World War II veteran Dr. Quentin Smith holds a replacement congressional medal honoring the Tuskegee Airmen awarded to him during a ceremony held at City Hall in Gary, Ind., Friday, April 20, 2012. Smith, 93, fought in World War II as part of the famed 99th Fighter Squadron. Smith’s original medal was stolen when his home was burglarized last summer.
I’m a nostalgia junkie. As many of my close friends can attest, I have a very keen memory for events I’ve experienced and special people I’ve met throughout the years. In fact, part of the reason I enjoy photography so much is that, other than allowing others to see the world through my eyes, I get to freeze my life – moment by moment – and hold onto those moments indefinitely. The photos in my archive act as keys to the doors which my memories are tucked behind, unlocking the enjoyable adventures, arduous struggles, and unforgettable smiles that are allowed to live on forever.
Sadly, last month, two special individuals I had the pleasure of meeting and photographing passed away within eight days of each other. Their existence in my archive losing the synchronicity with their existence in the world, despite not knowing either subject personally, brought with it an uneasy feeling when I heard the news. My job is to immortalize subjects, in a way, through images. Thus, it can be jarring to learn of a photo subject’s death, especially when my hour or so with them on location is the extent of my interaction with them, or when future contact isn’t had.
Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson (left) presents a key to the City of Gary to World War II veteran Dr. Quentin Smith during a ceremony held at City Hall in Gary, Ind., Friday, April 20, 2012. Smith, 93, fought in World War II as part of the famed 99th Fighter Squadron.
I met Dr. Quentin Smith during an awards ceremony in Gary, Indiana, at City Hall on April 20th of last year. Smith, a pilot and World War II veteran, was one of the famed Tuskegee Airmen who flew as part of the 99th Fighter Squadron. In addition to being presented with a key to the city, Smith was being awarded a replacement congressional medal that day to replace one that was stolen from his home in a burglary.
After Smith received the medal, he treated those gathered to stories of learning to fly as a young servicemen. As an aviation fan, I was immediately transfixed on Smith’s tales of accomplishments as a pilot, as well as the struggles of being an African-American in a time period where the race wasn’t welcomed in military aviation.
There aren’t many times where I almost forget to pick up my cameras and shoot photos white on an assignment, but this was surely one of them. Despite Smith’s 93-year-old age, the stories he painted vividly showed in my mind’s eye like a real life “Red Tails” movie. By the end, the room was silent. Some were in tears. A real life hero, a living history book, ten feet away, and I was being paid to be there? Sometimes, I have to pinch myself.
Mr. Smith passed away of natural causes on January 15th of this year at age 94. The battles he fought in war, and the memories he shared of them, however, will live on in my mind. Just eight days later, another memorable photo subject I met on two occasions lost her battle with a long term illness.
(From left) Alyssa Mathas, 13, a student at Hobart Middle School, serves coffee with her cousin Kaitlyn Kutanovski, 11, of Crown Point, Ind., to her grandparents Vicky Kutanovski and Arsin Kutanovski, also of Crown Point, during a pancake breakfast held at Hobart Middle School in Hobart, Ind., Saturday, April 21, 2007. The Hobart Middle School student council sponsored the breakfast for Alyssa’s Angels, a group students at the school founded to raise money for cystic fibrosis research.
I first photographed Alyssa Mathas, then an energetic 13-year-old, on April 21, 2007, in Hobart, Indiana. The Alyssa’s Angels group, comprised of several of Alyssa’s close friends, was holding a pancake breakfast fundraiser to benefit cystic fibrosis research. While Alyssa had suffered with the disease her entire life, I would have never been able to tell without prior knowledge. Alyssa was all smiles during the breakfast, darting around the cafeteria area, helping her friends with coffee service and, generally, having a great time!
Thirteen-year-old Devon Curtis (third from left) shares a smile with fellow members of Alyssa’s Angels during a Hobart School Board Meeting held at Hobart Middle School in Hobart, Ind., Thursday, July 5, 2007. The Alyssa’s Angels group members, who were honored with citizenship awards at the meeting, help raise money and awareness about Alyssa Mathas’ cystic fibrosis condition (Mathas pictured here at right).
A few months later, I photographed Alyssa and her angels again, this time at a school board meeting where the group was presented with citizenship awards. A local construction company also surprised Alyssa with a monetary donation to cystic fibrosis research. As with the previous shoot, Alyssa’s smile lit up my frame and the entire room.
Thirteen-year-old Alyssa Mathas of Hobart, Ind., reacts after receiving a check from Chris LaFollette (right), senior project manager for Envoy Construction Management, during a school board meeting held at Hobart Middle School in Hobart, Ind., Thursday, July 5, 2007.
In the years since those shoots, articles in The Post-Tribune newspaper kept me updated on Alyssa’s condition, including her joy at being able to attend her high school prom, and her eventual double lung transplant which gave her a new lease on life. Sadly, on January 23rd of this year, an update I hoped I would never read told of that new lease being cut short. Alyssa, at 19, had lost her battle with the disease that, in some oddly positive way, brought her closer to a group of friends and a community in a way most healthy people will never experience.
I’m honored when the lives of people far more exceptional than I’ll ever be can exist forever through photos in my archives and memories locked in my mind. When those subjects depart us in life, the memories recalled through those images become priceless.
Thirteen-year-old Alyssa Mathas (second from left) goes in for a group hug with classmates (from left) Christina Bredwell, 13, Devon Curtis, 13, and Ashley Jenkins, also 13, outside Hobart Middle School in Hobart, Ind., Thursday, July 5, 2007. The group of friends, known as Alyssa’s Angels, help raise money and awareness about Mathas’ cystic fibrosis condition. Alyssa lost her battle with the disease on January 23, 2013.