Finding Solace Among the Birds: A Conversation with Joshua McKerrow About Making Art from Grief

An iPhone alarm breaks the stillness of early morning as first light creeps in through the bent edge of the window blinds. There is always more than one alarm. Sometimes, it’s the third or fourth, or fifth, that pulls Joshua McKerrow from bed. Every morning since March 17, 2020, he has made his way by foot, bike, or car to the marshes, beaches, and nature trails of Annapolis, Maryland, to photograph birds. Today will be no different.

He will drive to a place he returns to frequently, Greenbury Point, a 231-acre nature preserve owned and maintained by the Navy, where the gentle current of the Severn meets the rough edges of the Chesapeake. Greenbury Point is a surprising juxtaposition of utility and pleasure, home to an active firing range and the Poet’s Nature Trail, throughout which hikers will find quotes by familiar writers alongside placards describing the surrounding flora and fauna. What McKerrow seeks along the shoreline and in the brush is birds—native and migratory, small and large, brazen and shy. In photographing these birds, he aims to tell a story. These stories, posted daily to social media, have accrued during the past year into a singular story of perseverance and persistence in the face of mundanity and adversity. It’s a reflection of a pandemic year and of an artist.

McKerrow, a photojournalist, spent much of his career at The Capital Gazette, Annapolis’s hometown newspaper. In circulation since 1884 as The Evening Capital, or 1727 as The Maryland Gazette—a debate intrinsic to the paper’s identity as the oldest paper in America—the newspaper has undergone multiple reinventions, landing as a morning daily in 2015. Notably, The Capital was the target of a mass shooting in 2018, when a gunman with a longstanding vendetta against the paper and the media in general blockaded the doors of the newsroom and killed five of its staff—Rebecca Smith, Wendi Winters, Gerald Fischman, Rob Hiaasen, and John McNamara. These were McKerrow’s colleagues and more so, his friends. He and other members of The Capital team covered the shooting, publishing a complete edition of the paper the following morning. This reflex—to do one’s job, to tell the story—is common among journalists. It came to be seen as an act of defiance and persistence in an era of exceptional anti-media sentiment. McKerrow and his colleagues received a Pulitzer Prize Special Citation for their work and were selected by Time as its Person of the Year in 2018.

The broken slats in McKerrow’s window blinds are no accident. The stiff, thin metal is bent to preserve a small gap for quick and easy vicinity checks, meant to allay McKerrow’s hyperarousal, a new kind of lens through which he must view the world, a lens he hadn’t imagined when he reflexively did his job on June 28, just three years ago. Living with symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder, compounded by the subsequent illness and death of his mother, McKerrow took a buyout and left The Capital just weeks before the United States went on COVID lockdown. Seeking out birds became a different act of defiance and persistence, one of building a new life and finding joy in what still exists. An Egyptian tomb inscription, circa 1400 BC, memorialized along the Poet’s Nature Trail, is a reminder of the peace that can be found in the woods: “That each day I may walk unceasingly on the banks of my water, that my soul may repose on the branches of the trees which I planted, that I may refresh myself under the shadow of my sycamore.”

Megan Reilley sat down with Joshua McKerrow to discuss his photography, the way we tell stories, and the last year of our lives. 

Megan Reilley: Tell me how you got started as a photojournalist.

Joshua McKerrow: I was attending community college for photography. I thought I wanted to do fine arts photography. I was really into black and white darkroom work, and that’s where I saw my future going. One of the program requirements was a photojournalism class. The professor gave us two options: we could do a personal project that documented something around us, or we could do an internship at the local newspaper, which was a two-day-a-week paper called The Aegis, in Bel Air, Maryland, covering all of Harford County.

My father had been a newspaper reporter all my life. I was drawn to the internship option because on some level I thought it would make my dad happy, make my parents happy, and it struck a chord with me. I thought, “I could do that.” At that point in my life, I had never been in what might be considered a professional work environment. I’d done farm work and barista work and lab assistant work, but no professional work. The Aegis was an opportunity to do that.

