There is some kind of rule about being a journalist. You stay unbiased on assignment, you don’t show an opinion and you never show any emotion. It’s kind of like being stuck in neutral as you make your way around on assignment. What you see doesn’t matter it’s not supposed to bother you. You’re not supposed to feel. At least that is the way that is the way it is supposed to work.
This week has been a trying time for many in Tracy community. From the third homicide to the tragic events of Saturday where four teens lost their lives many have felt that unbearable anguish of loss and despair. And unfortunately I have been there to record those moments. It’s part of the package deal, get the press pass and you take a front row seat to the heartbreak, grief and sufferings that befall us.
I shouldn’t complain, I have a job and I knew what it entails. I should be used to this by now. Back in 2007 I saw a sea of grief that I could not comprehend and I was not ready for. Another tragic accident claimed a teen’s life and badly injured three others. Friends, family and community members rallied together on a cold January night in display of sorrow and pain that I still have a hard time dealing with. I wasn’t ready for what I saw back then. I guess time makes you stronger or harder or maybe I knew what to expect on the irrigation banks Sunday night as a vigil was held for the four teens killed in the crash.
I guess the hardest part is keeping your composure, maintaining that guise of neutral observer. It is hard to be stoic in the face of such overwhelming grief. A couple of months ago I almost lost my mom. As the ambulance and fire department arrived I broke down and began to cry. I remember telling my dad in the emergency room how stupid I felt crying in front of the fire department crews. I showed I was weak, I wasn’t strong enough, and I couldn’t keep that veneer of the hardened professional afloat. Out on assignment I am not allowed the luxuries of such weakness and feelings no matter what I see. So with as somber a face I could muster on a late Sunday afternoon I gathered my camera gear and headed for the vigil.
The vigil for the four teens was to take place on the irrigation ditch bank near where they lost their lives. Hundreds had gathered for a moment to share their sorrow, their memories of their lost friends and family members and to show support for each other. Walking up to the scene a CHP officer offered me the advice to try and take the pictures discreetly. I knew I would be an intrusion at the event but there was nothing I could do.
Walking up to the bank I could hear the sounds of sobbing and tears as friends cried remembering their painful loss. How do I discretely photograph something like that? The crowd had huddled around a memorial with one of the teen’s parents at the center. Others had clustered around four crossed driven into the hard dirt of the canal bank. Everywhere people sobbed quietly. Some could not contain their anguish and their tears flowed among wails. I wanted to be anywhere but on that canal bank.
I walked around the crowd, got what pictures I could of the mourners. A group wiped tears away as they left candles at one of the crosses. A man composed his thoughts as he sat by himself next to the water where they perished. Eventually I had to try and take a picture of the mother who lost a son and daughter in the crash.
I did my best to keep my distance from the family, I shot with a telephoto lens when I could, and I tried to keep an angle so I was not directly in their line of sight. It is hard to be inconspicuous carrying a press pass and camera gear but I did my best. As the vigil wound down the mother began to weep uncontrollably in front of me and for the first time in a long time I hesitated. I honestly could not lift the camera to my face to photograph the moment. Maybe it was a moment of weakness or a moment of true compassion I am not sure which.
As the mother left the vigil she stopped at each cross marker left on the canal bank. As she knelt at the cross fin memory for her son she touched his and wept openly. Standing away from the scene I photographed this moment of suffering through a small opening in the crowd of people surrounding her. This was the photo I struggled with the most.
On one hand it conveys the sense of loss and suffering felt by everyone and on the other hand I felt like a shit for taking the picture. I have these moments of self-loathing for intruding on her grief even though I know it is part of the job. We talked about the photo at work and decided to use it but not to make it the main photo. I was worried about how people might react to the photo but I felt that it told the story of one mothers agonizing loss.
It breaks your heart to have to see things like this. Suffering, despair sorrow, these aren’t the reasons I got into journalism but it is part of the price you pay once you are in the profession. I have had a sleepless night since the vigil, one of many nights thinking about the things I have seen, the witness to tragedy I have become.
I know days like these are just part of the job and a week from now I will have put this assignment behind me and moved on. I like to think that day on the canal bank is the first step to mend the broken hearts from this tragedy. We all hurt even if some of us never show it.