A photographer documents a father and son for nearly 12 years following the loss of the boy’s mother.
Photographs by Preston Gannaway
Preston Gannaway met Rich and Elijah “EJ” St. Pierre in 2006 when she was assigned to photograph the St. Pierre family for the New Hampshire newspaper the ConcordMonitor. At the time, Carolynne St. Pierre—Rich’s wife, and EJ’s mother—was fighting a rare liver cancer, an illness she had been diagnosed with when EJ was a toddler. When Preston and Monitor writer Chelsea Conaboy first met the family, Carolynne, Rich, EJ (then 3 years old), and Carolynne’s two children from a previous marriage, Brian (11) and Melissa (13), were struggling not only with the day-to-day challenges of Carolynne’s illness, but also with the knowledge that her disease would be terminal. “Rich had lost his mother when he was seven, and he didn’t have much of a record at all,” explains Preston. “Our initial agreement was that once everything had published, I would give Rich any of the photos he wanted. Then he would have this record for the children.”
Preston and the writer followed the St. Pierres’ story for over a year and published a series of articles on the family, through Carolynne’s death in February 2007 and the difficult months that followed. (Preston was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for feature photography for the series.) Though she quit her job at the paper and left New Hampshire in 2008, Preston returned periodically to check in with Rich—now a single dad with three children—and brought her camera along.
During her return trips, which took place almost every year, Preston photographed the family as they adjusted to life without Carolynne; by 2009, both Brian and Melissa had moved out of the house and Rich and EJ had become a household of two. “It’s always been Rich and EJ—that’s the through line,” Preston explains, adding that EJ has grown from a frustrated, angry kid, prone to lashing out, to a conscientious young man. “In some ways, I feel that EJ was more of an adolescent when he was a toddler,” she says. “He’s very disciplined now, when a lot of kids are rebelling.”
Rich and EJ now reside in rural Chichester, New Hampshire, on a large property with Rich’s new partner, Kim; her family lives within walking distance. For Rich, Preston’s visits are a time to take stock. “When I come to town, it’s a time when Rich is more reflective,” she says. “I think he and I both have moments where we sort of step back, and it’s really poignant: watching EJ grow up, and knowing that Carolynne can’t be there.” EJ, who will turn 16 this summer and is currently learning to drive, sees Preston as a family friend and as someone who knew Carolynne. “Frankly, he doesn’t remember a time when I wasn’t around,” she explains. “It’s always been that way.”
“It’s always been Rich and EJ—that’s the through line.”
As a photographer, Preston feels that she has been entrusted with the St. Pierres’ story. She has been there for some of the family’s worst moments, but she has also watched them heal.