The Mourning After

October 28, 2011 

There's no doubt this job doesn't always feel like one. Hot air balloon rides, crazy court scenes and the rodeo are fun assignments that highlight some of the joys of making photos for a living.

On the flip side, there's no shortage of tragedy to cover, and photographing funerals is seldom easy.

My first funeral assignment was a good entry point, though, when I covered a memorial for Superior Court Judge Robert S. Day on July 10, 2009. I can't remember all the details of that shoot now, but it was a pretty light affair. His former colleagues had plenty of fond and humorous memories to share:

This shot of retired judge Duane Taber talking with widow Gloria Day is what we ran:

My next funeral foray was for Kennewick fire Capt. Eric Shink a couple months later. This was a much larger and more somber ceremony, and my access wasn't as good. This was especially true during Mass, when I had to stay back in a designated media area. The reflecting pool at the entrance of St. Joseph's made for a nice fallback scene-setter,

and I like the mood and bits of information in this shot of his casket entering the church:

The salute, the solemn expressions, the bowed head and the great mustache are all nice elements, but the dark palette of the frame led to fears of poor reproduction, so we ran this shot from a few moments prior:

It has the same parts, but lacks the oomph and intimacy of the other frame.

We also ran this photo of Shink's son, Christian, who was 9 at the time, as he held a ceremonial bugle presented to his family while waiting for the funeral procession to head to the cemetery:

I'm not crazy about the composition, and my inclusion of the guy clutching white gloves was meant to be informative, but probably just distracts most viewers from the heart of the photo. Seeing the young son whom Shink left behind really put the loss in perspective for me, since I've been lucky enough to have avoided a personal loss as great as that.

This lack of personal experience made these early funeral assignments very awkward to relate to. Attending my first funerals while on the job also left me tentative about overstepping unknown bounds and that distance shows in the photo of Christian as well as at my next funeral three months later, when young Tyler Bies was killed by a train:

There's a lot of wasted space in the middle and the pile of his possessions doesn't really tell you a whole lot about him, which was the whole reason I sloppily included it anyway.

It's a tough internal battle of knowing where you have to be to get a strong frame and figuring out where it's appropriate to go. I was starting to get better at it, though, and got an emotional, albeit straightforward, shot of Froilan Godines' widow and family at his funeral after he was killed outside a Pasco nightclub on Feb. 7, 2010:

The roughly three-month intervals between funerals continued after Diehl Rettig died suddenly and Bill Lampson opened up his home to more than 1,000 people. It was the biggest memorial production I've seen, and that was obvious as soon as you walked in the door:

And while an overall shot showing the scale of this celebration of life was telling in one way,

It lacks the impact that more intimate emotion shows:

That last shot of Lampson getting choked up ran with this shot of Jon Rettig kissing his half sister Kim Rettig while his mother Anne, left, listened to her son Rob Rettig talk about Diehl:

Somebody commented to me that the shot was creepy, but I hope it actually communicated a tender moment within a complicated family, brought together in remembrance of an imperfect, though impactful man.

About half a year later, I went to cover the service for James Billingsley, who was Kennewick's first official paid firefighter and also donated the first $1,000 to help establish the Kennewick Firefighters Museum. He died Jan. 7 of this year, and the tight space at Mueller's Chapel of the Falls in Kennewick meant I was stuck in the back of the room without any strong photos to make. I did like this detail,

and black-banded badges are always an easy go-to visual when police and firefighters are remembered. The unique angle was that the "Old No. 1" fire engine served as a hearse for the former fire captain:

I would have loved to go around the other side to have a better look at the antique fire truck, but I wasn't willing to walk into the middle of First Avenue to get that shot. That was something I should have realized a lot earlier, though, and I easily could have stayed with the crowd to photograph pallbearers loading Billingsley from the building side.

Next was former Superior Court Judge Fred Staples, who died of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound on Sept. 19. I showed up early as usual. It's a small thing that can go a long ways — something my photo editor at the Oregon Daily Emerald, Tim Bobosky, taught me when I started my college photojournalism career. If you're there early, people see a photographer when they arrive. If you show up after most people are there, a photographer's entrance can be jarring to some.

