They refer to it as "a club that no one asks to join." And when you learn what it takes to get in, you very quickly understand why. Each year, the Gwinnett County District Attorney's Office hosts its Candlelight Vigil, which is held in honor of the victims of homicide, including those lost to vehicular homicide. The event, held this year on December 7th, is part of the outreach that D.A. Danny Porter and his staff see as essential to serving the community. While seeking justice by prosecuting offenders is certainly the primary role of the office, the level of compassion that Mr. Porter and his team offer the family members of the victims of crime is truly remarkable.
Long before I became a photographer, I had aspirations of becoming a criminal investigator. I went to Georgia State University and got a Bachelor of Science degree in Criminal Justice, graduating in 1996. As part of my study, I interned in Mr. Porter's office, working in the Victim Witness Program. It didn't take long for me to recognize just how dedicated this man was to his profession. Each and every day I got to spend helping out on cases with his team was a gift, and it was an experience I'll never forget. And although fate would ultimately put me on a different career path, I always kept an interest in the law, and specifically, I kept up with the happenings at the Gwinnett D.A.'s Office.
A couple of weeks ago, I saw a posting about the Candlelight Vigil, so I reached out to Mr. Porter with an email, offering to photograph the event. Something I've always cherished as a photographer is the ability to tell stories through images, and I knew that there would be many to be told at this event. And although I had worked in the field previously, I wasn't prepared for how deeply I would be touched by the people that I'd be photographing. As an event photographer, I'm used to blending-in, capturing image after image with ease, as I've done it time and time again. But this was not just another event, and these were not people who paid a few bucks to hear a motivational speaker. These people had their loved ones stolen from their lives, an admission price that is unimaginable for most.
Prior to the vigil held in the Gwinnett Justice & Administration Center's Auditorium, a reception was held, where the families of those lost to homicides could gather and look at photos, placed on a temporary memorial inside the atrium. Members of the D.A.'s Office were on hand to meet with the families, offering comfort and companionship, as they wandered the seemingly endless display of images. As I watched the interactions, it became abundantly clear that the bonds forged between the families and the D.A.'s team were extremely strong, as if they were, together, one extended family.
We see the grief of those touched by homicide on the news each and every day. The problem is that we've become, in my opinion, far too desensitized to it. Take the image above, as an example. I've seen people crying over the death of a loved one on the news, at the hands of another, again and again, and again. And sure, I've always felt terrible for them. But when I took this photograph...standing just a few feet away, it wrecked me. It really wrecked me inside. And here's the thing: I've lost a friend to murder, many years ago. But this woman lost someone much closer, and I could feel her heartbreak. And as you can see, she is far from alone, sadly.
The scene played out again, and again, and again. Family members kept coming, scanning the memorial for loved ones. Some touched the photos, and some took photos with their phones. Some stood silently and stared, and some cried. Staff from the D.A.'s Office were never far away, and often stepped in to provide comfort. They've weathered the storm with these family members, and worked hard to bring them justice.
And while the Danny Porter and his team tirelessly seek justice for the victims of homicide and their families, some cases remain unsolved. I spoke with the woman in the photo above about her daughter, who was murdered five years ago. Her daughter was just twenty-five at the time. Such promise. Her whole life ahead of her, but a stranger changed all of that. As she shared her story with me, I struggled to find words in reply. What could I say to comfort her that she hadn't heard a thousand times already? And before I could attempt a response, she told me that her husband had passed away just over a year ago.
My humanity took over, and my heart broke. I stretched out my arms, and gave her a hug. This complete stranger, was no longer a stranger. She was a friend. She was a family member. All I wanted to do was take away her pain. I couldn't. I hope that, if only for a moment, I was able to give her some comfort. I pray that the investigators are able to bring those responsible to justice, so that she can find peace.
