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.