News Columns & Blogs

Funeral duty

After a fair number of funerals in my first three years on staff, I haven't covered one for nearly two years. And though all funerals are difficult to cover, Army Spc. Robert Wayne Ellis' memorial on Monday brought its own unique challenges and resonance.

The Kennewick native was killed in an insurgent attack in Afghanistan on June 18. You can read more about his life and legacy in Sara Schilling's lovely story from the funeral.

Going into the assignment, I didn't really know what to expect, having never covered a military funeral. I just knew it was going to be a big deal after seeing what a funeral for a firefighter who died off-duty was like. I also knew that our invitation to the memorial was a tentative one, with Robby's family requesting not to be photographed at the ceremony.

Unfortunately, this request was relayed to me second-hand from Sara because she made contact with the family, so I wasn't sure exactly what their concerns were. Sara mentioned that they didn't want to be photographed crying, but she was able to clarify that I was welcome to photograph family members who spoke at the funeral.

Not wanting to bombard them with incessant phone calls amid their grief, I figured we'd show up early and I'd try to make contact with the family before the service. After grabbing some shots of members of Operation Thank You and Patriot Guard Riders holding rows of flags outside, I popped in to find a small group gathered by the casket, looking over Robby's military awards. I stayed back, not knowing who they were and afraid of potentially upsetting the family.

It's not like I would have bum rushed them and snapped away recklessly if we had been invited without any special requests, but I hung back and made this frame of Robby's friend Joshua Kurtz:

Robby's family was in a private area, but people from the funeral home assisted me by helping make sure we were also welcome at the interment ceremony at the cemetery.

Working with the family's request made me think a lot more about where to look, what to shoot and how to compose my images. I don't want to call emotional photos of crying family members a crutch. They can be very powerful and storytelling images, and I think those types of images can be made respectfully, but the family's wishes were more important to honor.

You can see the full gallery here, but there are plenty of weaker filler photos as usual, so here's my edit from the day:

Robby's cousin Katie was also kind enough to stay in the heat a few extra minutes to share her memories for a video. Thanks to Sara for grabbing some footage of taps that I could pull audio from:

Having lived through the non-stop worry during my then-girlfriend's deployment to Afghanistan two years ago and an old high school buddy's current stint working EOD there now, this one hit closer to home than my previous funeral assignments. It was an honor to be a part of the day, and while these assignments are never fun to photograph, I hope I was able to do the ceremony some small justice with my images.

Speaking of justice...

Maybe big-time bloggers will think twice before stealing photos, as Robert Caplin is suing Perez Hilton for $2.1 million, alleging that the gossip blogger used 14 of his photos without permission. Even more brazen is that Hilton apparently added his own watermark to the images.

Thankfully, Scott Strazzante's Kickstarter campaign for Common Ground: The Book was fulfilled. Wait, you didn't think I was going to stop pimping his stuff, did you? Check out his post about the Chicago Tribune's frame-by-frame recap of the crazy 17 seconds during Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final.

For more on covering tragedy, read a great interview with Jerry Wolford at The Image, Deconstructed about his powerfully layered image of an emotional family after a tree fell on their house.

Take a look at Erika Schultz's clever and effective use of Hipstamatic to illustrate a difficult story about women's self-defense for the Seattle Times.

And finally, the Strobist has a neat little feature on a reader's striking composite portrait, which shows what you can accomplish with low-budget lights.


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