We journalists pride ourselves on our detachment, our ability to keep from becoming part of the stories we cover. It’s our job to be neutral observers of the world’s nightmares and miracles, treating both with dispassionate objectivity.
Except when we can’t.
The story of Joshua Salmoiraghi is one of those stories when closeness to subject, and even emotional involvement, are unavoidable, and maybe even necessary, to tell a better, deeper story. Telling a story truly sometimes requires feeling a story as strongly as the subjects do.
It started with a press release from the Colorado Springs Police Department last April.
The department wanted to swear in a young boy battling cancer as an honorary police officer for a day as a way to welcome Joshua and his family to the community. The Salmoiraghi family had just moved here from California after Joshua’s mom had been relocated by the Air Force.
Something about this act of community kindness gripped Gazette photographer Dougal Brownlie. He remembered how San Francisco rallied around 5-year-old Miles Scott in 2013 when, during his fight with leukemia, he dressed up as “Batkid” with the help of the Make-A-Wish Foundation and “saved” the city. Thousands of people lined the hilly streets to cheer Batkid on during a crime-fighting trek that day, and the videos went viral.
Similarly, police here in Colorado Springs gave young Joshua a uniform, badge, a tour of the Police Department and the requisite doughnuts, and then the Fire Department, the SWAT team and pretty much every branch of law enforcement turned out to wish this newly sworn-in “Copkid” well.
“Something from that day, I was drawn to how Joshua held himself,” Dougal said. “I asked the dad bluntly, hey do you mind if I follow this story for longer. I wonder if I could follow his journey fighting cancer.”
Dad was taken aback, and wisely told Dougal he would have to meet with Mom.
That evening, Dougal printed out 10 photos he shot at the Police Department and took them to the Salmoiraghi home to show the mom.
“I think this is something other families with similar issues need to hear about,” Dougal told Josh’s parents. “I think it could educate those who are going through similar issues with their family. Or a similar ailment. Or someone who doesn’t have any idea what it’s like for a kid who is struggling through these kind of things.”
Amanda, who works at Space Command at Peterson Air Force Base and is used to making snap decisions, said, “I don’t see why not. Let’s do this.” She and her husband wanted Dougal to be there as a visual historian for Joshua’s life, to maybe give some meaning to all the hardship and agony.
On April 19, the family invited Dougal along for Joshua’s first of six chemo treatments at Children’s Hospital in Aurora. Dougal was there for every moment, and continued to photograph Joshua’s highs and lows for nine months. “I’ve seen him with hair, losing his hair and no hair,” Dougal said. He was in the emergency room at 6 a.m with Joshua, he was there when Joshua was screaming his eyes out during shots, he has spent the night at the family’s house so he could be there early the next day when Joshua left for his first day of school. He spent Christmas with Joshua.
The result of that intimacy and devotion can be seen in the moving, heart-wrenching, life-affirming photos collected in a special section inside Sunday’s Gazette. Staff writer Stephanie Earls also became involved and wrote the sensitive, compelling text that accompanies Dougal’s photos.
Once, Joshua’s brother asked Dougal why he only took sad photos of his brother.
Dougal explained that it’s more honest if a photo story has both good and bad.
“I want to be able to show the hardships and the good times in a more comprehensive way. I want to be able to show that story in a way that’s ethical, compassionate and has integrity,” Dougal said.
“It’s not just a sad story, it’s a story of hope, of character, and intellect beyond his years.”
There was plenty of sad, yes, but also triumph.
Dougal was there for Joshua’a sixth and final chemo session when Joshua got to ring the Warrior Bell declaring himself cancer free. That was the moment when Dougal realized Joshua had come to mean something more to him.
“I just felt that this wave of emotion,” Dougal said.
“I tried to remain neutral, but sometimes you can’t. When he came through the tunnel of some 50 hands … I got the back of my camera wet,” Dougal admits, referring to the tears he couldn’t hold back. “It was an amazing feeling to see what this kid had done. This kid was a little warrior.
“I’m grateful that the family let me into their lives. A story like this requires you to give of yourself.”
Dougal plans to stay in touch with the family and keep tabs on Joshua and his ongoing fight to remain cancer free. “The story’s not over just because it’s running in the newspaper.” In fact, Dougal can’t wait to see Joshua grow up and put this year of travail behind.
Once Joshua pulled a baseball jersey out while he was chatting with Dougal and said something that Dougal will never forget. “I hope I’m big enough to wear this someday.”
Dougal will be there to record the moment when he is.
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