A photo that led to a story
Photographer’s work leads to discussion and powerful report
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 firstname.lastname@example.org