I have very few items hanging on my walls at home anyone would consider art.
There’s the crooked painting of the Eiffel Tower my daughter made when she was nine and would likely prefer for me to take it down now that she’s a teenager; there’s a collage print of an old typewriter created well before keyboards were standardized, its keys not in the qwerty layout we’ve come to expect; and there’s a simple photo of a non-descript man doing his job to make his community a little better.
I was there when the photo was taken in 2001, on assignment covering the big fire in the Carolina Bay out by the bombing range near Pinewood, a fire that ultimately consumed more than 3,700 acres of forest. But thanks to the efforts of dozens of local firefighters and foresters, that inferno still recorded in the South Carolina record books didn’t harm one person or destroy one home.
When you first look at the photograph, taken just after dusk, your eyes are immediately drawn to the bright swath of flame rising from the ground. But just a moment later, you notice in the shadows a lone firefighter who, unlike what you might expect, is actually the source of the flame. He’s surrounded by a forest threatening to spread flames into a nearby neighborhood, but instead of spraying water into the path of destruction, he’s using his torch to burn a break line into the ground. He’s causing a little bit of damage in order to prevent a disaster. He’s effortlessly doing something that, in fact, is very hard to do, all in order to make things a little safer.
I don’t think I ever caught the name of the firefighter in the photo, but I definitely got to know the photographer. His name was Keith Gedamke.
It’s not the greatest picture Keith ever captured, but it was always my favorite. And I say that not because it isn’t good, but because determining the best photo Keith ever snapped would be a Herculean task. After all, Keith received countless accolades reserved for only the finest craftsmen in his field. But this photo has always rung true for me not so much because of its composition, but because of the story it tells and how it reflected back on the photographer.
You see, Keith had chosen for himself the type of career many of us having the pleasure to work with him had chosen, as well. So while most of Sumter got to know Keith through his work as a photographer, and, yes, Keith was an amazing photographer, he was also an incredible journalist.
Whether it was at a sporting event, a simple board meeting, or at the scene of a breaking news story where something tragic was happening; when Keith he was at his best, which was more often than not, he did more than just take pictures that attracted the eye. With one snap of the shutter, Keith could tell a story far better than us writer-types hacking away at a keyboard could ever hope.
And just like he did with the photo of the firefighter that night, Keith’s work could often transcend the moment, capturing more than just a dramatic image. Often his photos went beyond just making people look, but had the power to make people think, which is far more difficult. Possibly even make people change.
In a way, that’s the role of the journalist, presenting difficult things not just for the sake of pointing them out, but in order to help the community move forward. Keith understood that aspect of the job.
So here’s the tough line: Keith passed away Saturday after an extended battle with cancer. He was 46.
In a very significant way, Keith was a cornerstone of Sumter. As it has been pointed out by others, if you’ve lived in Sumter for any length of time during the 21st century, you most likely knew Keith whether you realized it or not.
But there was far more to Keith than being a photographer, although that’s how most of Sumter got to know him and how he’ll be remembered by most. He had a wry wit coupled with a wry smile that made you think either he was enjoying the moment, or just might be holding something back. Yes, he could be a curmudgeon at times, which is why I think he and I got along, and he could drive you crazy with his passionate support of all things Florida Gators, but in the end you knew, after spending just a little time with him, that you were dealing with a good man.
I’ve included a photo of Keith’s photo with this story, and I laughed as I snapped the pic with my cell phone, because I could hear Keith telling me I had the lighting all wrong. Just like that firefighter in the photo, Keith made something difficult appear incredibly easy.
So, let’s mourn the loss of a good man, cherish his memory, and try to keep things in focus as sharp as Keith could with his lens, realizing we have to be able to look at the difficult image in order to move past it.
After all, that’s what Keith did for most of his career. When he captured joy with his camera, he spread joy. But when he captured pain, he wasn’t spreading pain. He was trying to make things better.