*** This story was published Nov. 15, 2008 in the Bristol Herald Courier. ***
BRISTOL, Va. - Photojournalist Preston Gannaway set out to document a family coping with a terminal disease.
Earlier this year, her powerful, personal images of the tragedy and grief Rich and Carolynne St. Pierre and their young children experienced during Carolynne's losing battle with liver cancer earned Gannaway a Pulitzer Prize ? the most prestigious award in journalism.
But her two-year journey through life and death had an even greater impact on the 2000 graduate of Virginia Intermont College.
"It definitely changed me as a photographer, in realizing how much it's a two-way street," Gannaway said Friday during a return visit to campus. "The more I can open up, the more they opened up to me. Before this story, I always maintained this fly on the wall ? I'm not going to get to know you as much ? attitude. After meeting them, I learned how much better the story would be, and how much it enriches my life, to share that with them."
Sharing - in this case - meant spending days, nights and sometimes longer periods with the St. Pierre family, on an extended assignment with New Hampshire's Concord Monitor newspaper. After being invited by a friend of the family to photograph and interview them, Gannaway and reporter Chelsea Conaboy received nearly unlimited access.
"Chelsea and I set out to spend a couple of months and run a story," she said. "We agreed to give them a copy of all the photos I took. Rich had lost his mother at age 7 and they really wanted to create a document for the kids."
The first story was published in October 2006 and the family asked the journalists to continue their work until ? and beyond ? Carolynne's death. "I think they realized how that could help other people, so they invited us to continue," Gannaway said. "The longer we spent with them, the closer we got to them and the more we understood the dynamics of what was happening."
The work continued, on and off, for two years and resulted in five separate stories and an array of poignant photographs. It also brought Gannaway and the family closer together. "At the very end, we spent days over there and - the day she died - we spent the night at the house," she said.
Asked how she balanced her job of taking photographs with the emotional attachment, Gannaway said she tried to do both. "The day the funeral home came to take her, the family was in the basement. I took a couple of frames and then rubbed Rich's back and tried to comfort him," she said.
Being there during Carolynne's death was the "most powerful experience" of her own life, Gannaway said. "The way they embraced the end of life process. I think a lot of families keep that behind closed doors, but death is such a part of life," she said.
Throughout that time, Gannaway said she didn't think about the photos in terms of winning awards or recognition. "I felt like their story was extremely special and unique and what we built with them was unique. We were just trying to create the best, most-accurate, honest story that we could," she said.
The stories and photos received prominent display in the 20,000-circulation daily newspaper and attracted the attention of contest judges with the National Press Photographer's Association and Pulitzer committee.
As a member of the newspaper's three-photographer staff, Gannaway often had to balance work on the documentary project with assignments covering everything from government to high school sports.Her former co-workers share in the credit, she said, because they were "so supportive."
Now working as a staff photographer for the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, Colo., Gannaway returned to Virginia Intermont as a featured speaker during open house weekend.
Gannaway transferred to Virginia Intermont from UNC-Asheville for her final two years, because the school had a photography degree program. "I liked the small school, with one-on-one instruction," she said. "I came from a fine art background, so I came from a different place as many other photojournalists and had a different vision."
She graduated in 2000 and spent about two years working as a photographer at the Coalfield Progress in Norton. After Norton, she went to the New Hampshire paper and a couple of others to get more formal journalism training before returning to Concord to work as a staff photographer.
"I love this part of the country - western North Carolina, Southwest Virginia - this is home to me," she said.
Ironically, one of her first assignments for the Denver, Colo., newspaper was to return to Appalachia to cover interest in the recent presidential campaign.
VI photography professor Joe Champagne said Gannaway was an outstanding student. "Her work was always very advanced," Champagne said. "She was extremely proficient, but she had a great influence on her fellow students. She was always there to help anybody."
Despite knowing her skills behind a camera, Champagne said he was stunned upon hearing about the award. "In art circles, I wasn't aware there was a Pulitzer for photography. But we're very proud of her."
Gannaway said she received word while driving to begin her new job in Denver. "My new job had fun with it. The headline said 'Rocky Mountain News photographer wins Pulitzer in first day'," she said.
Despite the uncertain financial straits currently experienced by the newspaper industry, Gannaway said, she plans to continue working in mass media for the foreseeable future. "I enjoy the collaboration in the newsroom. I first experienced that here [at Virginia Intermont], working with a small group of friends who were extremely tight," she said.
Work by PRESTON GANNAWAY is currently on exhibit at VI College.