I find it remarkable that the Rocky Mountain News’ triumphant multimedia project Final Salute is already three years old. This piece shook me, and made me tear up, more than any other piece of photography (or reporting) I’ve ever experienced. It has stuck with me, a constant cultural and visual reference, in proud relief from the thousands of other essays and photographs that pass by me each year.
For a year writer Jim Sheeler and photojournalist Todd Heisler followed around Maj. Steve Beck from his post at a Colorado marine base in his mission of casualty notification. It was Maj. Beck’s job to deliver the news that a family’s soldier has died, often with a knock at the door. He then led the difficult process of helping the family through the funeral arrangements and life after their loss.
I remember when I first saw this project, in the Fall of 2005 in the newsroom of my college newspaper while working the photo desk one random night, I immediately sent an email with the link to all of my friends and colleagues, urging them to look at the work, with the note: “Really needed to share this essay with you all — it is the best work I’ve ever seen. amazing and powerful photography … breathtaking story. Absolutely important work, put a tear in my eye.” Before or since, I’ve never sent around another link like that.
Just over a week ago I was reminded in a very personal way about Final Salute: the son of a family friend, a 25 year old Marine, was killed in Afghanistan. His family was notified by a knock at the door by a Marine much like Maj. Beck. I met Nic Madrazo just once or twice myself, but two of his siblings were in the same high school class as my brother, who knew him well. His death has definitely shaken our community of friends from that school, with all rallying around the family since the news emerged. We’ve been talking about it a lot in the past week as the family prepares for Nic’s funeral, which is on Saturday September 20.
I will be taking pictures at the service, for the family and for a project I am working on about America in the time of elections and war. I think it will be called “Graceland”. I’m interested in the stories that are affecting people across the country but in more personal and localized ways, that aren’t being discussed in the national media. My goal is to seek out what is being ignored or overshadowed while we’re so distracted by the election season and the fifth year of war. Absolutely, these are important stories that deserve coverage, but there are even more stories that deserve some time themselves. Being closer to the center of this one family’s pain and loss that is the result of a war, especially when such personal struggles are so often hidden, is entirely revealing. There is so much about my country and its citizens that I don’t understand, and that I feel many of my fellow citizens don’t understand, much less the world abroad. Yes, we see the numbers that thousands of Americans have died in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2003, but how many of us have felt (or seen) what that actually means to a family?
Tomorrow will be a day of memory for the Madrazos and I hope to capture a lasting memory for them by way of my pictures of the service. But I also hope to make some pictures for the rest of the world to see what has remained obscured: there are real people and emotions who are living lives outside the headlines of the day and in circumstances that actually deserve public attention. This is not a partisan position, but it is a political one: I believe in more speech rather than less and I want to bring attention to things that I see happening in my country that are not getting their fair hearing. This is the point of my project and tomorrow’s work. Hopefully I will have more to share on this in the coming days.
But, this is all less important than the story at hand. I hope you take a moment to think of the Madrazo family, all of the families in Final Salute, and all the rest that have died in the American wars of recent years. Of course, there is so much loss in wars and beyond, we could go on forever. Of course, people may have personal or political opposition to (the) war. But a family has lost a son and brother, just like many have before and many more in the future. As my mom and I were just discussing, with our own personal emotion of losing my father years ago, the Madrazos will never see Nic again. Never again. Hopefully Final Salute, and even my work, will introduce you to these people and their personal stories; and I hope to see more pictures and words that will introduce me to even more stories and the people who are really living them, far beyond my country and frame of reference. This is our goal as photographers, I hope.