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December 9, 2006

December View: “Final Salute”

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by Chris Maynard

In the 2006 World Press Photo competition for best news photographs of 2005, Todd Heisler of the Rocky Mountain News won first place for “People In The News: Stories” with his essay “Final Salute,” about a group of Marines who deal with the families of Colorado Marines killed in action. The work also won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography.  Heisler spent a year with the detail.

Of the original 34 photos published by the News in a special Veterans’ Day feature in 2005, the Pulitzer entry had 20, and the World Press had 11. Although this is the shot that has been most widely acclaimed, I was most drawn to these.

Katherine Cathey, 23, embraces the coffin of her husband James C. Cathey, 24, a Marine Second Lieutenant, after it was placed in a hearse at Reno Airport. He was killed by a booby-trap explosion in Al Karmah, Iraq. Before getting out of the car at the airport, she said “I wish it was daytime for the rest of my life. The night is just too hard.”

When the coffin came down the luggage ramp on the tarmac, she had let out a series of screams, wails and moans that were, naturally, unanswered. She leaned in, clutching the coffin, not letting go until Major Steve Beck, right, offered to let her ride up front.

All of these pictures are very simple, which is one of their great strengths. Here the curved chrome bar on the left of the hearse, the out of focus lights and the white-gloved, uniformed Marine say where we are, and the woman’s wide grasp tell us exactly why we’re looking. At their simple and quiet heart, these pictures are only about grief and its loneliness.

Shortly before the final inspection, Katherine Cathey, pregnant with their unborn son, rubs her belly against the coffin. Of all the photographs in the group, this is the most searing; it’s as impossible to forget as it is to imagine. Of all the memories, the sense of touch seems to be the first to fade, and here is the sense of a last touch. It cuts deeply as love, birth and death merge until our heads spin.

At first, these pictures seem almost an affront, almost too personal, then become stunningly direct. At many newspapers, the mantra of “too sad, too strong” keeps images like this out of the running. Editors bemoan the loss of readers without realizing perhaps that pictures like this are precisely what connects viewers to all the disparate forms of life around us. We and everyone we know and love, and hate, are all going to die someday, and we ought to be used to that by now.

And finally, the night before her husband’s funeral, Katherine Cathey lies on an air mattress in front of the flag-draped coffin. Before he went to Iraq, they were married in a civil ceremony, and planned a church wedding when he returned. They hadn’t planned on a return like this, and now she listens to music they had picked for the wedding. She insisted on spending that final night next to his body.

The colors carry huge weight, with the blue tone from the laptop contrasting with the warm backlighting on the honor guard, the coffin and the hovering cross. She becomes the only person on earth; stillness replaces action and everything is a floating world of thought and desire. Charon rows between the two fields.

Franz Kafka wrote: “We need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone… A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.”

Heisler’s photographs are those books.

Original Rocky Mountain feature here.  Todd Heisler website here.



(images: Todd Heisler/ Rocky Mountain News. November 11, 2005.  rockymountainnews.com)

  • lytom

    Why not? Pick one sided pictures!
    Pregnant, young, drains our sympathy and we weep.
    PC, air mattress comfort, flag and marine guard, cross,
    all fit nicely in the picture with familiar things, that touch the strings, so we can feel the grief and almost put ourselves there. Powerful in hiding something else!
    How easy to put in few motivating symbols, and message is reinforced, he was good and died in the service for his country.
    Doing what???? Following orders! Killing people in distant lands, whose language he could not speak and understand. Following orders. Or did he have qualms, but that would be putting in something of our own questions. We will never know because the picture would be changed.
    My mind races to the other place.
    The one where there is complete destruction.
    Breadwinner dies, mom with kids left.
    Shelter, full of bullet holes, books on the ground,
    Blood stains and last gasp that stay in memory.
    There is no comfort, and no support!
    No monetary help for survival and no air mattress.
    The heart will not mend and hatred will be there.
    Going to the next house, there mother weeps for her child.
    These images are more powerful, yet completely obliterated, invisible to us, no powerful scene with the serene moments. Just desperation that is so foreign to us. The survival that awaits gets to be less understood on foreign soil, and after all, who really cares and weeps?
    The hearts will not mend and the empty words of occupiers will produce bitter fruits that will resonate with more scenes of grief.