I had very little money, but I bought a camera, a very low-end Nikon. On my first day at The Aegis, within the first hour or so, there was a call on the scanner for a crane collapse at a construction site, and somebody was pinned under the crane. I got in a car with one of the photojournalists and the reporters and we raced down there and got some pictures. Then we took a trip to see a florist who was getting ready for Valentine’s Day. We took pictures of the florist arranging flowers and of their back room, where they had all the stock. We went back to the office, and as the day was about to end, there was another call on the scanner—this time for a three-alarm house fire with a reported fatality. The Aegis was a small newspaper, so it was a big, all-hands-on-deck moment. The photojournalist and a reporter were running out the door. “Josh, you want to go?” they asked, and I replied without hesitation, “Yeah, I want to go!” 

The fire was out by the time we got there, but I took some pictures. I went down on my knees at one point and got a picture with the hose in the foreground and the burned house in the background, and the firefighters working all around. We went back to the newspaper and processed the film, and the photojournalists were kind enough to let me submit some of my photographs, along with their take, to the editors. And then I left for the day. The next morning, I was driving to school and I stopped at the WaWa to get some coffee. I saw The Aegis newspaper there. And they had run my photo from the fire on A1, above the fold.

I remember standing there in the WaWa, with the smell of the coffee and the noise of the place, and looking down at the stack of 30 or so copies of the newspaper. I saw my photo going down the spine, above and below the fold because it was a big picture. It was a turning point in my life. I thought, “Clearly, I can do this. They put my picture on the front page.” 

MR: When you got down on one knee and you were photographing the already-put-out fire, was there any part of you that was consciously thinking, What am I trying to show here? Did you have an idea that you were telling a story when you were taking those pictures? 

JM: That I was making that photograph? Yes, absolutely. I had been in photography long enough that I had been taught about the depth and levels of storytelling. And so when I was on the scene, I was definitely thinking along those lines. I remember thinking about that kind of composition, with so much ground in it and the hose going into it. It presented the idea that a lot of work and effort had gone into this moment. It was a very conscious design choice for me to make that photograph. 

It was respectful, too. Somebody died at that fire, which was my first brushing up against death, and tragedy, and loss in that context. I felt kind of guilty about it. Having my photo chosen for the front page was arguably one of the best things that had ever happened to me. And it happened to me because someone died.

I’m saying that because the context of the photograph was not the action of the heroic firefighters. And it wasn’t the excitement of this dramatic thing happening in a suburban neighborhood. It was a somber photograph. I knew that it had to be somber, so it was.

MR: As a photojournalist, you tell stories through photos, but you also tell stories through your work in theater. Can you talk a little bit about these very different experiences and how you see storytelling in those environments?

JM: The way photography works, when it’s working at all, is that a human being sees the photograph, and it clicks with them in a certain way and they empathize with it. They have an emotional reaction to it. It can be Muhammad Ali standing over Sonny Liston with his fist down and teeth clenched, or it can be the guy standing in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square. It could be the Afghan woman with the green eyes, the National Geographic picture.

A successful photograph stirs emotion in an incredibly short amount of time. If a person is really into a photograph, they’ll look at it for three seconds. It has to be a hell of a photograph for somebody to look at it longer than three seconds. 

Telling a photo story through a gallery or a series of images is an opportunity to take individual pictures that maybe aren’t the greatest photographs in the world and create a story that as a whole has potential to stir emotion in a way a single photo wouldn’t. It’s a collection of these tiny little moments. Someone is looking at these tiny little moments and feeling them.

My first experience with theater, beyond helping with some tech and crew work, was directing a show. I directed it with the same approach I use with photo stories. The play was Romeo and Juliet. I wanted the production to be little segments of drama, where the audience empathizes with what’s happening in each segment and has an emotional reaction. To achieve this, you go through each scene and cut it up and block it, and cut it up and block it, and you rehearse it until you’re down to the core roots of those empathy moments. And you do that until the script is up.

