Photographs of Us

Dear Mrs. Lancaster,

My name is Harold Jackson and I have been tasked with writing to you about your son. I call it a task for that’s what it is, but trust I feel no laborious exhaustion in doing so. Your son was a good friend to me, and when the rest of the group decided writing you with memories would be a good idea, they trusted me to make sure I would paint the best picture of Robert that could be done. I will try not to disappoint you.

As you know, Robert was always big on the outdoors. Any time it rained or the temperature was below our survival threshold he would go stir crazy, sometimes even after a day. It didn’t matter if we were in the jungle or the south pole, no matter how dangerous it was he wanted to be outside. A lot of times he even slept outside. The others preferred to be away from the bugs, but Robert loved the feel of the Earth.

During our first trip out in the same unit we went to Peru to document some of the uncovered history of the Native Americans there. Robert was so entranced by the jungle that he wanted to run straight in, but the guides held him back to go over some pointers on the dangerous animals. He was like an insatiable child in the presence of an exhausted mother. They could barely keep him still enough to listen, even though his life was very much at stake out there.

We got to the edge of the Amazon and set up camp about a mile away. Robert erected his tent in record time so he could throw everything in it and sit down with some of the historical texts provided by our guides. We weren’t leaving until the next day and he must have spent five or six hours pouring over those pages. He’d pipe up and ask a question every ten minutes or so, and for only hearing bits and pieces I thought he sounded like a madman. Of course, passion can be easily mistaken for madness.

Our guides told us we’d spend two days in the jungle. They showed us how to find the right materials to make rigged box springs so our beds weren’t on the jungle floor. Poisonous spiders, they said. Snakes. All kinds of creepy crawlies that could get under your skin. When we set up camp the first night in, Robert pulled me aside and asked me if I would make sure his bed seemed sturdy. As brave as he was in his travels and as excited and full of wonder he was for his life’s work, he sure was afraid of snakes.

I always wondered how he found himself out there. I know for me, my father wasn’t around and my mother worked a lot, so I spent a lot of time by myself. I figured if I was going to be alone, I didn’t have to stay in one place for anything, so I got into a field that would let me travel. But from what Robert told me of you and his sister Francine, you all seem like a respectable family. I guess his thirst for knowledge and eagerness to see the world he’d admired in copies of National Geographic really did a number on his ability to sit still.

Sometimes it was hard. Being in the most remote corners of the world for months at a time with no way to contact you made a lot of people in our group feel down. Katie, the lead camera tech, had the bright idea of bringing a photo album with her, so on nights she missed her family we’d sit around our camp and she would show pictures and tell the accompanying stories. I felt bad sometimes because I didn’t have any stories to share, but Robert always made me feel like it was OK. If I ever stopped short he would take over to keep me from stumbling.

Our jobs are fun, but they take a toll in various ways. The mental obstacles we face are just as real as the physical ones, and we all had to help each other overcome bouts of depression. It seemed like Robert was always the first one to lend a hand, no matter how bad he felt himself. He tried to keep it from us so we would see him as a pillar of strength, and I know the rest of the crew really appreciated him. I told him once that if you could see him you would be proud of him, and I think that stuck with him every day.

We spent seven years traveling together. Though as you know we only had a few short vacations to go home and see family, we always planned to get the group and everyone’s families together for dinner or something. He really wanted us to meet you. He also knew that the going home situation was different for me and that I used it as time to reflect on myself, so he never pushed the issue. We always said, ‘someday.’ I intend to keep my word, so you can expect me to arrive for a visit in the coming months.

I suppose you’ll want to hear about what happened. I debated on whether I would include this encounter in my letter, wondering if you’d rather just forget about it and move on with your positive memories, but in my internalized battle I found a clarity in knowing that you might be able to achieve peace faster knowing exactly what happened. If this inclusion is unfavorable, please accept my preemptive apology.

Four months ago our unit was tasked with the Arctic Circle. Our bosses wanted some close-up shots of Polar Bears feeding and, as was usual in Robert’s acceptance, he got up immediately and asked when we were to leave. He looked at every job as an opportunity, no matter where it took us. The next day we received a full itinerary and were wheels up on the way to King William Island before lunch.