  • http://www.theunapologeticmexican.org/elgrito nezua limón xolografik-jonez

    she faces a computer for comfort and not that dark cross behind her.
    i agree with the poster above…yet it is all sad. all of it. this woman did not start the war nor want it, i’m betting. i may feel similar to you about the soldiers, for it is their “calling” and feelings of “duty” and “honor” and “patriotism” that they use to justify participating in such horrendous and murderous actions as these “wars” of fuel and colonization. but this woman? it makes me just as sad as seeing the iraqis. in a different way. they are victims, both, of this massive war machine that brings us toys each christmas like some hellish Santa. but the iraqis are not duped by US Imperialist spin. This woman is just another hypnotist’s victim.
    and lytom, who cares and weeps? i do.

  • MonsieurGonzo

    in my humble opinion, these images and the wrenching, heartfelt text accompanying them tells us more about the very real pain that our very own BAGman honest -to- god feels about War, the suffering of his own (American) people, and the courage of many of his friends ~ the imagemakers ~ than any somesuch “photo competition” Raison D’être.
    otoh, personally i prefer that other image as more worthy of a “photojournalism award” archetype; though there are several (not the least of which is, BuddyJesus :) right here on theBAG that proved to be clever on more than one level, as de-constructed, chat & chewed over by the gang here…
    …not to mention all the weirdly wonderful images that many of us sent in, only to find that we could not post them publicly for one reason or another; eg., one of my favourites was a stunner ~ Iraqis divided by a veritable river of blood on the street, looking at one another, as well as down in to this red “chasm” (which was reflecting them, as in a mirror) ~ it was posted on Raimondo’s antiwar.com but Michael and i couldn’t find the proper credentials :-(
    The BAG is at its best, i think, when dealing with the political bias of visual FRAMES, so it really soars around election time. Yeah, i’d like to see more stuff relevant to commercial advertising; and why not go back into history to seek out classics of visual propaganda from the 19th & 20th century media?
    But it’s not my BAG, nor yours ~ it’s his. And i respect that. Thanks for the opportunity, BAGman, and Hanukkah Feliz !

  • digginthislife

    I feel this…. how many of us confront death of love and life early in life. The soldiers are moved into territory so violent and sudden that the stillness of their dead bodies lies to those living. It all comes down to the personal and well it should because it is on that level that we scream and moan and keen a loss. I wept reading about this couple and viewing the pictures. . I have seen death many times working in health care. You never forget the shock of another’s grief… the first knowing, the collapse, the sound and physical crazy response as loved ones rush to revive who they have lost. It changes the air, your heart beat, focus and motion and draws you in without release until you realize this death is not yours to suffer. But you will never forget it and always make big room in your heart when you sense the emotions of grief again.

  • http://fuming-mucker.livejournal.com Darryl Pearce

    Moments frozen in time… from puddle jumping to full breath of human experience–photographs and videos allow a peek into others’ rooms of experience. The pictures become hardened glaze on the soft clay of our fired lives…
    Contrasted against the wedding we saw at the blustery city park this afternoon, …I’m crying. So much promise. …and by fate, me and mine have ended in up in different circumstances (my own son made it through the army without any overseas “deployment”).
    …nobody said life had to be fair, cheap, safe …or make any sense.
    I hope she can get past the “anger” stage of grief–but then, “acceptance” isn’t necessarily a peaceful place to be.

  • http://fuming-mucker.livejournal.com Darryl Pearce

    …well, here she is in a lighter moment.

