A photo that led to a story

Pho­tog­ra­pher’s work leads to dis­cus­sion and pow­er­ful re­port

The Hamilton Spectator - - LOCAL - PAUL BERTON

The pho­to­graph didn’t say a thou­sand words.

In­stead, it whis­pered just a few, hint­ing at some­thing ter­ri­ble, tragic, un­speak­able.

Spec­ta­tor pho­tog­ra­pher Barry Gray vir­tu­ally stum­bled upon the scene in the late af­ter­noon of May 16. He had been on as­sign­ment nearby at McMaster Univer­sity when he got a text mes­sage from city edi­tor Ch­eryl Stepan: an ap­par­ent pedes­trian death on High­way 403 in Hamil­ton.

If you were in a car that af­ter­noon, you’ll re­mem­ber it well. Traf­fic across the re­gion was at a near stand­still.

Gray had gone to the pedes­trian bridge on the Hamil­ton-Brant­ford Rail Trail near Che­doke golf course, just west of Aberdeen Av­enue, hop­ing for the best view of the traf­fic below, when an ob­server directed him to some­thing else: A pair of shoes and a sweater left by the rail­ing. Cu­ri­ous, fore­bod­ing.

He took the pho­to­graph you see on to­day’s front page, but he knew the chances of it be­ing pub­lished were slim at best.

He texted it to Stepan with a ques­tion: “Would we use it? Great pho­tos are of lit­tle use if no­body sees them.”

She re­sponded that we would at least have a dis­cus­sion. And in­deed we did. On that af­ter­noon, and in the days fol­low­ing, we had sev­eral. Many fac­tors pre­vented its im­me­di­ate pub­li­ca­tion, but the big­gest was that we couldn’t be sure whose clothes they were.

We sim­ply didn’t know enough to use the pho­to­graph, but we agreed that with con­text, it could be very pow­er­ful.

“Sui­cide is al­ways the ele­phant in the room,” said Gray.

On­tario Pro­vin­cial Po­lice never said the in­ci­dent was a sui­cide, but an obit for Ni­cole Pate­naude, 20, printed a few days later, hinted at it.

En­ter The Spec­ta­tor’s Su­san Clair­mont, an award-win­ning jour­nal­ist who often tack­les dif­fi­cult and sen­si­tive sub­jects. She reached out to a fam­ily mem­ber and im­me­di­ately got a call from Ni­cole’s mother, Carol.

“I was very care­ful but I in­tro­duced my­self to a fam­ily mem­ber on Face­book and said I was in­ter­ested in writ­ing about Ni­cole,” re­calls Clair­mont. “Her mother phoned me and was thrilled that some­one wanted to write about Ni­cole. She thanked me for reach­ing out.”

It is one of the most dif­fi­cult as­sign­ments for a re­porter: ask­ing fam­ily mem­bers for a pho­to­graph or a mem­ory. The chances are 50:50 the door will be slammed in your face. But just as often, peo­ple in­vite us in and thank us for ask­ing.

When death is by sui­cide, it is even more dif­fi­cult. But times are chang­ing. “Moreso than any other fam­ily I’ve writ­ten about, Carol helped with the di­rec­tion of this story,” says Clair­mont. She helped lo­cate friends and doc­tors and coaches who knew Ni­cole.

The re­sult is the pow­er­ful, heartwrench­ing and ul­ti­mately hope­ful story you see in to­day’s edi­tions about love and fam­ily and the del­i­cate sub­jects of men­tal ill­ness and sui­cide. Full of con­text, sen­si­tiv­ity, per­spec­tive and lessons for us all.

Jour­nal­ism at its very best.

Paul Berton is edi­tor-in-chief of The Hamil­ton Spec­ta­tor and thes­pec.com. You can reach him at 905-526-3482 or pber­ton@thes­pec.com

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