There are certain parts of any job that you love, and others that you dread. I always have a pit in my stomach when I have to photograph funeral proceedings for someone that was taken from loved ones all too soon. Its a delicate balance between telling a story about what this person meant, and being respectful towards a grieving family, and sometimes that line is hard to find.
On Wednesday I photographed the funeral of Helen Hill, a documentary film maker from New Orleans, La., who was murdered in her home just six days earlier. What most people know by now is that Hill, a talented film maker, who has become an example of the escalating violence in “The Big Easy,” was one of six people murdered in a 24-hour period in hurricane ravaged city, which she loved. But what has been left out of the network news reports, and what I learned throughout the day, is that she was a wife, a mother, a daughter, a sister, and a friend to almost anyone she met.
As the Hill’s casket was carried into St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, I caught a glimpse of her 2-year-old son Francis Pop, in the arms of his father and Hill’s husband, Dr. Paul Gailiunas, who was also shot in the same incident in which Helen was killed. As they walked past me, I had to put the camera to my eye in order to avoid making eye contact. However as they passed where I was standing to enter the church, Francis’ eyes locked with my lens, and I couldn’t look away. There was something so innocent about his gaze in my direction, which wasn’t the typical stare of disgust that I am used to receiving as I photograph a funeral. As he continued to stare, I framed the image, of him looking over his fathers shoulder, and took a picture. His father turned to kiss him on the head, another picture, and another, and another, and so on. The few moments the two were standing on the steps of the church seemed to last an eternity.
As I walked up the stairs to enter the balcony of the church my mind jumped back in time, to three hours earlier, where a crowd gathered outside of a small independent theatre, before the funeral. Friends and family lined the block as they waited to enter the dark screening room for a viewing of Hill’s short films, as the governor of South Carolina was being sworn in across the street. As the the services began Hill’s brother, Jacob D. Hill IV spoke to a the crowd now gathered inside of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church on Bull St., saying “I think she’s laughing seeing all her pacifist, left-leaning activist friends gathering across the street from where a Republican governor is being sworn in with F16s flying overhead.” More stories from friends, and family followed, all describing the same compassionate, fun loving, artistic person, that I began to wish I had the chance to meet.
As the service ended, Hill’s friends and family spilled onto the street, still wiping tears from their eyes, comforting each other, but all seemed to be overcome with athe spirit of compassion, in the memory of someone they loved dearly. As the crowd began to break up for the procession to the cemetery, Christine Gump, a friend of Helen’s, who flew to Columbia, from Los Angeles, removed the jacket, that was covering her left arm where a brightly “chicken embryo” tattoo had been freshly inked into her skin. “Eight of us went and got these on Sunday… We wanted to do it to remember her,” Gump said.
As I walked back to my car, physically and emotionally drained, I couldn’t help but feel happiness, because even though I never had the chance to meet Helen, her spirit, which lives on in her friends and family gave me a brief, and fleeting glimpse into how wonderful of a person she really was. Even posthumously, Helen touched my life.