  • Cactus

    Just one small window into the chaos and mayhem perpetrated by the Cheney administration. A tiny glimpse of the mourning of those left behind and a young family torn apart; the kind of thing this country likes to sentimentalize. Was this marine gung-ho, AJ-squared-away? Or was he just filling a spot ordered by the CIC? We’ll never know, just as this baby will never know his father. I’d like to see pictures of our returning dead on the news every day, but that will never happen. It’s the only lesson they learned in Vietnam.
    The pictures are heart-wrenching and Maynard’s words are eloquent. What we know is that old people die. What we are seeing is old people sending the young to die for them.
    “…At many newspapers, the mantra of “too sad, too strong” keeps images like this out of the running….” Isn’t it that very fear, that the public will have strong reactions, that keeps photos like these (and more graphic ones) off the front pages. Truth is, when enough people see enough to outrage them, they will act. It took six years, but last month enough people became outraged and finally showed up to vote. And isn’t that just what they fear?

  • Lightkeeper

    Huh. The auxiliary American victims get beautiful euologies filled with allusions to Kafka and the grandeur of Greek mythology. The Iraqi victims – the real ones, not even the auxiliary ones [TWO MILLION AND COUNTING] who have had their lives uprooted – get lies, bombs, and more lies.
    And if someone would like to respond by pointing to my disregard, callousness, lack of *empathy* or whatever, I would like to preempt it by saying I don’t really fucking care. Think of me however you wish.

  • Tina

    Hmmm….take this scene and multiply it by about 400,000 (at least) times, albeit in another culture, one whose iconography doesn’t wrench the same responses from us…none of the 400,000+ having volunteered for the risk….and toss in that many of the half million were elderly, women, and children, and even (I point this out because this young widow is expecting) pregnant women in labor who were blown into bloody rags as their relatives tried to rush them to the hospital. One Iraqi woman delivering her baby was even killed on the way to the hospital in an ambulance with the sirens and lights going.
    I am also somehow reminded of the photo of the Iraqi father holding his little boy, a bag over his head in the brutal desert sun, in a barbed wire enclosure. I think that picture also won some photojournalism awards.
    It’s an unavoidable fact that the real place families have been destroyed is Iraq; Americans have been sheltered from the war and minimally impacted. Since the soldier being mourned is one of those responsible for these horrors, I am finding it difficult to muster any sympathy for the couple. After all, he could have stayed home.
    It’s like the Shania Twain song; I’d like to feel sorry, but my give a damn’s busted.

  • PTate in MN

    What strikes me about this series of pictures is how personal they are. Twenty-three year old Katherine Cathey is violating social norms for public displays of grief. And this intimate grief catches us off balance, stuns us. We aren’t used to it.
    The picture that is more widely acclaimed is sanitized, clever rather than viseral: The people, each in their own little halo of light, blind to Death in the belly of their plane. I can summarize the metaphor without feeling anything in particular. I can’t do that with the Katherine Cathey pictures–what I see is a young woman grieving in her own way for someone she loved and will never see again. No way to be metaphorical about that. Her emotion is raw. She is trying to make sense of something senseless.
    I question the newspaper mantra of “too sad, too strong”: Newspapers sell by creating threats and drama. School children gunned down by a madman, starving children in Africa, a sex scandal such as Swaggert or Foley–that kind of story and pictures will make the front page, and those images can be fairly raw. So perhaps images can be raw when events seem distant from us, when we can be nicely horrified and comfy at the same time?
    I agree with those above who observe that the viewer will interpret the pictures of Katherine Cathey through their own lens. I see something too close and universal for comfort. Someone else might drown out Cathey’s personal pain by turning on the “war is hell” or “our brave soldiers’ sacrifice” tapes.
    I find psychologically interesting the identification with the Other exhibited by some on this thread…“My mind races to the other place. The one where there is complete destruction” or “The Iraqi victims – the real ones, not even the auxiliary ones…”. In particular, I am reminded of the work by psychologist Kenneth B Clark on the damaging effects of racism and discrimination on children cited in Brown v the Board of Education. Clark commented that “a racist system inevitably destroys and damages human beings; it brutalizes and dehumanizes them, blacks and whites alike.”
    I think that could be restated as “a militaristic system inevitably destroys and damages human beings; it brutalizes and dehumanizes them, friend and foe alike.”
    We can grieve for young Katherine Cathey’s loss AND for the thousands dying in Iraq. However, if we want change, if we want the US to turn away from its destructive policies, which image is more likely to transform the hearts of those who think war is justifiable, necessary, fun: Our grieving widows or their grieving widows?