MR: It doesn’t even have to be scene by scene, it could be moment by moment, yes?

JM: Right, it’s moment by moment. You can divide a scene up into smaller moments, decisive moments, like a photograph. I don’t direct actors in the entire scene. We’re only going to be doing the first three minutes of the scene, and then we’re going to go back and do the first three minutes again. And then we’re going to do the second three minutes of the scene. And we’re going to go back and do that again. And then we’re going to do it all together. And then hopefully we get a show.

MR: The idea of breaking down scenes and constructing a whole production, bit by bit, reminds me of writing. We have to look at the structure of an entire piece and its complete narrative arc, but we also have to look to the chapter level, the paragraph level, the sentence level, and right down to the word level in constructing the finished product. The process seems similar.

JM: Yes. Take the balcony scene. First, it’s Romeo. There’s a little scene with just Romeo, and you want that to impact the audience. And then it’s Romeo seeing Juliet, and you want that to impact the audience. In just that scene, there are 10 or so tiny moments. I would view each of those much as I would view making a photograph.

Interpreting moments as small conversations helps me create the bigger story. It’s one of the byproducts of spending two decades thinking about life in percentages of a second.

MR: Tell me about the first day that you went out to photograph birds.

JM: It was March 2020. I left my job at The Capital Gazette the first week of February. My mother died February 22. We had the funeral three days later, and the week of shiva at the house. And then suddenly, COVID became a very real, very scary thing.

I remember March 9 in particular being the day that the danger to all of us from COVID became a real, undeniable element of life. Much like a blizzard coming. First you hear, “Oh it could snow next week,” and then suddenly it’s, “We’re going to get three feet of snow.” It was like that. The world was upside down for me.

I picked up my kids from their mom’s house that Friday and they told me they’d gotten off school and would be out for two weeks. Even then, I was saying, “It might be longer than two weeks. I’d be prepared to not go back to school this year, until fall.”

Do you notice that all the COVID conversations are the same conversation over and over again? And we say them to each other, but it’s because nothing else has happened in our lives?

MR: It’s also an absolutely universal experience like nothing ever before. I have a similar memory of when my kids came home that day. It was the beginning of a year of total uncertainty.

JM: There was also enough hard information about time from exposure to infection, length of quarantine, progression of illness, and so on, that your brain was constantly doing the math. But we couldn’t talk about it.

MR: And that was the environment you were stepping into when you started photographing birds.

JM: Exactly. It was that Saturday, and it was scary. The world had gone into lockdown. Already, the traffic had vanished. I needed to get the kids out, so we all got on our bikes and went up to the big outdoor stadium near our house. The kids were riding around the parking lot and having a good time. They were riding their bikes through puddles and getting themselves soaked. I was watching this, and I was pleased that they were happy, but I was also scared. And just completely buried in grief, too. I remember watching the kids having a good time, but not sharing that feeling of joy—the joy of riding bikes through a puddle and sending the water up in sheets.

And then I heard this kind of shrieky call. I looked up at one of the light towers and there was an Osprey. Not only was there an Osprey, but it had a fish. Ospreys are everywhere in the summer. I hear their voices all the time, and they’re beautiful and cool and I’ve always loved them. But they leave every fall, and everything is a little bit emptier with them gone. It’s a little less magical. And it takes what seems like forever for them to come back. So, there was an Osprey, and it was the first Osprey I’d seen of the season.

I got very excited. I took pictures with my cell phone and I was trying to point it out to my kids.

MR: You took your first Today’s Birds photo with your cell phone?

