The Messengers is the culmination of a lifetime of work, first in still photography, later in filmmaking, that seeks out the hidden corners of our world.
I spent most of my career as a photographer for The Washington Post where I had the privilege of witnessing some of the leading events of our time: the fall of the Soviet Union, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, refugee crises around the world. There were also the less visible stories such as a multi-year project documenting three generations of an inner city family in Washington DC and their struggle with poverty, racism, and drug abuse.
Since becoming an independent photographer and cinematographer, I’ve focused my work on the unsung heroes who work tirelessly to help those in need and strive to make their communities better. One of those people was Dr. David Hilfiker, who I first met in the 19080s when he ran a neighborhood clinic for the poor in a blighted area of Washington, D.C. Six years ago I ran into him and discovered that he had since moved his family to the top floor of an old, big house and turned the lower floors into a hospice, called Joseph’s House, for homeless people dying of AIDS.
Wanting to know more, I stopped by one day and discovered a home filled not only with dying residents but also a small, dedicated staff and a cadre of young volunteers. I was especially drawn to the volunteers, many of whom were from small towns across the United States and had grown up largely removed from issues of poverty, social injustice and HIV. I tried to imagine myself at their age in a place like Joseph’s House and wondered what they would take away from the work they were doing. What had they expected? What were they experiencing? What was it like for them to see death so intimately, and then to see it again? When one of the volunteers said, “For me, the opening up to the idea of death, the accompanying death, has taught me how to live for the first time in my life,” what, exactly, did she mean?
Those questions became the basis for The Messengers, and the answers, as lived by the volunteers of Joseph’s House, would prove to be complex as they found that the dying residents they were there to help were also helping them. The mutual interplay and wisdom from the residents and devotion of the volunteers taught me one of life’s greatest lessons, that the unsung heroes of our world sing the loudest messages of all.