Two-year-old Christopher Collier looked right into the camera. As a rule, that's not the best photo. As a photojournalist I try to be invisible. If they are looking right at you, it's obvious they know you're there. But there he was looking right at me. I took the photo. It was a nice image, the nicest moment I'd seen in a while - and I couldn't wait to leave.
I hate this assignment. I've shot it too many times. After working at a newspaper for over twenty years you get to shoot the same thing year after year - the marathon, day-after-Thanksgiving madness, change of command ceremonies. This assignment has all the elements which make a good assignment - real people, genuine emotions, candlelight. But this one I would pay another photographer to shoot.
It is the annual candlelight vigil for homicide victims.
The family and friends of those killed in violent homicides gather to share their experience and comfort one another. They all share one thing - someone they love was killed in a violent crime - shot, stabbed, beaten, run over...pick your CSI episode. They all have had someone torn from the fabric of their lives. They all carry a righteous anger - you can feel it when they go up to speak. They read poems they have written, they hold photos, they sing songs, and use any way they can imagine to reach out to their loved ones. They reach out...but no one seems to be reaching back. They are dead. There is no reconciliation...even justice does not bring reconciliation. There is only emptiness. A vast emptiness which swallows their soul. Some scream at the blackness, others cry, others just stare...but it is just blackness. It is just there. There is nothing more than the blackness for them. I'm sure some get past it, but I'm just as sure some never do.
So, here I am making a sweet photo of Christopher Collier by candlelight looking into my camera, a nice point of light in this darkness. I smile, show him the photo and his aunt smiles through her tears when I show the photo. Sometimes, I have to interject myself into people's lives at the most intimate times. It's never easy. I have to ask her names for the photo caption. She gives me Christopher's name and said she is Lynn Wade. She tells me Christopher's grandfather was shot, with another man, and killed a year ago. I realize Christopher will never know his grandfather. The woman is crying again. I ask a couple more questions...when I'm done she tells me Christopher's grandmother has been reciting a poem to his grandfather, Frederick Thomas, Jr. who was murdered. I felt awful I was talking to her while the grandmother was reciting the poem. I made a couple more frames of Christopher in his crying aunt's arms and that was it. I was done.
I hate the assignment. I had to leave. I didn't want to hear one more name of the dead. I did not want to hear one more sobbing family member. I couldn't stand one more scream of anguish. I didn't want to be there one more second. I knew I had to leave them in their darkness. I was done.
Maybe the candles gave them hope? Maybe the words gave them comfort? Maybe the sharing brought them closer? Maybe there is justice? Maybe there is resolution? Maybe not. Maybe Christopher just won't remember any of this?