The rumble of TV satellite news trucks and crowing of roosters were the only sounds to break the heavy stillness as I pulled into Sutherland Springs before dawn on Nov. 6. This town of about 600, though new to me, felt familiar. Houses worn from the harsh South Texas sun; stray dogs lounging in the road; a single blinking traffic light. But at the corner of Highway 87 and Farm To Market Road 539, yellow police tape surrounded the perimeter of the short-steepled First Baptist Church. A black trailer, marked by a huge FBI seal, was parked out front.
Residents, who less than 24 hours earlier had become the latest victims of a mass shooting, seemed to be in hiding. Well-dressed journalists knocked on doors while officials patrolled the streets. By nightfall, churches from nearby San Antonio organized a vigil on the local baseball field, which would later serve as the grounds for the town’s first church service after the shooting, drawing hundreds from across the country. One resident, Terrie Smith, who runs the kitchen in the S.S. Express Valero gas station, started cooking furiously to feed the influx of journalists — a welcome distraction from the immense sadness looming overhead. Yet, not until Thursday, after most out-of-town media had departed, did the locals start to emerge from their homes and the town seem to breathe again.
During my week in Sutherland Springs, it was difficult at times to not feel overwhelmed by the incredible grief that the community was feeling. Part of my process as a photojournalist is to think about what the people I am photographing are feeling and then to convey that through many different scenes and individuals. Pairing feelings with facts makes for stronger visual journalism. While I will never be able to fully comprehend what these families experienced, as I witnessed their resilience in the wake of the tragedy, I tried to convey their fortitude visually.
Many in the town cited their faith as the source of their strength. They see prayer as a way to take action and help their community heal. Some have hung wooden crosses on front doors, planted them in homes and yards. Others turned to constant prayer — squeezing in moments of gratitude and contemplation at every possible moment. I have never seen a community’s faith be so steadfast.
On Monday, one week after I arrived, I attended 16-year-old Haley Krueger’s funeral. During the service, several of her friends stood up, teary-eyed, to remember how Haley could brighten a room in an instant.
“It is imperatively important that we live like Haley did — full of light,” Pastor Brandon Caddell said. “We have to let our light shine like Haley did every day of her life.”
Sometimes as a photographer, it’s not just about seeking the light, but providing some, too.
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