There’s a saying that I have on a button that hangs on my camera bag, accompanying me on every assignment I go to. It says, “It’s their story, not yours.”It’s a mantra I learned early on in my career, and it’s a constant reminder that this job is not about me — it’s not about winning contests, taking beautiful pictures or gaining accolades. It’s about the people the stories are about. I really think this was my mantra throughout our story on the Mastrandea family and the process of losing their daughter, Norah — a story reporter Megan Williams and I worked on for over six months. As much as we wanted to tell the story, and as much as we thought it was important, we couldn’t have done it without a purpose from the Mastrandea family. This project has been incredibly difficult and heartbreaking, due more so to the fact of how much we fell in love with the Mastrandeas. Going over to their house often turned into a thin line between what I could clock for work hours or whether I was just there for fun. I so often stayed hours after I got the pictures I needed, just watching television, borrowing novels, eating snacks, chatting and laughing. They became like a second family to us, taking care of us amidst all they were going through. Over six months, we followed the Mastrandeas to birthday parties, family outings, MRIs, softball tournaments, weekly hospital visits and regular nights at home. Through it all, we talked constantly about their vision for this story, what they wanted to get out of it, and made sure they had a reason they wanted to do it. Without their drive and purpose — creating a legacy for Norah and to truly show, in depth, the pain of childhood cancer — I don’t think we could’ve done the job we did. Their persistence and deep beliefs that what happened to their Norah was tragic and unfair were the driving force behind this story. Megan and I were just the platform to give them a voice. In the days leading up to the story, I was worried we were showing too much — showing the true pain, the true agony, and the real heartbreak this family went through. But after many talks, emails and messages from the Mastrandeas, my worries changed — maybe it wasn’t enough. Did we really capture the pain and heartbreak of losing your 8-year old daughter — the spunky, sassy, sweet and wise-beyond-her-years Norah June? But after seeing the reactions from our readers and the comments from their friends and family, I think we got as close as possible to telling their true story.
It’s going to take awhile for this whole project to sink in — I still don’t think I’ve realized the magnitude of it all — but I’m so proud to be a part of a news staff that has been so supportive of long-term journalism like this. Every single person in our small newsroom contributed to the success of their project, and I could’ve been as dogged and persistent as ever, but it wouldn’t have been possible without their support.
In the days of layoffs and overworked staffs in our industry, it makes me so happy that we are still able to do work like this, amidst all the depressing things we hear about newspapers today. If I had known four years ago that a paper our size could pull something like this off — a 7-day print package, with giant photographs, thoughtful design and multiple web elements, such as an e-book — I would’ve told all those naysayers in journalism school to suck it when they told me to jump the sinking newspaper ship.
This project is the embodiment of what I entered journalism to do — long-form, in-depth journalism, big photographs in print, digitally-supported storytelling and to give people a platform to share their stories, as tragic as they may be, to spark change. And I don’t think I would’ve thought, even a year ago, that Staunton would be the place to do that. But it has been, and I’m so, so happy to be here, to be a part of this beautiful, supportive community, and to be a part of this amazing team of really fantastic journalists, and even better people.
I feel like a simple bystander in this whole process, really. I feel like I was just lucky to ever have met the Mastrandeas, especially Norah, and that the family and my news staff are the ones who made this happen — I was just there to document it all. I feel really privileged to have been able to tell this story, and not only that, but to have been able to tell it well — but above all I wish Norah was just here to see it and read it and enjoy it.
Please read Megan’s beautiful story on The News Leader’s website, and feel free to explore the additional photographs and web elements.