Sometimes our work affects us in surprising ways.
On our second day of reporting in the field, we had followed another team on a lead about three murdered transgender women whose bodies were still in the morgue months after they had been killed. Honduras has the highest relative rates of murders of trans people in the world. Myself and my reporting partner Cristina were working with the LGBT community in San Pedro Sula and we wanted to learn more about women from the community.
That Thursday, our second day in Honduras, eight of us including fellows, IWMF staff, and local journalists were standing outside the morgue waiting to see if we would be allowed in, when a family of three showed up. Two young children and a woman who I assumed was their mother. She was crying. All of a sudden it all hit me. How could it be that two groups of people could show up to the same place and leave with such intensely different experiences? We were there to gather information; hard information to hear, absolutely. But this family’s life had presumably just been changed forever. They soon went into the morgue and we stayed out. I wanted to run away, to pretend I hadn’t seen her face. And then I thought, who am I to be sad? Nothing bad happened to me. But I couldn’t get her face out of my head.
Shortly after, a man drove a truck with another body in the back into the morgue. I don’t know who it was, I don’t know if it was that person’s family who we had seen minutes earlier. Perhaps it was another case, maybe the family of that person had no idea they had lost someone yet. Perhaps they were just having a normal Thursday afternoon.
Fifteen minutes later and we were being motioned into the morgue. The first stop was the ballistics unit, the floor of which was covered with guns wrapped in plastic bags. Guns that had been used in crimes, evidence of so many other crying mothers, fathers, partners, children, friends. After a brief tour we spoke with two of the doctors at the morgue for about 90 minutes, and I was trying so hard not to cry that I admit I missed much of the interview.
When I think now about being there, I think about what was on the walls. Outside the ballistics unit was a 2015 calendar that read “Good luck”.
About an hour later, we went back to our hotel and some of us went back out for a night patrol. I spent most of the night intermittently thinking about the crying woman, and being frustrated for “not being a good enough journalist” because I had opted out of photographing and filming the night patrol, thinking that I might not be able to handle more death that day.
What an immense privilege that is, to be able to choose to step away from a situation that feels harmful to us. So many people do not get that privilege.
The best thing about the IWMF fellowships is the, well, fellowship. Every single fellow checked in with me, as I had been visibly upset after the morgue. We had some profound conversations about knowing our limits and expressing our emotions, and how that as journalists it is important to follow our instincts, whether they are about stories, safety, finding the good light, or knowing when you need to take a break. For me, I needed to take a step back and take in what I had learned that day, so that I could be ready to make the best work possible the next day. But it was important to be there, though, to understand some of the context of San Pedro Sula. And I continued to learn throughout my time there that despite this backdrop of violence that we so often hear about, there are so many more stories of resilience, persistence, and strength.
-Anna Clare Spelman