  • LanceThruster

    For traumatic events in my lifetime (none anywhere near approaching this), the meloncholy dreams and assorted nightmares recurred quite often. I would slowing ease in to wakefulness at first dreaming/imagining everything was alright, and then be suddenly jolted awake as I realized I was back in a reality that was pretty harsh at that time. Years later I can still drift into that mindset quite easily. The brain attempts to provide the reality you wish for yourself. The hurt never really goes away, it just fades in and out at ever-changing intervals.

  • lytom

    PTate:
    “However, if we want change, if we want the US to turn away from its destructive policies, which image is more likely to transform the hearts of those who think war is justifiable, necessary, fun: Our grieving widows or their grieving widows? ”
    It seems to me that by your statement you place a great value on the media visuals and assume that the grieving US widow would have more of an effect than grieving Iraqi widow when it comes to affecting US population’s support for the occupation of Iraq.
    I see the difference between the two widows sides in this way.
    On one hand you have the mercenary soldier from the occupying country and his widow. The system “pays” her to stay in her support for the war. Even though the military families are starting to be divided on this issue, most don’t want to say their loved ones have died in vain for lies. The system bets on their blind patriotism, grief and attention which they will get for playing their role and support for the stay on course policy. The numbers for military widows in US are low, not every soldier was married, (2928) http://www.icasualties.org/oif/. I don’t see much of their play in antiwar movement. I wish they would and that they would have butterfly effect!
    On the other hand, the loss of lives of Iraqi is huge http://www.iraqbodycount.org/. I do not want to put down the number, which is so much disrespected by the US. The death affects much larger number of Iraqi women and their extended families. This brings in more fighters and supporters against the occupation forces. They are not divided in their grief and cannot possibly believe that their loved one’s death was for some greater good for their country. Their precarious existence begun with the war on their land!
    So who do I believe will transform the hearts of those who play role in the occupation in Iraq? The success of the resistance and the transparency of the evils of occupation.
    I failed to understand your earlier point “a racist system inevitably destroys and damages human beings; it brutalizes and dehumanizes them, blacks and whites alike.”
    I despair for the Other, and my empathy for the grief of the widow is universal.

  • Lightkeeper

    PTate,
    Shouldn’t my refusal to mourn for this woman make what your saying explicitly obvious?
    Who will say they are fully human in this day and age?
    I know I am damaged. There is no way I can’t be. But like I said, I would like to preempt people pointing this out by saying I don’t give a fuck. I know I know I know. I know everything you’re saying/pointing out/subtly disparaging. But I am still allowed to feel what I feel.

  • Lightkeeper

    And yes, we can grieve for both. That *can* unfortunately, looms far too distant in my dreams for what this world can look like.

  • PTate in MN

    Lightkeeper:“Shouldn’t my refusal to mourn for this woman make what your saying explicitly obvious?”
    yes,it does, and I hope it helps clarify for lytom was I meant by war “brutalizing and dehumanizing” both sides. Our government is doing something horrible, and our painful awareness of this abomination is causing us to lose our ability to empathize.
    Overnight I was mulling over my own question–which image is more likely to change the hearts and minds of Americans, our widow or their widow. Here is disconfirming evidence: The memorable images from Vietnam were those of the little girl enflamed by napalm and the soldier executing the Viet Cong. Though the many images of our young men returning in body bags may have made us more willing to see the cruelty of what we were doing–which is why Bushco wanted to suppress all such “resolve weakening” images–the transformative images were of the Vietnamese suffering. Perhaps the process of transformation starts from recognizing pain in someone like yourself, and then generalizes to the Other.
    I am still astonished that the Conservatives were able to normalize the images from Abu Ghraib: The problem was not that we were torturing people, the problem was that someone took pictures! And perhaps they were able to do that because they had been able to suppress the first step-seeing pain experienced by someone similar to you.

