The most painful story
EDITOR’S NOTE: Last Thursday, April 7, a gunman entered under a false pretext the Tasso da Silveira school in a Rio de Janeiro suburb, carrying two pistols and dozens of rounds of ammunition. An alumnus himself of the same school where he had a history of being bullied and mental illness, he lined children up facing the wall and shot two dozen of them, before turning the gun on himself. Twelve students were dead, and others are still agonizing in the hospital.
This is the most painful type of story for most photographers, when a senseless tragedy involves children. The two Reuters photographers who covered the shooting and subsequent funerals speak here of their experiences, and how they coped professionally and personally.
Sergio Moraes, 49, father of two, writes:
I woke up on April 7, the morning a gunman attacked students at Tasso da Silveira middle school, with a slight headache only hours after celebrating my son’s 18th birthday. A journalist from the newsroom called early to tell me that a man had entered a school in a Rio suburb and injured a few people. It sounded serious but since there were no apparent fatalities I called my colleague Ricardo, who was closer, and asked him to go to the school. It was only when I began to monitor my news sources that I realized we had a huge story on our hands, and I raced to Realengo, the middle class neighborhood where the school was. I called Ricardo and assigned him to the hospital as I arrived at the school.
The scene at the school was one of families’ desperation for news of their children. It took a few moments to get my bearings and know where to begin to photograph. The first thing I thought about were my own kids and how I would like to be with them now, but the importance of our work at times like these was very clear. We were documenting the first attack of this type in Brazil. My head cleared and I began to photograph with precision what I was witnessing.
The worst came on April 8, the day after the attack, when 10 young victims were buried. It was an exercise in how to cover a story so grave without offending or showing disrespect for the families that had lost their children. I first tried to talk with some of them and show that I wasn’t a vulture preying on their grief. I had arrived early to show them my solidarity with their pain, and simply observed from afar while discreetly taking pictures.
The burials began and continued about 30 minutes apart, and I tried my hardest to remain silent in the background. It wasn’t easy to remain unnoticed. There was never a lack of a colleague yelling for someone to stop blocking the view, and the person standing in the way was almost always a relative of dead child. I even tried to calm my colleagues down, but since that didn’t have much effect I changed position and tried to mix in with the mourners, family and friends, as discreetly as possible.
One of the burials affected me profoundly, that of a 15-year-old girl named Luiza, the same name as my own daughter. As the coffin reached the open grave in a slow procession, her parents asked for the lid to be opened. At that moment I could only think, “Don’t do that, for the love of God.” They uncovered it to expose the most peaceful scene, and began to cry uncontrollably. As they kissed the girl’s face photographers began to press their shutters frantically. I was positioned to the side of the coffin and slowly raised my camera. The scene was so sad but so beautiful that I found it impossible not to photograph. I began to shoot frame after frame. Those were the images that stayed with me from that day, and from the entire story.
I want to believe that the results didn’t offend the families. The photos are important to show the world what a monster had done to them. The serene face of Luiza still comes to my mind. I keep thinking of the irreparable trauma that those families have suffered, and I pray that it never happens again, anywhere. At the same time I know that whenever a tragedy occurs we have to be the world’s eyes. I’m very proud to be able to photograph in these situations, even as a father in these cruel moments.
Ricardo Moraes, 26, single, writes:
It was hard to believe.
When I heard the news with few details, I thought it was a mistake. But as I headed towards the school and then the hospital, the first confirmed details became clearer; children were arriving dead and injured at the hospital after an attack that was unprecedented in South America.
On the radio the number of victims continued to increase, and there was speculation about who did it and why.
I began to cover this very sad and difficult story, finding it extremely hard to separate the news from my personal life. It was the greatest case of brutality that I had ever seen. It took considerable concentration not to think of my girlfriend, a schoolteacher herself in Brasilia, who always tells me wonderful stories of her students. That night she would tell me how she planned to pay tribute to the victims in her classroom the next day.
The work was intense in the search for dramatic images of victims receiving first aid, and the drama of the families. Dozens of colleagues surrounded relatives who tried to reach the hospital, trying to find out each individual story and document their emotions. It was a very difficult relationship, but I found everyone in shock and working respectfully.
The next day the wakes were dominated by all the pain of relatives and friends, many of whom collapsed while others sobbed and bid farewell to their children with great resistance. It was impossible not to feel like an intruder while photographing such a personal moment.
The presence of so many journalists made it even more difficult, but the need for strong, emotive images to match the story was urgent. For those colleagues who are parents it was obvious to me that they had greater difficulty doing their job.
I had decided to take a 400mm telephoto lens with me and try to bring the emotion closer without invading the mourners’ space, but the presence of so many people forced me to use a shorter 135mm, a 50mm and even a wide-angle zoom. Through it all I did manage to keep a respectable distance.
Of the five funerals I covered the last was the saddest for me, with incessant crying, funeral hymns and even the anthem from a local soccer club. Two very young boys cried and cried, enough to break my heart, and one bid farewell to the brother he would never see again.
Five funerals for five people the sum of whose ages doesn’t reach the life expectancy of the average Brazilian.