on the page magazine
issue no. 13 summer/fall 2006
unfinished business



by Doug Oakley

Funeral services were held in Foster City, California, for 17-year-old Nicholas Barron who died in a high-speed car accident on August 27, 2005.



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I started covering the aftermath of sudden and tragic death as a newspaper photographer in 2004. At the same time I faced several sudden deaths of my own: my father, a friend in her 40s cut down by a brain aneurism, and, six months after my father, a photojournalist colleague killed in a car accident.

Funerals, candlelight vigils, makeshift shrines, they come about once a month, sometimes more often. I never turn one down. It’s always a challenge to get up close to people with a camera but not cross the line of decency and respect. I like it because it’s raw, because everything is stripped away and people are as real as they come. It’s a connection with humanity. The story of those who die suddenly, leaving everything up in the air, is always different; there’s always a twist.

I grieve all over again when I’m shooting, some for the person I’m covering whom I’ve never met, some for the people who’ve left me. After a while I can’t take it anymore and I have to leave, and I chide myself for not being stronger. For not getting the great shot when the shit really hits the fan and people break down, or a fight starts in front of a funeral home.

I like to think I’ve learned something from the caskets, the grim faces, the convulsing mothers, the brothers and sisters and friends, the childhood pictures. It’s about remembering to live, to shrug off the bullshit. To experience pleasure. And when I’m driving away from the place where everyone is crying and I’ve gone down myself, I feel good about the blue sky, about feeling hungry.

I’m ready to file my photos.

Doug Oakley is a photojournalist in the San Francisco Bay Area. His work is online at www.dougoakley.com. His photo essay “People at Work” appeared in the summer 2004 issue of On the Page.

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