  • Cactus

    PTateinMN has said much of what I thought about the photos better than I ever could. I agree with almost all her points, maybe all. Since we’ve been called to task a couple of times by the subjects of photos, I wonder if anyone else was ’self-censoring’ their words. Who is to say whether Cathey’s reactions were overly dramatic or not. Those of us over 50 have certainly seen death in our lives. But perhaps to someone of barely 20 years it comes as a shattering event that fractures one’s life.
    Our widows or theirs? Ours. We are a country of isolationists, of sentimental patriots and, yes, chauvinists. We look down on the way ‘they’ do things in ‘that country’ (any country). We proudly fly the flag and wink at torture. We have a subtle belief that this is the best country, even though evidence mounts to the contrary. We have a subtle, deeply embedded racism. Most of us don’t want to look at that, in ourselves or others, but it’s there. The most enlightened of us try to overcome it, others don’t even try. We saw the worst of it with Katrina. It hit us in the face because we thought we had gotten past it. Their widows? If the papers (or TV or internet) published more than a very few images, in the back pages, of the widows of Iraq, there would be a screaming outrage, a ‘constant drumbeat’ about traitors in the press, all this propaganda about collateral damage. Perhaps THAT’S what they are afraid of, not the reaction of the readers.
    People of my age have been subjected, since WWII, to subtle, subliminal, implicit ‘propaganda’ that this is the best country and we are the best people. It was the hidden assumption of all the news reports, the advertising, the movies. As that assumption began to break down, the right wingers took it over and beat us over the head with it. Shouted it from every orifice. And apparently half the country shouted back. ‘yeah!’
    Well, that’s just the view from my little California coven.

  • ummabdulla

    “Our widows or theirs?” I think the answer’s obvious; to the extent that the American public rose up against the war in Vietnam, it was because of American casualties, wasn’t it? And maybe because there didn’t seem to be any “victory” in sight – i.e., anything to be gained from those casulaties.
    And while we focus on the widow, each death also affects other members of the family. In a place like Iraq, that family is probably a large, close extended family, with more people affected.
    Cactus: “People of my age have been subjected, since WWII, to subtle, subliminal, implicit ‘propaganda’ that this is the best country and we are the best people. It was the hidden assumption of all the news reports, the advertising, the movies.”
    Subtle? Hidden? They come right out and say it all the time, don’t they?

  • ummabdulla

    These are some of the soldiers we’re talking about… Broken By War, And Ordered Back

  • Cactus

    ummabdulla: “Subtle? Hidden? They come right out and say it all the time, don’t they?”
    You’re right, they do, especially now. But the verbal in-your-face “America: love it or leave it” is easy to respond to by arguing, laughing, or just ignoring it. Isn’t it more effective to have the underlying assumption in everything which gets accepted, even without one knowing it’s being implanted. I know I’m not saying this very well, but if something is out in the open, you have a choice whether to agree or oppose. The subliminal ‘airbrushed’ thoughts are implanted into the minds of the young who are no longer taught civics or government in high school, who don’t know how this government is supposed to operate. It becomes easy to think (assume) that this is the best country and all is peachy-keen, if one doesn’t know what it was or could be.
    I’m just sayin’……..
    As for those broken by war, especially this one, I’m sure there are good and true soldiers there trying to do the right thing. But there are also kids like the guys at BurgerKing who can’t get your order straight. Same age. Same intelligence. Same background. They have little internal resources with which to face the kind of destruction that our media have decided is too gruesome for public consumption. If 40-year-old men don’t want to see it, why subject kids to it. Why subject countries to it? Why are we there? Why, why, why?

  • Lightkeeper

    Cactus,
    Just wanted to say that what you were saying came across very clearly. And it was heartwarming to read such honest words and find that there are indeed many others out there who are as aware about the world as I wish the rest of the world to be.
    Sorry, I think me sounds a bit presumptous. Just saying that your words give me hope for a better, more honest, more understanding world. And for that, thank you!

  • Cactus

    Lightkeeper: Tip o’the hat.

  • steve

    nice real nice!! empty sack wonders all of you!! you are right we would be better off in a society that we could all be proud of hmm say Iran, Syria, etc. idiots!!

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