JM: No. We finished bike riding and went back to the house. I thought I would pick up my camera and drive back and take a real picture of the Osprey. And so I did. I got a big lens out, one I hadn’t shot a frame through in at least two years. It was dusty and had to be wiped off. I drove back up to the stadium and parked near the Osprey. It had not flown away. It was still eating, clutching the big fish in its talons. It was special.

posted the photos on social media with the caption, “Osprey with fish, Annapolis.” I got a couple nice responses. A reporter friend who I’d worked with years before commented, “Just what I needed. Thank you.” I liked knowing that I’d made her day a little brighter. It was a small moment.

MR: Did you have any sense that you were going to become a person who went out every day to photograph birds?

JM: None at all. I felt a sense of relief that I had made some art. I made a photograph and put it out into the world and one or two people had seen it. I was in a really low place, so the Osprey post affirmed that there was still something I could do. That I was still existing.

The next day, I was out in the yard and the lens was still on the camera, so I photographed some birds and made a post on social media. The post got a few responses and it felt good.

The day after that, I got up very early because I couldn’t sleep, and I photographed more birds. I needed to say something, so I wrote, “Today’s birds,” because I didn’t know what else to say. I had been putting up pictures of birds for the past couple days and I didn’t know what to say about them either. I didn’t know the birds well enough to say, “A Cardinal and a Mourning Dove and a Sparrow.” I just didn’t know. The next day I got up early and I did it again. And then the next day. It happened organically. After about a week, messages started coming in, most saying, “Thank you for this.” People were really responding to the posts, which was a huge surprise to me.

I’d gotten lots of attention on social media before but it was always for bad stuff. It was for talking about the tragedy at The Capital or PTSD or fighting with the President about journalism. The Washington PostCNN, and HuffPost wrote about my fight with the President. I was literally on All Things Considered talking about him. It was ridiculous.

Hearing positive messages about the birds was good. It made me feel good. And the pictures made me feel good. 

MR: In creative writing, we often have to write many words before the essay or book begins to take shape and tell us what it is. Did it take you some time to come around to the idea of making the birds a project?

JM: It was relatively quickly, a couple days. It didn’t come into my mind fully formed. I thought I would do it while things were bad. But things only got worse. So I kept going out, making photos, and sharing them. Every day.

MR: The reliability of your posts is important. And the captions have become an important element of each day’s bird story. 

JM: Good point. But the photography is what people are responding to.

Birds are hard to photograph. They’re very small. They’re very fast. They blend in with their surroundings. And, critically, they don’t want to be photographed. 

Think of a bird as seemingly simple as a Robin. You’re not collaborating with a Robin. When you photograph it picking worms on your lawn, even though it’s there on your lawn, it is a difficult thing. The difficulty of it really appealed to me. Because I didn’t want to just photograph a bird.

When I worked at The Capital, I was never the sports department’s favorite photographer. They liked this other guy, Paul, because Paul would come back with the game-winning hit. I would come back with some plays, but my favorite picture would be a tag out on second base in the bottom of the fourth—a nonconsequential moment in the story of the game. For me, though, it was a peak dramatic action moment. My priority was to make a portrait that showed the tone and the feel and the drama of what was happening at the game. I was not the photographer to rely on to get the big play.

I approach the birds like that. Not: “How do I take a picture of a Blue Jay that is all Blue Jays to all people?” A lot of excellent bird photography is that way. Those photos aim to show the Brown Thresher that represents all Brown Threshers. That’s the goal. You capture it perfectly and you can see all of the plumage and all of the markings and you can see the color of its beak and the shape of its claws, and the tail feathers, and the photo presents the details completely so that we can understand everything about that bird.

I don’t have any interest in that. I couldn’t even make that kind of bird picture if I wanted to. My images are unique in their genesis, and they’re raw. I’m approaching them as an artist, not as an ornithologist. My goal is to photograph that bird—that bird. Right there. Right now. If the bird is backlit by the sun, that’s okay with me. If it’s buried deep in the underbrush, and you can only see its eyes and its beak, that’s okay with me, too. Each picture is a portrait of that bird, like a portrait of a person or anything. It has to be. I want the photos to convey personality. That’s the goal. I mean, literally, birds don’t have personality, they have animal-ality. We don’t have a name for it. I want to honor their nonpersonhood. To do my job correctly, to be successful, I have to be honoring that these are not people.

