There’s a saying that I have on a button that hangs on my camera bag, accompanying me on every assignment I go to. It says, “It’s their story, not yours.” It’s a mantra I learned early on in my career, and it’s a constant reminder that this job is not about me — it’s not about winning contests, taking beautiful pictures or gaining accolades. It’s about the people the stories are about.
I really think this was my mantra throughout our story on the Mastrandea family and the process of losing their daughter, Norah — a story reporter Megan Williams and I worked on for over six months. As much as we wanted to tell the story, and as much as we thought it was important, we couldn’t have done it without a purpose from the Mastrandea family.
This project has been incredibly difficult and heartbreaking, due more so to the fact of how much we fell in love with the Mastrandeas. Going over to their house often turned into a thin line between what I could clock for work hours or whether I was just there for fun. I so often stayed hours after I got the pictures I needed, just watching television, borrowing novels, eating snacks, chatting and laughing. They became like a second family to us, taking care of us amidst all they were going through.
Over six months, we followed the Mastrandeas to birthday parties, family outings, MRIs, softball tournaments, weekly hospital visits and regular nights at home. Through it all, we talked constantly about their vision for this story, what they wanted to get out of it, and made sure they had a reason they wanted to do it. Without their drive and purpose — creating a legacy for Norah and to truly show, in depth, the pain of childhood cancer — I don't think we could've done the job we did. Their persistence and deep beliefs that what happened to their Norah was tragic and unfair were the driving force behind this story. Megan and I were just the platform to give them a voice.
In the days leading up to the story, I was worried we were showing too much — showing the true pain, the true agony, and the real heartbreak this family went through. But after many talks, emails and messages from the Mastrandeas, my worries changed — maybe it wasn't enough. Did we really capture the pain and heartbreak of losing your 8-year old daughter — the spunky, sassy, sweet and wise-beyond-her-years Norah June? But after seeing the reactions from our readers and the comments from their friends and family, I think we got as close as possible to telling their true story.
I was excited to work on this story with reporter Laura Peters about the South River and its long, and sadly polluted, history. The South River has become a staple of Waynesboro's livelihood, as it's quickly becoming known as a fly fishing destination. However, there is still a consumption advisory for most fish in the South River, as a result of a decades-old pollution from the DuPont plant that is proving difficult to clean up.
I spent the day with reporter Laura Peters at Blue Mountain Brewery, where a collection of hops farmers were helping to harvest the hop yard on the brewery property. I really love agriculture assignments, but I love them even more when the final product involves beer. I learned a lot about growing hops with the guys from the Old Dominion Hops Cooperative, a group of hops farmers in Virginia that work together to teach and educate about hops farming.
Apparently, hops need very little space to grow. Clusters of hop plants are called crowns, which grow upward toward the sun, and farmers build rope contraptions to help the plant grow up. And the eventual rope of hops, which is cut down upon harvest, is called a bine, not a vine.
Many hop farms — or hop yards, as some call them — are less than an acre. Blue Mountain has a couple different hop yards on their property, where they grow Cascade hops, and all of them are about a third of an acre.
It’s funny how our memories work. We remember little details of things from our upbringing, like the way the carpet felt when you were playing board games in your childhood home or the smell of your grandmother’s kitchen, or what it felt like in the basement — away from prying eyes, cold, damp, wrapped in your favorite afghan and with a musty smell.
I think most of our memories — the ones inside our brain that get dredged up when something triggers it, like a smell or a feeling or a detail — aren’t visual. They’re about a sensation. But photographs and video can trick our brains into thinking they’re memories, especially from times in our very early years where we can’t recall anything.
We say things like, “Oh, I remember that birthday party,” when really, maybe we just remember photographs of a cake and pictures of how terrible that haircut was. And so your memory is actually based on you remembering photographs of that day, capturing a slice of life in a moment in time.
As a photographer, I think a lot about photographs and perception. We have to think about this a lot in photojournalism because we’re showcasing communities and subcultures that some people don’t know about. Our photographs serve as representations of people and places, broadcast to people who don’t know about them and may never meet them. It’s kind of scary, because, in a way, you control someone’s reputation as a photographer. And that’s a job that must be taken seriously and thoughtfully.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot because, for the last three months, I’ve been working on a book for my grandfather, Roland White, for his 80th birthday. Sadly, he passed away last week, a month before his birthday, and I traveled to Iowa to remember him and celebrate his life, bringing what I had finished of the book with me to print for his funeral.
My grandfather had Alzheimer’s, and lived with that diagnosis for at least 15 years. I am only 23, so I really have no recollection of him without Alzheimer’s. Growing up with him, I mostly recall his silly nature and his jokes, the ones that would be told over and over, and his affinity for candy. I also remember some of the sadder things that were brought on by his disease, like when he would try to fix something, good intentions and all, even if the object wasn’t broken, but would wind up messing something up — like the time he put motor oil in my mother’s washer because he thought it was too squeaky.
As I worked on this book for my grandfather, I collected photographs from all the members of my family that I could. I scanned photographs of his childhood, from his service in the Air Force and the Korean War, pictures of his extensive world travels with my grandmother, and images of my mother and aunt and uncle growing up in northern Iowa, terrible clothing and all. And then I put my own images in — the ones I had taken during family holidays and weddings and my grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary.
And it was my job to take almost 80 years of photographs of one man and whittle it down to his essence — to tell the story of who my grandfather was, from my perspective, but also the perspective of my family. It was no easy task.
What resulted, not only from the book but also from his eulogy and service and the stories people told at his visitation, was how we will all remember him — whether we called him Grandpa, or Whitey, or Checkbook Charley or Roland C. White.
I like to think that I will remember him from my own memories, not from photographs of him — how it felt to play dominoes with my cousins in the dining room while he did the dishes from Thanksgiving dinner, or his silly laugh when we would take group photos, or those darn jokes that I’ve heard over and over and over.
But I know that when my memories begin to get fuzzy, or even when I die, there will be photographs of him to remember him by. Photographs that say, “This is Roland and this is who he was.” And I hope the collection that remains will tell the story of his life, of the kind of man he was — as photographs often do.
I've always loved drive-ins. I feel like they're just an essentially American harkening of the past, letting us all revel in our nostalgia. And I love nostalgia and I love kitschy things. It's why I love diners, and I feel like drive-ins have just as much americana as diners. This drive-in in Lexington is pretty unique — they are the only community-run drive-in in the country, and have non-profit status. When the drive-in went under a few years back, the locals weren't having it, and decided to pool money together and run it mostly off of concessions and donations. And I love that.