I pulled up the camera and just shot. I think the journalist in me took over. Autopilot. I wasn’t sure I could shoot through this much emotion, but I did. I have always felt that the camera was a shield that I saw the world through. It has helped me see things and has protected me from seeing things, if that makes sense. This isn’t the way life is meant to be played out. Kids dealing with grown-up things. The death of a child is so hard to fathom. And, here I was in the middle of it all. Invited.
The rest of the night was a blur. The church service the next day was better, for me, than the viewing. I had a lot of stares from people who thought I was there for the press and didn’t know why I was there. I was way out of place, but I kept my distance. But that didn’t matter to me. If I did ANYTHING to ease any bit of pain for this family, then I did what I set out to do. My audience is a handful of people that may never look at the work I did, and I am good with that.
As an educator, I teach my students to learn from everyone they meet and from everything they do. What I learned about myself, my profession, my friends and my life was greatly enriched by this experience. I hope I have the wisdom and the words to pass along what I have learned. Teaching is so much more than facts. I believe our lives are judged by the relationships we have with people. I am so grateful to have picked a vocation that has enriched my life so much and to people that have trusted me through the years to tell their stories. People are amazing when they have little reason to trust you with some of the most intimate and emotional moments of their lives. I have been lucky to have gained that trust and have experienced some of the most heartfelt moments of my life. I hope there is peace in this family’s future.
You may never see this work, but that wasn’t why I was there. My work over these two days transcended mere photography, and it affected me more than I can put down in words. Now, one week after shooting this, I am still thinking about it. They say God works in mysterious ways. Maybe, I was asked to shoot this because I had something to learn. I did.