Another moving moment for me was meeting this little boy. He was so excited to find the photo of his older brother on the memorial. He smiled as if he had just been given the latest video game console for Christmas. It seemed so bizarre. It was as if he had seen his brother come back, but that's never going to happen.
About ten minutes after that photo was taken, he walked up to me and said, "Hey, look what I got!" He pointed to a gold sheriff's badge sticker on the right side of his chest, complete with an ear-to-ear smile. "Hey, man...I didn't get one," I replied. He fires back, with zero hesitation, "Well, that's because you're the picture guy." I instantly fell in love with this kid. There I was, a forty-six-year-old guy doing my level best to hold myself together, and here comes this little boy, whose brother has been ripped from his life, to put me back at ease. Just a few minutes after that, he walks up to me in the middle of the room, hand extended for a shake, and says, "Will you be my friend?" Standing next to me is a woman, who nearly bursts into tears and says, "That's the most wonderful thing ever!" And, of course, I told the little man, "Absolutely!"
It's hard to wander the wall of images and not notice the little ones found upon it. It'd be great if it was an empty wall. No adults...no kids...no one at all. That's simply not the world we live in, unfortunately. But it's especially troubling to see children here. The first responders, detectives, investigators, and prosecutors that work these cases are very special people, indeed.
Following the reception, the event moved into the auditorium, where members of Gwinnett County Emergency Services presented the colors. From there, Mr. Porter addressed the guests, explaining how important it is for he, his staff, and the members of the county's law enforcement agencies to bring the families justice. But beyond that, he made sure that they knew that they were not in their struggle alone. You could see the pain in his eyes as he addressed these unwilling "club members" about the circumstances that had brought them all together. Early in his presentation, he choked back tears. He's been doing this type of work since the early eighties, and you can see it still breaks his heart to have to face the families of those who have been murdered. It's not because he's not up to the task, it's because he'd rather be out of a job due to the lack of work.
After Mr. Porter wrapped up, a presentation was run, showing those lost in 2017. Then it was time for some family members to speak, sharing their hearts with those who share in their pain. By bringing these families together, giving them a chance to share their experiences, the D.A.'s Office has created a support group, which helps heal the wounds these families now bear. While they're directed to a variety of professionals who can provide guidance as needed, there's certainly something to be said about the availability to open up to someone who has walked a mile in your shoes. They've been there. They know the struggle. They can offer real empathy.
Something else that really got my attention at the event was the diversity of the family members touched by homicide. It's not that I had some false impression that one particular racial group was immune, or anything along those lines. But as I scanned the audience, I was reminded of something. Evil knows no bounds - racial or otherwise. I looked across that room and I saw faces of every color, and every walk of life. Pain and heartbreak weren't checking race at the door, nor were they checking political affiliation, socioeconomic status, or any other societal identifiers.
And just when it seems there are multiple forces trying to pull us apart, day after day, you can look at an event like this and see that there are people working very hard to bring us together. They care enough to not just let justice be a concept that ends in a courtroom. They see justice as an ideal that encompasses so much more than just the enforcement of laws. It means wrapping their arms around the members of the community they serve, keeping them safe, and holding them close, when they need it the most. That's something very special.
As the formalities of the evening went on, songs were performed in honor of those who had been lost, and then the evening concluded with a reading of names of the year's homicide victims, each with the tolling of a bell at the front of the auditorium. During the reading of the names, the guests hold candles as a sign of remembrance for so many taken, far too soon.
Danny Porter and the team at the Gwinnett District Attorney's Office should be very proud of the work that they do. Their service to the community, and in particular, the families of homicide victims, is truly inspirational. For me, the experience was a chance to bring things full circle, in a way. Twenty-one years after interning in the office, I found my way back as a photojournalist. What an honor it was to photograph this event, and to be able to share it with all of you, through images and words.
Special thanks to Candice Pitman with the Gwinnett County District Attorney's Office for assisting me with the logistics of the event, and for all the hard work that she puts into to its organization.