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Documenting Grief as a Photojournalist: Why We Do What We Do

Nineteen young men. Fathers, brothers, and sons. Friends and fiancés, teammates and drinking buddies. These are the men who were lost on June 30, 2013 in Yarnell, AZ during an event labeled the Yarnell Hill Fire.

I knew most, if not all of these men by sight, some by name, a small handful I knew very closely, sharing laughs with them and their families over the years. Over the past 72 hours or so, I have had the privileged to watch first hand as the city of Prescott and the state of Arizona has been joined by the world in remembering and honoring these fallen firefighters.

Over the years since my first days as a budding photojournalist in the early 80’s, tragedy has been part of the job. I have covered fires, murders, accidents, and funerals. In that time I have heard, sometimes by way of a quiet, private comment, sometimes, like during the ERAU memorial service Monday afternoon, a loud shout from the crowd of “Enough with the cameras!”

To those of you who share the sentiments of the person(s) who made these comments, I’m here to tell you I understand. I too would not like my most personal, devastating tragedies displayed for all to see. I get that. But please, take a moment to consider why I do what I do.

When I look through the lens of my camera, I don’t just see an image. What I see is a letter, sometimes a word or a sentence in a story. A story of whatever it is I’m covering.

Many times that word or sentence becomes part of a big happy story with a great big happy ending. But sometimes, more often than I would like, those images become part of a story with a not-so-happy ending, like this week.

Some people feel pain and pick up a guitar or sit at a piano and write beautiful, heart rendering ballads that bring tears to the eyes of those who listen. Some people put brush to canvas and create fantastic paintings that give others an opportunity to explore their own emotions.

I can’t paint. I can’t play an instrument. I take photographs.

Sitting through a few press conferences and the memorial service at ERAU, I was moved to tears by the words spoken and the emotion around me, and the only way I know how to express that emotion is visually.

While I don’t put myself in the same category as the greats, I ask you to think about the iconic images you have in your memory: Graham W. Jackson weeping at FDR’s funeral, the young man staring down tanks in Tiananmen Square, John Junior saluting his father and fallen president during the funeral for JFK. And of course, the scores of images burned into all of our minds from 9/11 and too many wars to remember.

These images are our mental and emotional slide show of history. They are there to remind us of those we have lost, those we honor, and those we celebrate.

Representative Kelly Townsend, who herself knows about mourning, said on Monday that we all need to mourn in our own way. With that in mind, let me say on behalf of myself and several other photographers I spoke with over the past few days, I am sorry.

To the families of those who have lost, I am sorry for your pain. I am sorry if it seems as though I was there to exploit or take advantage, but while looking through my lens, while spending hours editing and choosing photos that captured the sadness I feel, the tears I shed thinking about your loss and the loss the community as a whole has experienced. I am sorry.

But this is how I mourn. This is how I share the pain and emotion you, the community, and myself are feeling.

As images of this horrible week spread around the globe, millions of people will be reminded of the lives that were lost and the bravery of the Prescott 19.


About the author: Matt Santos has worked as a photojournalist for over 30 years, both as a staff photographer and as a freelancer. You can find his work on his website, through his blog, and on Facebook.


Image credits: Photographs by Matt Santos and used with permission

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