The Grim Reaper - Labor Day Weekend: Critical Distance Blog Post by Mark Maio
"The Grim Reaper - Labor Day Weekend"
© Mark Maio
Five years ago, my brother and sister-in-law moved from the metro Atlanta area to an older home on a country road just outside of Eatonton, Georgia.
Ever since my first visit to their new place, I had noticed a very large metal cross nailed to a huge tree just down the road from their house. Like the many roadside memorials I've driven by over the years, I wondered who was memorialized and what circumstances converged to end life at this particular spot.
The cross itself faces east, and on previous trips to Eatonton we had always driven by in the afternoon, so I never had an opportunity to photograph the cross when it was illuminated by the sun. Recently, however, we stayed over night. I was able to get to the tree and cross in the early morning, just after the sun crested the trees that stand to the east.
Walking up to the tree, I experimented with various angles and compositions. I wanted to show the sun reflecting off the metal which, depending on my angle of view, almost glowed. I made a number of exposures, moving to the left, right, up and down, none of which "felt" like what I wanted to convey.
As my wife and brother and sister-in-law waited in the car, I had that all too familiar feeling most photographers experience of hurrying to keep them from waiting too long. This in spite of the fact that they were there to spend the morning with me driving around and photographing - they weren't rushing me at all. Some habits are hard to break.
I stopped photographing, took a deep breath and started "slow looking", the process I use when photographing alone without time constraints. For me, "slow looking" is the act of letting myself get into a "zone" which allows the subject to tell me how to photograph it. I slow down, stop looking through my camera, and by walking around the subject I find what it really is that drew me there to make a photograph.
Once I stepped away from concentrating only on the cross, the final image appeared. The cross was attached to a large tree whose branches hovered over it like outstretched arms. Between the two arms was an outcrop of wood, which to me looked like the face of the Grim Reaper in the middle of a long scream. I made my photographs and then really needed to find the story of the accident.
It was Labor Day weekend 1997, and some of the local high school kids were having a party at a house down the road. Early in the morning, one of the boys, whose father owned a dairy farm, realized he had to get his father's truck home before milking time at 3:30AM. Another boy had a brand new Jeep and he volunteered to follow his friend back home and bring him back to the party. Many of the kids at the party wanted a ride in their friend's new jeep, so the first three to get into the jeep got to ride along.
The driver and his three passengers followed their friend home and then the five of them started the drive back to the party. No one knows how fast the jeep was going but when it came around the curve, the jeep left the road, hit a small tree in a culvert and went airborne. Hitting the large tree, it burst into flames. All five died instantly.
In addition to law enforcement and fire department personnel, half of the local young people arrived at the scene of the accident. They stood vigil until early morning when the sun came up over the trees, revealing the reality of the horrific accident. I couldn't shake the feeling that at approximately the same time of day all these years later, the scene had revealed to me how to best photograph it.