We got there without a hitch, and within a few hours we were unpacked and ready to work. It was supposed to be a three-week trip. Two of those weeks would be spent out in the field trying to get the best shots we could, but due to the harsh temperatures and rough terrain we were required to take break days on occasion, and sometimes weather refused to let us work. I noticed that Robert hadn’t been eating much, but when I asked him about it he said he was OK and not to worry.

A few days into week two, we were following a small group of bears that were moving together up the coastline. Three adults and five cubs total. They didn’t travel together more as they were all going to the same place at the same time. What they say about the ice caps melting isn’t a joke, and the areas the bears have to fish are getting smaller and smaller by the year. As sad as that is, that wasn’t what got to Robert. It was seeing a bloodied cub by itself that caused him to turn inward.

Our Inuit guides informed us that hunting Polar Bears for food was something of a necessity, since their diets weren’t very diverse being in such a harsh climate. When we saw the orphaned cub, Robert couldn’t stop staring at it. He asked why it was covered in blood, and one of the guides told him it probably tried to protect its mother from a hunter but got scared off. Hunters didn’t bother killing cubs since they weren’t substantial enough, and if they waited a while the wait would make their kill much more relevant.

We got the shots we needed and headed back for the day. The crew seemed to be a little stiff from the high winds, and when Katie and Vince announced they were going to turn in early to try and warm up under their sleeping bags, Robert said the same. I asked him again if he had eaten and he said he wasn’t hungry. I made the decision that if the next morning came and he refused breakfast, I would keep him from going out until he talked to me about what was going on.

He went his way and I went mine. I began writing a letter to an old friend of mine, an older man named Curtis that lived next door to me for years. I spent a lot of time over there as a kid since he liked to watch football and so did I, but we couldn’t afford cable. I was halfway through the letter when I heard the shot. I think somewhere inside I knew what had happened before I even saw it, but I raced to find out what happened anyway.

Katie stood in the main hallway with her coat draped over her shoulders, but her arms not in the sleeves. She looked worried. I reached out and grabbed her arm and led her down the hall next to me, and when we came to Robert’s room I knocked three times. There was no answer, so I held up a finger to Katie, asking her silently to wait for me there, and went into Robert’s room.

I won’t describe the scene to you Mrs. Lancaster, since I’m sure you’ve already painted that picture for yourself, and I’m sorry to tell you that there was nothing I could do when I got there. I told Katie to go for help and she went and found a few people close by. They called in extra help and eventually someone came to pick up his body. I’m not really sure how their law system works there, so I don’t know if they were deputies or just volunteers or what, but they were gentle and handled his body with the utmost care. I can assure you of that.

Once we discovered Robert no one else seemed to want to continue the job. Robert was the heart and soul of our team, and I mean that very much. He got all of us going in the morning when we were tired and cold. He reminded us of why we were out there sweating in the jungle and getting eaten alive by insects. We fought disease, dehydration and isolation in the roughest terrain this planet has to offer, but Robert’s spirit never seemed to falter. Not in front of us, anyway.

I wish I would have seen it coming sooner. When I realized he wasn’t eating I should have talked to him then instead of telling myself I would do it the next day. For that, Mrs. Lancaster, I am so sorry. I know my apology won’t bring your boy back to you, but I need you to know that I feel your loss as heavily as I would a member of my own family. I considered Robert a brother, and losing him is something I didn’t think I would have to deal with for a long time. Death is something that cannot be predicted or underestimated.

I don’t want to keep you for too long, I just thought that a little bit of insight might help your heart. Please know that we’re healing along with you, and though it will take time, our group will head back into the field and continue the work that Robert loved so much. His images will make sure his name lives on and the work that he’s done has helped save countless species. The world is a greener, livelier place because of your son. I hope you can take pride in that for the years to come.

Until we meet, Mrs. Lancaster. Our hearts are with yours and Francine’s, and I promise we’ll do our best to make Robert proud. I have included some photographs of us from different trips. The dates and locations are written on the back of each one. I hope these bring you comfort.

Sincerely yours,

Harold Jackson.