Photographing funerals

funeral for law enforcement Kalispell Montana
funeral for law enforcement Kalispell Montana

I absolutely hate photographing funerals. They break my heart. The last time I had to do this, I lived in Washington DC. So it has been seven years since I have had to carry a camera and go document the very worst of moments. To be honest, part of me wishes the funeral of Brad Treat, the 38 year old, Law Enforcement Offcier (LEO) with the U.S. Forest Service, had been private. No media coverage. No cameras and videos. Only mourners. But after spending the morning photographing this, when I got back to the office, my editor told me someone had called the newspaper to find out what all the cops were doing in downtown... And I thought: "Really? Treat died as a result of an encounter with a bear. It's a national story. How could someone local have missed it?" But people do miss these things.

The simple truth is, it's summertime, and summers in Montana are something special. Lakes and mountains and camping and sailing and adventure and every imaginable wonder is just waiting outside the front door. It's easy enough to get away from the daily grind and opt out of the news for a while. So as the media, we have to go photograph this funeral. We have to pay attention. Because paying attention and giving people the information they need — that's the job of journalists. Making it interesting... well, that's the job of artists.

Kalispell fire department
Kalispell fire department

The funeral was set to begin at 10 a.m., but I know how these things are: access is pretty restricted. So, I decided to go to the high school where the procession was going to be lining up starting at 7:30 in hopes of having better access and therefore, better photographs. As I look at the people lining up for this a lot of them are faces I know. The Sheriff's deputies are there. Montana Highway Patrol. Fish Wildlife and Parks. Flathead Hotshots. And of course the Forest Service. As I walked passed the long line of vehicles, passed officers from every branch, turned out in the uniforms, shoes shined, and badges covered with a black band in mourning, I could not help thinking of all the LEOs and firefighters that I am friends with and wondering...will I ever have to photograph the funeral of one of my friends?

Wandering and waiting I spotted a friend, she's the wife of a deputy. I had to hug her because from the look on her face I knew wasn't the only one facing the reality that this could be the future of someone I love.

I had to turn off that line of thinking. To do the job and to do it well, I had to have making photos as my only focus. A few times during the lining up I ended up talking to guys I didn't know. And none of them were angry or resentful of my presence. Not only did they know I was there doing my job, but they were glad to have me there. They wanted the story told. For me, as a photographer, it is incredibly helpful to have someone tell me they're ok and they want me to photograph. I know not everyone feels the same, but those people who give me permission, they help more than they know.

flathead county sheriff's office
flathead county sheriff's office

And with that, I disconnected from the emotion of the day so I could focus on making pictures that would make people notice the story. Everyone knows the expression "A picture is worth a thousand words." The reason a photo is worth that much isn't just because that's how many words could fit in that same space on the page. I believe it is because a good photo will catch someone's eye and make them interested enough to read the story.

My first photos were of the Kalispell and Libby ladder trucks raising and American Flag to fly over the procession as it departed from Glacier High School. Now, the reality is, I am afraid of heights. Have been for a long time. But I knew, if I could get up one of those ladders I would have an incredible vantage point. I was not actually allowed to go to the very tip top, and that is probably good because like I said, scared of heights, but I did get to climb up half way and because they gave me access I ended up with views that no one else has. I was up there for most of the procession. After that they went down the main street and I raced to my jeep to get on the back roads and hopefully get to the stadium before them. Which I did. I only stayed for the first part of the funeral. My job was to get back to the office and get photos online as soon as possible.

Treat_5770
Treat_5770
Treat_5758
Treat_5758
Treat_5859
Treat_5859

I have so much respect for my editor. When he said he didn't want to run a photo of Brad Treat's widow, I was applauding inside. I'm going to do the same and leave the photo of Somer out of this blog. Besides the photos I want are the ones that show the way first responders turn out for one of their brothers. They stand in solidarity and each one of them knows, that because of the nature of the job they have chosen to do, their funeral could be the next one.

Before coming to work for the Daily Inter Lake, in this wonderfully remote corner of Northwest Montana, I never had the kind of access to service members the way I do here. I love living where so many of the residents are either LEOs or former LEOs or military, or former military. It seems to me that the number of people who are either actively serving, or have served, is too vast to be counted. I have so much respect for these people.

Montana Highlanders bagpipes and drums
Montana Highlanders bagpipes and drums

In someways, I am fortunate that I never crossed paths with Brad Treat. I work with a lot of first responders so we could have met, but I did not know Treat. That makes it easier for me because I was able to go and photograph without the added pain of a personal connection. I am also unfortunate that I did not ever meet him, because based on the things I've heard, posts read on social media, and every indication from today, Brad Treat was an honorable man and someone I would have liked to have known.

Color guard
Color guard

Years ago, when my father died, I asked my best friend and mentor, Tim Webb, to photograph the funeral service. My father had served in the United States Marine Corps in Vietnam. He is buried at Camp Nelson National Cemetery near Nicholasville, Kentucky. There was an honor guard. And a folded flag ceremony. And a 21 gun salute. And Taps. I almost never look at those photos. They are precious, but still, they hurt too much. Regardless I will never throw them away because the memories comfort me. And someday when I start to forget, those photos will comfort me. My hope is this: I hope, that years down the road, when the grief eases, the photos the media captured from this day will be a comfort to Treat's family. I hope the family will be able to look at these, and see how his brothers all came out to stand up for Brad. I hope one day, these photographs will be precious instead of painful.

Rest in Peace Brad Treat. Thank you for serving.

For more information on Brad Treat go to the Officer Down Memorial Page at: https://www.odmp.org/officer/22893-officer-bradley-wayne-treat

UPDATE: Dear God, I wrote this just before the violence in Dallas. Eleven officers shot, at least 3 dead, maybe more depending on whether or not these officers are able to survive their wounds. I thought the lineup here in Kalispell was overwhelmingly sad. I can't imagine what Texas is going to go through. My prayers are with the officers and families. My hopes are that the photographers will get the access they need to create something powerful and unforgettable.