"You've been so kind and generous I don't know how you keep on giving For your kindness I'm in debt to you
For your selflessness my admiration For everything you've done you know I'm bound I'm bound to thank you for it "
Kind and Generous, Natalie Merchant
It has been a week since returning from Parkland, Florida. I have pondered since my return about how to speak about my experience with the families of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Do I tell you all about how Kelly McFarland and I have spent the last seven months working with NHL families to provide some healing to families of injured victims? Do I tell you about their stories and how through their trauma they have coped with their life changes? Or, do I tell you how they have touched my life in a way I never expected and how I am a changed forever.
When Kelly and I started this project in March, I don’t believe we fully comprehended the impact we would have on traumatized families. We knew we wanted to offer some healing for their families. There were already many people fighting for political changes and changes to the way our schools in America deal with active shooter situations in schools. We also intentionally concentrated on families of injured teachers and students instead of casualty families, because what we felt was the obvious. We did not want to ask a casualty family to do a family portrait session after losing someone during the shooting.
Kelly got to work on getting the word out with the National Hockey League and as a liaison with Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.She was awesome and driven. I began traveling the throughout the United States and Canada photographing families of athletes who were donating packages to Marjory Stoneman Douglas families. In the end, we gave 13 families a day of pampering with complete makeovers, family portrait sessions, a printed wall portrait for their home and digital images they may use how they like. I am still editing those images and preparing them for delivery.
Our hair and makeup team consisted of Priscila Birro and Mimi. This team donated their time and services throughout the project; at times driving several miles between clients in one day to maintain a schedule. We also received donated space for one day from Sonesta Resort Hotel in Ft. Lauderdale Beach to provide a comfortable place for Priscila and Mimi to work and survivors to waits for their sessions. My 20-year-old son, Deklend, paid his own way to Florida and assisted me with lighting during the sessions.
But, really this is surface information and yes it was wonderful. The real story is when we got to Florida to begin photographing these families. I have struggle to put into words their impact on me. Looking into the eyes of a mother unlike myself and hearing from her lips the details of her child’s experience and her heart stopping terror of the possibility that day of losing her child brought my knees. To have a mother grab my hand in the hot sand and hug me while thanking me for bringing her family together for a few hours as one brought a whole new meaning to the words “ugly crying.”
During one of the sessions, a mother told me her son had been shot in the foot and she showed me photo of his injury. After being shot, another student who had been shot was under a drinking fountain. The shooter had been walking up to victims and executing them, so her son laid on top of the other student and pretended to be deceased until the shooter passed them. The courage her son displayed in indescribable. Throughout the session with him, his spirits were high, and he reminded me of a normal 15-year-old boy. You never would have known he had endured such trauma.
The fact is though, these kids and teachers have good days and bad days. In the 14 days before we arrived in Florida, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School had six fire drills; only two of them were scheduled. While these traumatized students and teachers have found a way to return to their same classrooms and sit in the same desks they were in the day this incident happened, they still have to endure daily reminders of the day they were injured or lost a friend sitting across from them at a table. While society punts a 20/20 hindsight of what should or should not have happened, and politicians step in to play a roll they never cared to play before children were being killed, because it did not benefit their elections then. These teachers and students find a way to survive their horror. Everything else in life feels so minimal now to the importance of their families and the spouses they go home to at night.
I spent quality time with each family we photographed. I laughed with them, held them as they cried and learned who they were as human beings. I am a better person for knowing them. I cannot fathom still the emotions they felt or the power of their survival instincts the day that changed their lives forever. One of the teachers in the 1200 building I photographed safeguarded her students in a closet and risked her own life to make sure they went home that night. All while texting her family to say how much she loved them and she didn't know if she was going to make it. Her courage brings me to tears even thinking about her story. She is without question one of the strongest women I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. Today, her family is everything and the only thing that matters. As it should be. She and her husband recognize how precious each moment with their young children. There are so many stories like this that over power the sheer evil in the hearts of those who can commit such a horrific act without considering the lives of those they will impact.
This project was about healing families and nothing less. I know we did not cure their pain entirely, but we worked hard to bring them together, because today they are alive. All of them. Each family had an incredible story to tell with each one heavier on my heart than the one before. In all honesty, by the time I reached my last session on Wednesday night, my heart was broken, and my soul was so tired I could barely speak. I barely uttered a word through the session. Yet, we were bringing some joy to these families at the same time.
When I arrived home in Utah on Friday night, all I could think about was hugging my 17-year-old daughter and my husband. In my head I kept repeating, “Don’t let go of me.” On the outside, I was a frozen and had little patience for high maintenance things that seemed unimportant. I wanted to isolate and not be around the crowds or people demanding me to recap the events of my trip. I wanted to take in the full scope of what we had just done and let it sink in. Family is the only thing that matters. This moment with our families is the most important moment we can share. Its all fun and games until you lose someone unexpectedly. When I walk out my front door, I make sure I have told everyone in the house I love them. I have always valued my work with families as a photographer, but in my mind today it is the single most important thing you can do for you and your family every year. It is non-negotiable. Your portrait will one day be the most important thing someone in your life owns. Your family portrait will tell the story of your love for each other, even when chaos makes you forget.