Here I am, like every year, standing just outside the wall of the military cemetery, where I know I can get the best angle. For what? For a tear in a frame. I look around. There’s a young girl wiping a tear from her face. Click, Click. Maybe her father was killed by a terrorist when she was a baby and she doesn’t remember him. Or maybe her older brother was killed in the Second Lebanon War. Maybe it’s my tear in that frame.
Every year the local paper gives me the same assignment on Memorial Day: capture some heart-wrenching shots at the ceremony. That’s a great one over there. A soldier just caught a fainting woman before she fell down. Click click. I wonder if she’s suffering from heat exhaustion, or perhaps an unexpected resurgence of grief, or maybe from having to come to these ceremonies year after year. They’re reviving her and helping her sit down. A female soldier hands her a bottle of water. So many ceremonies, one last night, one today. One on the anniversary of her son’s death. One for the unit he served in. Do these ceremonies circumscribe her year? Or maybe she doesn’t really want to come to them at all. I wonder if she feels comforted by them or whether she is pained each time seeing her son’s army buddies getting on with life, going to university, getting married. I hold the camera steady, focus on my work. I’d really rather go over there and hug her.
Every year the same words. I would like to know if these sisters and mothers, fathers and brothers get tired of hearing the same words year after year, or maybe the prayers are not as meaningless to them as they seem to me. Maybe they are grateful knowing that at least once a year all these people gather in the cemetery to share in the guilt of the living.
It’s so still as we wait for the siren to wail and signal the start of the ceremony. Hundreds of school children dressed in white shirts, blue pants or skirts, are solemnly quiet. Only a few minutes ago, before they took their places, the air had been ablaze with their boisterous jostling. I wonder what they think about the ceremony, if they know why they are here, especially those strictly combed first-graders holding hands. Click click. They are probably too young to think about the purpose of those empty grassy sections of the cemetery. But I can’t help wondering if the oddly hatted soldiers standing at attention next to the monument are ignoring those pink periwinkle bordered plots behind them.
The cypress trees along the cemetery’s perimeter stand solemnly at attention, too, ever present honor guards. I’ve set up my tripod between two of them. This is where I’ve always found the best view.
The streets next to the cemetery have been blocked off. Passersby stop in their tracks. Do we dare to breathe? I look at my watch. The siren begins its slow baritone blast, sustaining a whining note, then a crescendo, and finally the denouement. The army cantor begins to chant. Click click. The major gets up to give a speech. I pay no attention to the words, instead I watch the faces of the children, blank, uncomprehending, and the adults next to them, heads inclined, reading the inscriptions on the gravestones.
“What can we say to you, the bereaved families,” he intones. What indeed. A man, I suppose he’s a father, standing near the officer, shakes his head in agreement. What can be said except the same old stuff?
I’m a voyeur. Taking shots from behind a tree. I don’t interact with these subjects. Never ask their permission. Nothing like my other assignments, like the one I’ll be going to after this one. I have to take a few more shots of merchants on the main street of this town. I talked to them on the phone, made an appointment. And when I meet them, I’ll talk to them about the spread the paper is doing, maybe get them to smile and tell me some stories about their businesses.
This is just another assignment, too. Impersonal. Just a shot or two to accompany the review of the ceremony. Same as always.
If I could talk to that girl with the tear, know her story, or the woman who almost fainted, would I be able to capture something more personal? I’m curious about them, of course. But what if I were one of them, would I want to have my picture taken with that tear? It’s too personal and intimate, even in this crowd. It’s an invasion of the perimeter they’ve drawn around themselves.
The ceremony is over now. I remove the telephoto from my Nikon and tuck it carefully in my bag. I replace it with the regular lens and keep the camera out, just in case. I fold the tripod and put it in its traveling case.
The memory is there all the time, for these families, so why does it have to be displayed in public, mocked by the cry of the hoopoe and the smiling flowers that decorate the graveyard? Do the bereaved families really need this or are these annual pilgrimages to the military cemetery a commandment we need to fulfill, just like tomorrow’s barbeque with all the relatives?
I pack my camera and think about where I’m going to stand to get the best view of the fireworks and the crowds tonight in the center of town. The pink neon bougainvillea draped over the cemetery fence seems to be flashing the same message as the hoopoe’s cry: this is the ebb and flow of life. No need to be morbid. It’s the same every year. We remember, we’re sad, then we’re elated and it’s time to eat.