Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A moment of grief

Some stories don’t have a happy ending. Some assignments you wish never happened. For those of us who had covered the Sandra Cantu story from the first day she was reported missing we had one last assignment for closure.

Plans for a public memorial for Sandra Cantu had been in the works for almost a week. Her service was to be held at the west High school gymnasium. A few weeks earlier I had photographed the memorial service for a Marine that was killed in Afghanistan there. But this was different. This was the funeral service for an 8-year-old girl. Kidnapped, raped and murdered this would be the town’s final goodbye to Sandra.

With the state wide and national media attention the story has been given a crush of media were expected to be at the memorial service. To keep the event respectful for the family it was decided the media inside the gym would work as pool coverage. Three video cameras and three still photographers would be the only cameras allowed in and would supply video and still images to any press who requested. Many newspapers requested to be one of the three pool photographers. It was finally decided that based on the amount of news coverage that the three papers would be the Stockton record, The Sacramento bee and the Tracy Press. Each pool photographer was given a single location and select responsibility of coverage. My spot was simply described as Tracy Press-back wall. My shooting location was to photograph the family in their moment of grief.

The choice to give me a pool photographer position was not a popular one. Other papers, larger papers felt they were more capable of covering the memorial service. They did not understand why a small 2-day-a week newspaper was being given what they considered the most important shooting position. I was told more than once that people were taking a chance on placing me there and I had to produce. The instructions were pretty simple, produce images and don’t f___k up the assignment. No pressure at all. It’s just the biggest assignment of your career and the biggest story you have covered.

So you might wonder why I would want or fight for the right to photograph a little girl’s funeral service. Honestly on one hand I dreaded the assignment the moment I heard there would be a public memorial. How could anyone want to go to a funeral, let alone bring a camera? On the other hand it is the biggest story I have worked on and from that first Saturday morning search to the announcement of her death I had worked every day on the story. I felt I had given enough to see the story through to the end. And even as important this is my town; Sandra was a member of my community. For those who may felt this was just a story those in Tracy could feel the loss. We went to bed with it, we woke up with it. It occupied most of our thoughts. I had to see the story through to the end.

I will tell you this was hard assignment. Not hard as in technical skill required as some thought but hard on the heart. I have photographed my fair share of grief and sorrow, too much lately it seems. From candlelight vigils to military funerals I have seen too much suffering and it never, never gets any easier to watch. My shooting position at Sandra’s memorial gave me a clear view of the parents. My sole mission was to capture images of the family as they grieved their murdered daughter.

The memorial service was scheduled to last about an hour. I would watch Sandra’s mother Maria Chavez and father Daniel Cantu for an hour as they cried along with other family members. I was at a discrete distance from the family, shooting with medium and long telephoto lenses. I can’t blend into the scenery as I photograph so I work as quietly as I can. Most of the crowd around me was police and school district officials so it was a little easier to shoot than having strangers around. But even then I could still hear the quiet sobs of audience members all around me.

There was a great deal of pressure to produce pictures fast. I was asked to get something of the family members reacting to the services quickly. I shot for about 10 minutes and rushed a memory card of a few dozen images to a waiting Associated Press photographer who began transmitting photos while the service was still happening. I returned to the service and kept shooting looking for just the right moment.

It can weigh on you just sitting there watching someone cry for an hour. You can’t look away, you can’t express your condolences to the family, and you can’t do anything but press the shutter release as they sob. At times I would pause and take a deep breath as things got sad. Rule number one is show no emotion, be professional. As the tears fell I watched as the family members leaned on one another in their sadness. Things got sadder as they played the song “Somewhere Out There” which had become the anthem during the search for the girl.

And then with a short video and more tears the service was over. Family members filed out of the gymnasium and then the crowd left to heal their wounds from the past weeks. I was too stressed and too busy to feel the full impact of the memorial service. I think I will feel this loss sometime soon. It’s time for our town to heal after its loss and breathe again. The memorial was closure for me; the main part of this tragic story has come to an end. Sometime soon I will have a moment of grief and mourn the loss of a little girl I never met but like so many others have come to know. Rest in peace Sandra.

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