This post comes a couple weeks after I wrote the story.
I drove about an hour north, to a little town near the Alabama state line, and met three people I won’t forget. One of them, I never got the chance to speak with, but I think I met her just the same. Callista White died at an intersection down the road three years before I pulled in to her grandparent’s driveway, but she was there. Looking up at me from the kitchen table in Leroy and Adelia White’s little house.
Adelia said to me:”Don’t you think she is a pretty girl? She was pretty on the inside too.”
Something about the transition from “is” to “was” in Adelia’s voice hit me deep down. I do think their granddaughter was beautiful.
I was immediately emotionally invested in the Whites. I sympathized with them and I wished that their granddaughter, Callista, was there, and not just in a picture.
Leroy drove me to the intersection where the accident happened. I forced myself to stay in the notebook. Keep my eye in the viewfinder. Think about the story, not about the tragedy.
I didn’t want to ask him to get out of the car and walk me to Callista’s memorial. But I did. And he did. I didn’t know what to ask him once we were there. I smiled when I asked him a question. No that’s stupid, don’t smile. I don’t know, how should I talk to him? What should I say?
He stares at a passing semi as we wait to cross the road on the way back to his car. She was killed by a semi. Right over there. When they passed the wreckage on the way to the hospital that night, Leroy knew that she was dead.
He took me to Callista’s grave where he told me more about her. Details about a girl he loved that I knew there would never be space for in the newspaper. There would probably be only 12 inches.
I kept my eye in the viewfinder, and my notebook in my pocket. Leroy has to tell it. In his expression. In the way he holds his shoulders when he looks at the grave.
I focused so much on getting the shots. How do you listen to someone who is confiding in you, when you’re clicking off frames. I needed a different depth of field. He’s telling me about her brother who got a scholarship to college to fulfill a promise to her memory. If I move, I can get his reflection in the headstone, looking over her shoulder.
He’s still talking. I nod to him between shots. I force myself to be detached. To think of the story. The images. My job. It makes me feel dirty in a way. Like a peeping Tom. Like a voyeur. I choke those feelings back. How can I do this. I’m in over my head.
On the way back to his house, I realize I had set the exposure compensation two stops underexposed. I’m devastated. The blackness looking out at me from the little LCD screen shouts to my failure. I wasted it. All those things he said. I’m in over my head.
This is a hard job. I don’t sleep some nights when I fear that I wasn’t good enough to do a story justice. But that pretty girl on the kitchen table helped us through this one.
I saved the photos. I used a trick a spectacular photographer, Cheryl Guerrero, showed me at Poynter, and salvaged them in Photoshop. Just barely.
I edited together a little video for the Web. There was something about the way Leroy said, “I don’t know. It’s just one of those things.” And the way his eyes follow the semi as it passes. It gets me every time.
Vodpod videos no longer available.
They gave me 14 inches for the story. The lede:
Leroy and Adelia White think about Thanksgiving 2003 all the time, but they can’t recall it perfectly.
“Tragedy has a way of blocking your mind,” Adelia White said.
She stares at two pictures of their granddaughter on the kitchen table. Callista Whites smiles from a photograph, dressed in maroon high school graduation robes.
“Don’t you think she’s a pretty girl? She was pretty on the inside too,” she said.
I didn’t do it justice. I have read the story out loud to myself at least a dozen times since it was published, but I just don’t know.
It’s hard to be in the emotion, to feel someone’s pain, to want to help — but to be getting paid by the hour while you’re there. Plus mileage. Then type it up, as good as you can, as fast as you can, so you can move on to the next story.
I love this job. But sometimes it is so hard.