Emotional downpour………….

W0708Dear photographers and friends ,
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.
It all began on New Year’s Day as I read the Facebook news feed, as I normally do. Then I read the following post from Christian Brady, a friend who is the dean of the Schreyer Honors College: “Words cannot begin to express the deep, wrenching sorrow that our family feels at the sudden and unexpected death of our boy.” WHAT? HOW? WHY? His 8-year-old son passed away? WHAT? I knew nothing about this, and the frantic search began. I re-read his previous posts, trying to figure out what had happened to hurtle him into the midst of every parent and grandparent’s worst nightmare. We all refuse to think about even the possibility of such an horrible event in our lives. We are not wired to handle those emotions. Only when it is thrust upon you can you deal with that kind of grief. My heart ached for my friend and his family. What can you do when you hear that kind of news? You can give your condolences and prayers, but it isn’t enough. What could I do to help them in this time of unimaginable personal tragedy? I felt helpless.
As a professional photographer I decided that the only thing I could offer was to make large prints for them to display at the viewing. I was wrong. What happened next is truly remarkable.
I made the offer and hoped he would allow me to do this for them. A small thing for me, but something I thought would help. He replied and said he was thinking about doing just that, and it would be a huge help to them. You see he is a avid photographer and is always talking shop with me as I do jobs for the school. He is also a bigger Apple geek than I am so you can see where this is heading. We became friends very quickly. After he sent me the images to blow up, I received a text message from him that I didn’t think twice about. It simply read “Call me.” I thought he had some instructions for me on sizes or something like that. He was in grief like I never heard before. The next thing he said to me stopped me in my tracks. “Pat, I have a favor to ask of you.” “Sure”, I said. “Anything I can do to help.” “I talked it over with my wife, and we would like you to photograph the viewing and funeral for us.” I swear my heart stopped. I doubt what I said next was coherent or barely even audible. I think I said yes and mumbled something else.I have photographed some very sad stories in my life, and I have shot through more than my share of tears. This, however, was different. I have never been asked to be on the inside of such a deeply personal story. He gave me every out possible to back out of doing this for him. He didn’t want me to feel obligated or uncomfortable. I sent him a message telling him I needed to give it some serious thought, that as I have gotten older I have become more and more emotional, and I wasn’t sure I could handle it. I needed to sleep on it. However, I didn’t. The next hour or so my mind was on fire. I couldn’t stop thinking about all of it. How could I do this? How could I not do this? I have grandchildren the age of his son. I didn’t know what to do. I spoke with a few personal friends I could share this with and straightened out my thoughts. When I had spoken with him, he guided me to a blog about a woman who had shot a funeral for a friend and said I should look at it. I did. What I learned was she had the exact same thoughts as I did, except hers was from the perspective of actually having done it. It calmed me a great deal and made me realize what was important here. Here is a man and a family that trusted my skills as a photographer, my friendship and sensitivity to enter their lives at the most intimate and deeply personal time. I said yes. I am honored and humbled that they asked me. Over those next two days, I shot images I probably shouldn’t have, and I didn’t shoot things I probably should have. I think that is one of the reasons why they asked me to do this. I tried to be as hidden and respectful as possible. This is time I needed to be invisible.
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.


About patlittleimages

I am a Central Pennsylvania native. I have been a professional Photojournalist for over 35 years. I work as a Photo adviser for the Daily Collegian at Penn State and I am a freelance Photojournalist, under contract with Reuters. I am, basically, a hired gun. Pay me, I'll work for you. Oh yeah, I am also an artist. I travel and sell my work everywhere East of the Mississippi. I call State College, PA home, but I live in a small town, with my wife Mindy, called Philipsburg, PA. After years behind the camera observing life, I have discovered I have something to say. This all came about when all the news broke around Penn State. I have been engulfed in all of it and I have a lot to say. This is my home and it just struck a cord that I couldn't silence.
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6 Responses to Emotional downpour………….

  1. Dixie says:

    Just reading this had me there with you, sharing in the grief.

  2. Dear Pat, not only are you an outstanding photo journalist, but an extraordinary writer as well. I commend you for your work. I was at a memorial service the week before Christmas for a young military man who saw four tours of duty in Iraq and Afganistan, was recently promoted to Major, and took his own life with a Bible in his pocket. He is a victim of war.His family chose to photograph the service as well. I truly think it will help them in years to come to remember that Ben was being held up by the special forces comrades who understood, his pain, and by his family and friends who loved him. Thank you for your service to the Brady family. It is a tragedy for which there are no answers. I pray Nittany Nation will hold them up by supporting the scholarship fund. In that way, Mack’s dream will continue to live on. Bless you. Judi

  3. Vicky Kepler Didato says:

    as always Pat you touch a deep deep place within…it is a gift my friend…

  4. Gigi Marino says:

    I hope that at some point you and the family allow the images to be shared … so much humanity here, tragic an sad, but also a grief that defines us, something we should not be ashamed to feel. I’ve long thought that we do not, are not taught now to, grieve well in our culture.

  5. Rev. Richard I. Kepler says:

    Thank you my friend for that great insight! May God continue to develop His gifts in you. Love and miss you, Keppy

  6. Pingback: “Emotional Downpour” – Photographing Mack’s Funeral | Targuman | PhotoBlog

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