A fellow photographer once told me, “If you are really good at photography, every image you make is a self-portrait.”

In my theater work, I also make images of performances. I love this work. I’m looking for key moments, second to second, that have to do a number of things at once. The moment has to not only show the actors but also flatter them because, of course, they are actors. The moment has to capture the intent of an actor’s performance, the moment the actor and the director have crafted together. And it has to happen in the context of this stage, this lighting, this scenery. It is very challenging. 

When I approach a bird, I apply the same theory. The image should flatter the bird, because they are beautiful. Like actors are beautiful. The image should capture the bird’s intent, or at least show that it has intent, not that it is a soulless statue on a branch. And finally, the image must give context of where the bird is—the forest or tree line or marsh or flying against a cloudless sky. To my eyes, to my camera, the world is the theater and the birds are the performers. The birds, of course, have a complexity and dimension I can never know.

Sometimes, good, well-meaning people make comments like, “That Cardinal sure looks judgey.” That’s not what I’m going for. I’m trying to show the beauty of this creature. The drama of it in that moment, the preciousness of it. The preciousness of this tiny, tiny little life going on against all odds and challenges. It is outside all day long and in every kind of weather condition. All it has going for it is its tiny little heart and its tiny little ecosystem. That’s what I want to photograph. I want each one of them to be that bird. Otherwise it doesn’t feel magical to me.

MR: We risk something by taking our creation and putting it out for public consumption. Obviously, you know it’s a calculated risk, but you keep going back to it. That is your life’s work, right? Creating art and putting it out there. How does it feel to take that risk?

JM: Honestly, it’s not as much of a risk for me at this point, because I know what I’m doing.

It was at first, and in the early years of my photography I was very insecure about it, about showing it, about having it out, but when you’re working for a newspaper and they are printing 165,000 copies of your photograph every day, and they are paying you to do it, you can’t keep up imposter syndrome that long.

MR: Does the bird project feel more personal?

JM: When I was first putting the birds up, it wasn’t with the idea that I was putting myself out there. It was more just a desperation, a kind of, “I have got to do something.” It felt very low stakes for me. If nobody likes this tweet, who gives a shit, you know?

MR: Does it still feel low stakes to you?

JM: Social media still feels low stakes but the act of putting the photos up is important. Getting these photographs into frames and displaying them at a gallery—that feels high stakes.

MR: Do you have an aspiration for that, for something more or different?

JM:  Absolutely, yes. I’m not sure exactly what yet, but I would love for it to be a gallery show. Part of me wants to see the birds really big. I want to fill a room with five by five pictures of these birds. Can you imagine? These tiny little Wrens? 

MR: Writers, photographers, and even actors use their craft as a way to make sense of a situation or set of circumstances, even to work through problems or emotions. Indeed, much memoir is borne from trauma or unusual circumstances. What story would you hope to tell with a gallery show about this bird project?

JM: The first one would be about COVID and about taking the photos during COVID. This was my gut response to COVID and to the death of my mom, and to the shooting at The Capital and all the loss and grief. The first show would have to be that. Another idea is to fill a room or a gallery with all of the photographs. I’d like them to be very small and to have the impact come from the volume.

The goal would be to overwhelm. Because I’m overwhelmed. My life is overwhelming. 

MR: We have talked at length and in various contexts about grief, and we’re in agreement that there’s no such thing as healing from grief. But there’s moving through grief, and we’ve just experienced, collectively, a year of grief.

JM: More than a year. There’s no past tense about it.