I squandered that early arrival, however, and didn't talk to the family. I was nervous because I was the photographer who went to the scene of Staples' death — not that I did anything intrusive there. As the room filled beyond capacity, I settled into a spot along the wall and was able to capture some of the humor of the eulogies for Staples when court reporter Lisa Lang showed a gift Staples gave to her after she announced her engagement:

Then I moved forward to snap this moment between retired King County Superior Court Judge Stephen Gaddis and Staples' widow, Kay, while Benton-Franklin Superior Court Judge Craig Matheson paid his respects at the open casket:

We ran the photo with Staples' face cropped out for fear offending squeamish readers and because I hadn't talked to the family about it. While that crop gets rid of the foreground head on the left, it also loses the flag by his casket.

On Monday, I went to photograph Alia Raad Luckey's funeral at the Islamic Center of Tri-Cities in West Richland. I usually wear a tie when I cover funerals, but I didn't find out about this assignment until I was on my way to Benton City for another shoot. I happened to be wearing a black shirt and gray pants, so I figured I was good to go, especially since I'm usually one of the most dressed up people at these weekday funerals.

Dressing appropriately is another small gesture that goes a long way while covering difficult situations, and I always prefer to be overdressed for a funeral. Knowing a little cultural background is huge too, but our work dress code means we're usually in good shape.

I showed up early to figure out where I could shoot from, knowing that photos of Muslim prayer from behind are not welcome. They let me work from the front of the room, which gave me an different perspective:

The large windows also gave me much better light to work with and I looked for moments of emotion in the crowd. I like this shot of her son Alin,

but it's not a very strong moment and I think the frame makes it too much about Islam. Tina Wheelon's grief stood out immediately,

but the half blinks and lack of a supporting cast in the frame left it a little short. Tina's son Ryan, was clearly close to Luckey, though, and the unfiltered grief of a child again resonated with me as he sat with Luckey's son Omar:

I liked including the casket as a compositional element, but when the guy on the left moved away, I couldn't frame it in a way without a huge blank spot I found obnoxious. I ended up picking this frame for its stronger moment,

and photographed Iraqi refugee Khailda Ibrheem saying goodbye after the ceremony:

As much as I like the elements of this final shot that included all three brothers,

it lacked the tenor of the ceremony.

It's strange to have attended so many strangers' funerals and to see their moments of grief while balancing the requisite analytical thought processes with empathy and tact. While funerals lack the visceral grief you see at the scene of something horrible, in some ways they're harder. Without staff camera sound blimps, each shutter click that punctuates the often quiet decorum threatens that delicate balance.

It's a lot easier to talk to people after the sadness of their losses have sunk in, however. The people I've met on these assignments generally appreciate the coverage, and that makes the uncomfortable difficulties worthwhile. Sharing a few drops of their distress is far from fun, but a necessary element of being a part of the community.

For a different kind of gloom...

There's an interesting analysis of the evolving business of photography at the Penumbra Project. It's a subject that's bemoaned to death, but this piece takes a very rational, reasoned approach on how to survive the new economy without devolving into the usual teeth gnashing.

The Washington Post made another controversial photo choice, this time showing a police officer in Oakland petting a "cat that was left behind by Wall Street protesters" after violent clashes at the bay area demonstrations. Don't get me wrong. I love quirky, unexpected photos, especially if they involve cats, but it's hard to not question the Post's motives after last week's violent photo choice.

Tyler Card created an awesome costume of a working DSLR. I'd be nervous to drink in that get-up, though, and I'll add (while pushing my glasses up my nose and adding a nasal twinge to my voice) the Nikon D3 doesn't have a pop-up flash. He should have added a couple zeroes to the "3" for gearhead accuracy. Check out a video of how he made it, too.

Lens has a fun Halloween post about the Nightmares Fear Factory in New York. The links are a good for a chuckle too, if you're out of the viral meme lolz like I seem to be these days.

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