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02/24/2013

Funerals of recent shooting victims remind David Cooper of the first time he cried behind the camera

David Cooper - Chief Photographer - @Whatzname07

Sharing Grief 

 The first time that I remember actually crying on the job was in June of 1985. Air India flight 182 had disintegrated in mid-air off the coast of Ireland killing 329 people. A few days later I arrived in the Irish city of Cork with the family members of the victims. Many of of them were sobbing. The scale of their pain just overwhelmed me.

I remember being at the naval base in Cork where recovered items were being brought ashore. One that struck me at the time was a package of Huggies, driving home the fact that babies died in this tragedy. 

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My picture from the archive of the waterlogged bag of Huggies coming ashore. Each night I would make prints in my hotel room and write the caption on them before going to the local wire office to transmit photos back.

I had covered other air disasters before this, but this was a week of gut-wrenching sorrow for me as well as the families.

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In 1970, Air Canada Flight 621 crashed in a field near Brampton after a hard landing attempt. It crashed north of the airport killing everyone on board (118 people) when it lost part of a wing and went straight into the ground and exploded into a pile of rubble.

As a young freelancer for the Toronto Telegram at the time, I was one of the first photographers at the scene that Sunday morning. Forced to leave my car about a mile from the scene in a ditch, a volunteer fire fighter coming to the crash in his own car saw me climbing out of the ditch on foot. He stopped and gave me a lift.

Minutes later, we arrived to find several fire trucks and maybe a dozen ambulances sitting on the side of the road. There was nothing they could do to save anyone. The fire fighter and I headed several hundred yards towards the centre of the crash, where the fire was. At one point he pushed me sideways as we walked through the grass. I looked at him and then down near my feet. All we could see were grapefruit-sized chunks of what I then realized were people's remains. It wasn't only the plane that had exploded.

In retrospect, I think I was in shock. 

Both those events changed me in ways I didn't understand back then — I still think about it today. To this day I cannot not watch violent movies involving death and gore.

I believe sharing still images of people's loss and pain can help others and change the way people see tragic events. (Think of the 1970 Kent State Massacre — the young woman crying beside the young man shot by guardsmen.)

Twice this year, I've had the privilege of spending time and documenting families going through unimaginable pain: the loss of a child to senseless gun violence.

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Merle Henry, Tyson Bailey's grandmother, is comforted beside his casket after she fell to the floor, overcome with grief at his funeral at the Toronto Central Seventh Day Adventist Church. Tyson Bailey was 15 when he was fatally shot in a Regent Park stairwell. 

People need to see and understand that anguish. That is what we try to do as photojournalists. Part of the power of a still image is that because it captures the moment, it allows the viewer to study the emotion and impact in that still frame.

I would like to thank the families and friends of Kesean Williams and Tyson Bailey for allowing me to see and photograph their grief.

I always try to be sensitive to the feelings of those attending an event, and try to keep a respectful distance from the participants. Sometimes people need to be alone in their grief and I would respect that. Many times though, I think they would be disappointed if no photojournalist were there to convey their story and we ignored their loved one's tragic death.

I was humbled, as many friends and families of the two young victims came over to thank us for being their to tell their loved one's story and document the true impact of senseless gun violence.

 

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Tyson Bailey's sister Shandel Bailey strokes his forehead at the funeral.

 

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Tyson Bailey's mother Christina Scott leans forward to embrace her son one last time as her daughter Francelyn Clement follows behind her.

 

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Bailey’s family — brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, mother and father — wore identical black Adidas tracksuits with white stripes, which matched the one he would be buried in.

 

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“We would rather have been at his graduation, at his wedding,” said Pastor Andrew King, his cutting voice rising from the pulpit. “How many more exceptional men must we lay to rest before we change these things?"

 

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A memorial for nine-year-old Kesean Williams, the Brampton boy shot in his home while watching television.

 

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Odete Piccolino and her daughter Briana, 5, place flowers at the Memorial for Kesean Williams. Briana is in kindergarten at the same school. A week before he was shot nine-year-old Kesean came to read to her class.

 

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A community gathering was held in front of the Ardglen Drive home where nine-year-old Kesean Williams was shot through the window of his home.

 

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Kesean's school principal Kristin Bergen, centre, escorts Kesean's grandmothers Joan Garvey, left, and Daphne Ruddock, right, back to the school after the community gathering.

 

More from Air India:

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Seeing the violin case really affected me.

 

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The people of Cork were extremely supportive of the victims' families, letting them share stories and pictures of their doomed loved ones.

 

In a story with the magnitude of the Air India disaster, being a journalist first is important. 

Irish authorities organized an escorted bus trip for family members to a beach near Bantry, the nearest accessible point of land to the crash site.

Even though I had talked to many of the people on the bus, the police escorting the bus refused to let me go to the beach with them. We were kept well back over a hill, out of site of the actual beach. So at the last second I took one of my cameras, put in a roll of slide film, set the exposure, put on a wide angle lens and passed it onto Ajit N Nair, one of the family members, who volunteered to shoot pictures for me. I knew that we needed pictures on that beach to help tell the story. 

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Family members of those who perished on Air India Flight 182 walk along the beach and drop flowers in the ocean. Photo by Ajit N Nair.

 

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Ajit N Nair, one of the family members, made some a beautiful touching images. To my surprise, in this frame, the boy in the picture was wearing a Toronto Star hat. I found out later that he was a Star Carrier back in Toronto.

 

The Star also felt the pain on a personal level.

 

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Vijaya Thampi, 28, worked in the Star personnel office. She and her daughter Nisha were on the flight to visit relatives in India. -File picture

 

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Vern Thampi watchs a video tape of family and friends in Canada that Vijaya was supposed to take to India for family there. -Photo by Ken Faught.

 

Thank you again to the families.

 - David Cooper

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I worked at the Toronto Star and was proud to have known Vijaya Thampi. She was a wonderful young lady and I think of her often.
Roger Lowe

Thank you for sharing your memories and thoughts on taking photojournalism into the intimacy of human suffering. It must have been hard to create this post.Thank you for sharing.

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