Virginia Tech: How do you photograph who isn’t there anymore?

Today is the 6th anniversary of the Virginia Tech massacre. I grew up in Virginia, and one of the victims, Leslie Sherman, graduated from my high school.

I also won’t forget one photo assignment I had as an intern on Greg Werkheiser’s campaign for Delegate in 2009, two years after the Virginia Tech shooting.

This is Joseph Samaha.


He agreed to speak out for us and for his daughter, Reema Samaha, a Westfield High School graduate who was killed in the shooting. The mail firm needed a photo, ASAP, and the campaign sent the nearest half-decent photographer they could find. I hesitated at first. How on earth could I, some amateur hack with a camera, do it justice?

For my generation, it’s hard to imagine enduring events like this without social media. For all the jokes you could crack about the banality of Facebook, it was the only lifeline for us trying to find out if our Virginia Tech friends were alright. One by one, everyone I knew at Virginia Tech let us know through Facebook statuses that they were fine, as phone lines jammed and news helicopters circled the campus. You’d be hard pressed to find someone our age who didn’t know someone there.

The photos weren’t very good, but the presumably exasperated folks at Mission Control did use one in a piece calling for gun and mental health reform. I was a kid who hadn’t quite learned the art of good composition, like ensuring lamps weren’t sticking out of your subject’s head, but that’s not the point.


Reema Samaha was gunned down at 18, exactly how old I was when I took these photos. She’s in the photo frame held by her father, in front of family photos both old and new. She was way too young to be on that shelf of family members who had passed on.

How do you photograph who isn’t there anymore?

I’m posting these photos today because the Samahas fight every day to make sure we haven’t forgotten. I try to play one part in helping to tell their story. Reema’s brother Omar is at the Virginia State Capitol today, fighting for the same reforms he has since 2007.

We haven’t forgotten. Let’s hope Congress and the Virginia General Assembly haven’t either.

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