MR: In the beginning of COVID, there was nothing else to do. It was spring and things were closing down and suddenly we couldn’t go and do the things that might have occupied us in the past. People just naturally went outdoors. Do you think the people who tend to engage with you on your posts are birdwatchers themselves, or are they people who’ve moved out into nature to deal with the pandemic? Is there a kinship over the birds, because so many people are noticing things in nature that previously have been ignored? 

JM: I think there are some people who are already into birds and the outdoors who respond to my photos. A lot of people in the early days would comment, “That’s an Eastern Kingbird,” or otherwise identify the bird. Those people knew right away what the birds were. I believe there’s also an element of living vicariously through me. There are people who like to look at the birds on their back feeder but they only see what they see, and they’re responding to the different birds I show them. I do believe a lot of that has come from the pandemic. People gravitated toward it because they had to be at home.

MR: How has your time in nature evolved through the pandemic and through the project?

JM: We were being told that outside was the only place where we were safe from catching a deadly disease. The impact of the disease was so overwhelming, and the birds were a source of solace. People were in a life and death situation, and I was approaching the images from a life and death perception. The images came directly out of cancer and gun violence and grief. And when the rest of the world found themselves experiencing trauma in the form of the pandemic, I think they found themselves drawn to my photography.

My pictures were showing people safety. People were seeing pictures of the outside and the birds outside, and it was clicking in their heads, “That is a safe place. I want to be in that safe place.”

In the early days of the project, and still now, it was a conscious decision to have my pictures up in the morning, so that when you’re going through your feed and seeing the latest news, the latest horrible news, you will find my pictures of the birds. And you’re getting a sense of safety, of goodness, of refuge—even if you don’t have those conscious thoughts, and even if it only lasts half a second and lowers your blood pressure a tiny, tiny little bit, and you get just a little pop of serotonin.

MR: Is that how you looked at getting out and photographing the birds? That you felt safe, that you found refuge?

JM: Yes, very much so. It’s where I felt safest. When I’m out photographing birds I feel comfortable and safe. Being at home does not feel safe. Now we’re getting into the PTSD stuff from the shooting at The Capital, which feels more personal. Doing the bird project for myself every day feels really important to my sense of safety and well-being. I am reestablishing my place in the world. Everything is as okay as it’s going to be this morning. You can’t get COVID out here. Nobody’s going to come shoot you out here. It’s very relieving and comforting and comfortable. Here at my house, I have to worry. I don’t have to, but I do. I worry about my father, about his grief, about his health. I worry about my children’s health. And my mom died in this house. This is where she went through her cancer. There’s a lot of sense memory of the things that happened in this house over the last few years that I still have replaying. I’m not as comfortable here as I wish I were.

“Lifeline” doesn’t even come close to describing what the bird project is for me. I don’t know if we quite have a metaphor for it. When I hear about the way people go to mass every single day, or to schul every single day, that’s how I feel about it. It’s like Kaddish. That’s what it feels like to me, that I’m kind of out there. I’m not praying exactly but I’m…there’s not a word for it in English. All the metaphors that we have are mechanical metaphors. I’m not resetting, and I’m not checking in, and I’m not validating. It’s nothing like that. If we’re going to use bird metaphors, it’s like I can molt a little bit. I can cast off all that I carry for just a short time and be free of it. The project keeps me going, I guess. As soon as I’m done I’m looking forward to the next one. As soon as I post those pictures, I’m thinking, “I can’t wait to do that again.” I can’t wait to get up at 5:30 a.m. and have my coffee and go out in the heat or the cold or the rain or the snow and photograph birds. 

Joshua McKerrow is on day 400-something of Today’s Birds, a daily photography project created in response to just about everything. He teaches photography to teens at ArtFarm in Annapolis, Maryland, where he lives with his gaggle of children and his father. He would like to move on from all the hard stuff. His photography portfolio is here.

MEGAN REILLEY is an editor and writer living in Western Maryland. Orphaned at a young age and now a mother of four, Megan’s work explores the intersections of trauma, grief, woman- and motherhood. She has an MFA in Nonfiction from Goucher College.  

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