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|| News Item: Posted 2005-05-30

Memorial Day
By Trent Nelson, Salt Lake Tribune

Photo by Trent Nelson / Salt Lake Tribune

Photo by Trent Nelson / Salt Lake Tribune

Brandon Thomas' father Steve, brother Andy, and mother Carol Thomas Young, stand for the benediction prayer at Brandon's funeral at the Utah State Veteran's Cemetery. Thomas was a green beret killed in Iraq while working as a civilian security contractor.
In a suburban Utah home earlier this month- the day before Mother's Day, in fact- the Thomas family had the table covered with photographs of their son and brother, Brandon. Photos were everywhere: Brandon as a wide-eyed grinning child, his blond hair crazy like he stuck his finger in a socket. Brandon flying off an illicit ski jump he built with his ski-buddy friends. Brandon at the military graduation ceremony where he earned his green beret. Brandon wearing sunglasses and a flak jacket, holding an assault rifle in downtown Baghdad.

Hours before the photos were spread out on the table, Brandon had been killed in a suicide attack in Baghdad. It was in the company of these treasured photographs that his family would tearfully embrace the stream of friends visiting to express their sorrow and love. Each visitor would pour over the images and relive their memories of Brandon. With the passing of a loved one, photographs take on a value and power that is beyond price.

I was there to photograph some family photos of Brandon for the paper. I took a few photos of the family in their grief and shock, trying to stay respectful and unobtrusive. It was a difficult assignment. They were very gracious to welcome me into their home at such a tender moment.

Brandon's stepfather had his laptop out and showed me a gallery of images, some e-mailed from Brandon while he was in Iraq. Mixed in with these images were photos he had been downloading throughout the day from various news sites online. I was surprised. They were spot news photos from the very bombing that took Brandon's life. One showed the burnt remains of the SUV he had been riding in when the bomb went off. Another image showed two Iraqi children running in terror from the scene, covered in blood. Faced with this terrible loss he apparently wanted to have every photo related to the event.

Funerals are never fun. And throughout my career I've heard so many photographers complain about being assigned to a funeral. But funerals are historic moments in the lives of our subjects. Done with respect, photographs of funerals can capture the deep love for the departed and the honor and tribute shown them during the service. Isn't it interesting that photographers sometimes look down on photographing weddings and funerals- two of the important gatherings in anyone's life.

I had the honor of being assigned to cover Brandon's funeral. He was buried in a touching ceremony with full military honors. It's moments like these that I will be pondering over Memorial Day. Memories from a variety of assignments covering the Iraq war's impact on scores of Utah families.

Photo by Trent Nelson / Salt Lake Tribune

Photo by Trent Nelson / Salt Lake Tribune

Students from the Blanding Elementary School lined the street as the funeral procession of Marine Quinn Keith, killed in Iraq, went through his hometown of Blanding, Utah.
I will remember photographing those first troops who were being shipped off to Iraq. They were tough, grown men with young families. Tears streaked down their faces as they said goodbye to their young children. They were going to war and an unknown fate.

I will remember seeing a young boy at his father's funeral. The father, James Cawley, was Utah's first soldier killed in the war. A tough-as-nails SWAT officer, he was killed when- of all things- a Humvee ran over him as he slept.
I will remember being in the room when Mandy Archuletta had only six minutes with a videophone to introduce her six-week-old baby to the baby's father, her husband Tony, then serving in Iraq. The call was being timed with a stopwatch so that all of the families of servicemen in their small Utah mining town would get their six awkward minutes.

I will remember another funeral. When after the other mourners had left, I waited for the mother, Patricia Olmos who lost her son Cesar Machado-Olmos, to drop a rose into his grave. It didn't make for a memorable photo, but the moment was heartbreaking.

I will remember that exhilarating chaos as cheering families welcomed the Army Reserves 116th Engineering Battalion home after a whopping 411 days in Iraq. Signs and flags waving everywhere, and I'll never forget Specialist David Buell holding aloft his eight-month-old daughter- he'd never even seen her before.

Photo by Trent Nelson / Salt Lake Tribune

Photo by Trent Nelson / Salt Lake Tribune

Sergeant Rudy Garcia tearfully embraces his sons, Cody (left) and Eric as the Army National Guard's 116th Engineering Battalion returns home from Iraq after 411 days of service.
I will remember seeing the entire town of Blanding, Utah, line the streets as the body of one of their own, Marine Quinn Keith, made its way in a solemn procession to the cemetery. Another young man dead. Regardless of your political position on the war, he deserves your thoughtful consideration.

I will remember photographing three Iraq war veterans at the public library, telling riveting and moving stories about their experiences. The auditorium was nearly empty.

Regarding all of these moments, it's a brutal shame that all Americans are not able or willing to witness these historic events in person. Or to take time to acknowledge the sacrifices being made. Sadly, a lot of this is being left to us as photographers to record and show the country and the world what is going on.

But as much as it may seem that people would rather look away, always remember the power of still photography. Your photographs from every assignment will be pulled off a website by your subjects' families, cut out of the newspaper, pinned to a wall or magnetized to a fridge, framed, shown off by adoring parents, pasted carefully into acid-free scrapbooks or plastic-sleeved photo albums. Your photographs will age over the years like a fine wine. And when they are brought back out, in times of celebration or loss, your photographs will be invaluable to those connected to them.

Remember to do your job with honor, respect, and honesty. For the sake of those who deserve to be remembered.

(Trent Nelson is the chief photographer of the Salt Lake Tribune and a frequent contributor to the Sports Shooter Newsletter.)

Related Links:
Nelson's member page

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