I shoot stock photography, like the above photo, and there is always a demand for patriotic photos during this time of the year with Armed Forces, Memorial, Independence, and Veterans Days all within a few months of each other. The night before Memorial Day is a great opportunity to photograph as the flags have been put in place, there are cemetery workers present but the property is generally empty, so I know I’m not bothering anyone visiting graves. This is from my Facebook page, written about my experience this year, the night before Memorial Day:
“Last night I took my girls to Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery here in San Diego. Rosecrans will be packed today so we are going to the ceremony in Coronado. I do this because I want my girls growing up with, and understanding, Memorial Day and not being part of a generation who doesn’t seem to care for, or appreciate, these things. While shooting these photos, I saw a lady sitting on a blanket over a grave, drinking a glass of wine, and wiping tears away. I decided to talk to her but warned my girls that she may want to be left alone and that no matter her reaction, it was ok. If she had told me to go away I would have said, “I’m sorry ma’am” and left. Well, I walked up, extended my hand and said, “I don’t want to bother you, but I just want to say thank you for your family’s sacrifice.” She said thank you, told me it was nice to hear that. She began telling me about her husband, a Navy Senior Chief and one of the SEAL’s killed during Operation Red Wings in Afghanistan (2005). He was in the helicopter that was shot down trying to rescue Marcus Luttrell (the Lone Survivor), Michael Murphy and their two fellow SEAL’s.* The helicopter going down was the single greatest loss of life in Navy SEAL history. We talked about her husband and Navy life, how he wanted to be a Master Chief, and then about us and Raquel (my wife) being at sea. While wiping tears away she assured my girls that “mommy will be home soon.” I almost cried myself at that point, I told her that I’ve gotten to know some SEAL wives where I live and it makes me realize how blessed I’ve been because of their community and what they do; how her husband, and people like him, aren’t forgotten. Afterwards, my daughter Amanda commented on how her husband was killed 12 years ago and she’s still crying… While I could have taken an incredible photo of this lady with the sun going down behind her as she sat on a blanket and an American flag pillow over her husbands grave, our conversation was better than any photo I could have taken.”
From a photography standpoint, I learned that just because you have a camera in hand doesn’t mean you should take a photo. While I was talking to her, I had my camera the entire time and I never once thought of using it. This moment was bigger than a photo opportunity; I cautiously entered her space, at a very private moment, and she graciously allowed me to stay. This experience left an impression not only on myself, but my oldest daughter as well. I think it’s as close as an eight year old girl can come to understanding that time sometimes doesn’t heal all wounds; that hurt can sometimes last a lifetime. Fortunately, I didn’t just drive by this lady but took a minute to talk with her and learned about her husband, but mostly their sacrifice. These families endure more than any of us will ever know, I’d imagine most of these service members will tell you that they’re just doing their jobs. I think they’re bigger than that and so are their families. This incredible woman shared a very private part of her life with me and it was an honor to meet her and be in her presence.
*Danny Dietz and Matthew Axelson.