In Disaster Falls: A Family Story, Stéphane Gerson frankly shared his experience as a bereaved parent.
There is never an ordinary death of a child, and except in the cases of illness it’s rarely anticipated. This death, Owen’s death, happened during vacation while white water rafting. Owen and his father, Mr. Gerson, fell out of their water craft in a spot known as Disaster Falls. Owen was eight years old.
Mr. Gerson began writing “because there were no words.” He wanted to understand how people find themselves in catastrophes. He wrote to “dispel the notion no one, not even us, could imagine what we were going through.” He wrote because disasters are about the dead and the living. He wrote to give rise to the idea that something other than “horror stories and bottomless vacuity” could represent disasters.
When the complexity of emotion is beyond grasp, writing can help to draw meaning from the experience. Mr. Gerson graciously invited readers to come along as he tackled big questions. He described what it was like to see his son in the water, just out of reach. He described his experience looking for him on land, hopeful he had come to shore, and then his thoughts when he first saw his son’s body. He detailed the discussions about the safety of a ducky on the whitewater and his uneasiness with his son’s decision. He talked about being with the other families the night of the accident, alongside the river that killed his son, and yet feeling isolated. He talked about his subsequent research of Disaster Falls and the court case that followed. He talked about his relationships with his father, wife, and older son.
He laid it all out. Each chapter begins with an excerpt from a letter, card, or conversation after Owen’s death.
What was Owen’s favorite thing to do?
Just to know, I feel really sorry for you and Owen was a great kid.
Was the water deep?
Was Owen eight turning nine or nine turning ten?
I know how it feels to lose someone because I lost my grandmother.
This is not an easy memoir. It is brutal in places. It is unspeakably heartbreaking and traumatic. Mr. Gerson included the beautiful aspects of his life with Owen and without him, as well; it just that this isn’t the lilting kind of memoir where I came away feeling vital and connected. I felt bruised and raw - just the tiniest fraction of what Mr. Gerson has experienced.
If you are a bereaved parent, grandparent, or sibling, this memoir is going to feel different. You may feel relieved by Mr. Gerson’s frankness and courage to say things other people do not. It may feel like too much.
If you are close to a drowning incident, this book is full of triggers.
If you want want an honest, vulnerable view of mourning and grief from a father’s perspective, I can’t recommend this enough.
Sometimes people wrinkle their noses and pull back a bit when they learn I am primarily a film photographer. Other people lean in with widening eyes and want to know more about this archaic method of photography.
I grew up with a film camera. Several, actually. I had one of those 120 cameras that was long and thin, like a big ice cream sandwich. You know, the kind with a mount for a flash cube. Am I dating myself?
My first digital camera was a gift in 2002. Through 2016, I created more images on a memory card than I did on film. In 2017 that balance tipped, and for the past seven months 85% of my work has been with film.
Film looks different. To me it looks softer around the edges and yet has more natural contrast. I describe film as having humanity.
I could absolutely create something like the image above, which is my son, by the way, with digital media. I could apply a film preset and deepen the contrast. I could get really close to this.
The difference between black and white here is astonishing, and yet it's not harsh. It's not sharp. The vulnerability of fatigue receives a gentler treatment through film that it might digitally.
This goes for color, too.
Here is The Boy again, framed by colors he loves. Nothing is oversaturated. There are no hard edges or super duper sharpening. His skin looks just like it does in life with no processing that adds haze, flare, or whatever else is popular. This looks natural to me, and because I want to represent real life, that's an important quality.
Film deepens my intention. Knowing that every frame costs money between the film itself and the processing makes a difference. Digital film also costs money, but because it's money that's already been invested we tend to think of it as free - it doesn't cost any more to fire 1,000 frames, so why not be totally sure?
When I put film into a camera, I consider my intention. I focus to develop connection with my subject. I treat film as a resource of greater scarcity, and because of that it feels more precious to me. I believe I am a better photographer with film because of that. No matter how much I intend to adopt that mindset with a digital camera, in the back of my mind I know I can shoot until the 32GB card is full and then pull out another. On film it's 36 frames at a time, and maybe I have just five rolls with me.
My clients deserve the best of me as a photographer, and film does that. My clients also want to preserve legacies, and film is archival (technically digital files are archival if they are properly maintained every three to five years and there are no hardware failures).
Film feels like a more accurate reflect of life to me. It has greater gravitas. It feels more special to my clients. I think they trust me a bit more because they know I don't need to shoot 1,000 frames to deliver 20 they'll love - I can do that in three rolls of film.
What do you love about film?
I see a lot of incredible moments of the human experience while being with families in love and grief. From each family I learn, and those lessons and points to ponder are what I wish to share with you here.