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For Uvalde families, social media is a tool to share grief and energize advocacy
Feb 12, 2024

For Uvalde families, social media is a tool to share grief and energize advocacy

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It’s been almost two years since 19 children and two teachers were slain in the mass shooting at Robb Elementary. Photojournalist Tamir Kalifa has documented the way lives were changed in the Texas town.

On May 24, it will be two years since 19 children and two teachers were killed in a shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.

Last month, the U.S. Department of Justice released a scathing report on the incident, calling the law enforcement response a failure and citing the 77-minute gap between the moment officers arrived on scene and when they finally confronted and killed the teenage shooter.  

In the wake of the tragedy, photojournalist Tamir Kalifa has documented the lives of families and friends of the victims. Last week, he was awarded the American Mosaic Journalism Prize for that work.

He told Marketplace’s Lily Jamali about how social media is helping the community deal with its grief and bolstering its push for gun control.

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Tamir Kalifa: Something that Kim Rubio, whose daughter Lexi was killed, said to me — and this is really how I thought a lot about my work and also how I’ve come to understand how many of these families feel about their advocacy and what they share on social media — Kim said that the key ingredient is that you need to be able to imagine it. If you can’t picture it, that it could be your child, then you’re never going to step up. She wants people to think about that because she just can’t think about all the moms that are going to lose their children to this. And so, a lot of the moms and many others in Uvalde have been using social media to remember the kids as they were in life, but also to show the ways in which their lives have been inexorably changed by this event. A lot of what motivates this is the desire to make sure that the public doesn’t forget and that the public remembers and that the public can appreciate these children and all the things that the families are doing to keep their memory alive, but also to fight on their behalf as part of this broader gun violence prevention movement.

Lily Jamali: You capture very serious moments, very difficult and emotional moments, and you also capture some very playful and fun moments. I wonder if there’s one image that really stands out to you, when you look back at your body of work.

Caitlyne Gonzales, who lost many of her friends in the shooting, sang and danced to Taylor Swift songs at her best friend Jackie’s grave in April. (Tamir Kalifa)

Kalifa: From day one, these people that are affected by these profound, historic moments and by these tragedies are not avatars or symbols of grief or suffering. These are complex people with rich lives and relationships and senses of humor. And so, I feel that long-form storytelling is uniquely suited to help reveal some of those nuances.

I think one photograph that sort of speaks to that is a photograph of Caitlyne Gonzales, who was in the classroom across the hall from the two classrooms where the shooting took place and many of her best friends were killed. She has become one of the youngest gun violence prevention advocates and she would often visit the cemetery to see her friends. She just went to her best friend Jackie’s grave, and she took out her phone and started listening to Taylor Swift songs and listening to TikTok videos and dancing and being playful as if she was there with Jackie. And there was just something really profound and devastating about that, but also beautiful. The sun was going down and it was dusk, and here was this kid who was trying to hang on to her innocence. And yet here she was against this profound backdrop of grief.

I felt that that photograph really epitomized a lot of what this experience is. It’s not just grief, nor is it the opposite of grief. It’s just something in the middle, you know, and that’s something that I really tried to show with this work. Because at the end of the day, I think that photography has a unique power to inspire empathy and invoke empathy in the public. And it goes back to what Kim said about visualizing it. I just want people to be able to see themselves in these families and to imagine it being able to happen to them because only then will, I think, they really feel it.

Jamali: What’s your sense of how families are reacting to this report out from the Department of Justice?  

Kalifa: I think that so much of what the families have been focused on since the shooting is justice and accountability. And so, this DOJ report, although it doesn’t reveal much that they didn’t already know, I’m sure the public learned a lot from it. But the families know so many of these details, they’ve lived it. But I think that what the, what the report does give is something more definitive than what they’ve had.

Family members of Robb Elementary School victims march with Uvalde residents and others from the school to the town square on July 10, 2022. (Tamir Kalifa)

Jamali: And one of the parents who lost a child in the Uvalde shooting has been reading this report out loud on social media, right?

Kalifa: That’s right. Brett Cross, whose child Uziyah Garcia was among the 19 children and two teachers who were killed in the fourth-grade classrooms on May 24, 2022. And as part of his advocacy and his activism focused on justice and accountability, but also gun violence prevention, he has been going on TikTok Live and reading the report, which is over 400 pages, I believe. I spoke with him the other day, and he said a lot of people might not read the report, but they’re more likely to listen to it. And that is what motivated him to read this publicly.

Jamali: You’ve said that you want to make covering Uvalde and the families there a lifelong project. Is the American Mosaic Journalism Prize going to help you do that?

Kalifa: Undoubtedly, yes. This prize is life-changing, but it’s also very affirming. I want to be able to pay this forward and to be able to use the camera for good and to be able to make work that allows me to follow my heart. And a big part of my heart is in Uvalde. And I think that I have so much more to learn from these incredible families, and I think the public has more to learn from them as well. And this award really allows me to continue doing that because their journey continues. I think that’s a part of the commitment to this place and to these families.

Jamali: A part of this prize is about counteracting misleading narratives, and there is this issue of diminished trust in the media right now. I wonder if that is on your mind as a journalist, given what the ecosystem feels like right now?

Kalifa: Of course, I think about this all the time. I think all the time about the role of journalism in people’s lives and about its power to affect people. I think that one of the ways we try to maintain that trust is by exercising the highest ethical standards and a deeply ethical approach to doing this work. And it’s by exercising care and not sensationalizing these moments in time — of course, we must cover these sensational events — however, I think there’s a way to do it that really lives up to journalism’s capacity to be a public service.

More on this

Full disclosure: Lily Jamali was honored to be selected as one of 10 judges of the 2024 American Mosaic Journalism Prize, which the Heising-Simons Foundation awards each year to two freelance journalists for excellence in reporting that shines a light on underrepresented groups.

Writer Dara Mathis also received the prize. The winners each received $100,000 as part of the award.

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