The little girl waited late into the night – clenching and unclenching her fists as the soldiers marched into the old gymnasium with old, dim lights hanging from dusty rafters.
Off to the side, the gray-haired man waited, too, camera at the ready, as deadline loomed.
After four hours of waiting, the photographer’s eyes followed the girl and her mother as they finally rushed into the arms of the soldier back from war in Iraq.
The darkness of the Army base gym that night in 2004 changed into the lightness of family and love captured in a single photograph. The embrace, the love, the tears, the squeeze. A soldier, a father, a husband – home, alive.
The photographer then sent the photo electronically to The Herald newsroom just in time to make deadline for the next day’s paper.
It made the front page.
Whenever Andy Burriss takes pictures for The Herald – starting 40 years ago today – he always makes it.
He never misses a photo – ever. And, if we’re lucky, that won’t be changing any time soon.
His pictures chronicle what life and love, pain and suffering, murder and joy, are for those of us who live and work here, who love and raise our kids here.
If it’s news in York or Chester or Lancaster counties – sometimes farther afield than that – Burriss is the choice to make the world stop for a second to be memorialized forever.
If something mattered in the past 40 years, Andy Burriss probably took a picture of it. His pictures are what life was, and is, where you live.
An awful killer beats his parents to death, and the jury comes back with a death sentence. At that exact moment, the killer sticks his fingers in his ears to try not to hear clanging bells of execution.
Burriss, silently, takes the picture that allows the world to see a coward try, and fail, to escape his fate.
Elwin Wilson apologizes to the world for his racist past, for beating up a man in 1961 at the Rock Hill bus station – a man who later became a congressman.
It was Andy Burriss who took the pictures of both men when Wilson personally apologized to U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga. Burriss circled the U.S. Capitol building for six hours, waiting to get that picture.
He got the picture the world saw and remembers.
Andy Burriss always gets the picture.
There were so many other big news events where Burriss took the pictures – from the Rev. Jerry Falwell sliding down a Fort Mill waterslide in a suit, to presidential visits and campaigns, to the devastation of Hurricane Hugo in 1989.
Nobody remembers much about what Falwell said that day, all those political speeches, or the words written in the weeks and months after the storm.
Burriss’ pictures are all that remain in our memories.
What sets apart Burriss’ pictures of important news is the people and the faces. Big events become personal.
When Andre Bauer was sworn in as lieutenant governor in 2003, Burriss took pictures of the Republican with his mother, waiting in line to meet the governor.
When a player runs for a touchdown or dunks a basketball, a Burriss photo or series of photos shows the eyes of the player. A Burriss sports photo is not of athletics. It goes inside the player’s soul.
At 7:30 a.m. on July 3, 2009, Burriss took pictures of a Marines run near the Catawba River. A couple hours later, he was at the scene of a drowning on another stretch of river.
That afternoon, the Bleachery – the old textile mill that was a part of Rock Hill for even longer than Burriss – was on fire. Burriss took pictures from a plane, from the ground, just feet from a firefighters’ sweaty, ash-covered face.
That was just one day of pictures.
Despite all the “big news” photos he has taken over the past four decades, Burriss most cares about taking pictures of the people who really matter – you.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, an old city worker in Rock Hill tucked a flag into his belt and wept and prayed. A kid made an American flag in class.
Those Burriss pictures told anyone who saw them about a nation in mourning, about a community brought together by the resolve of character.
Burriss takes pictures of old ladies riding motorcycles and baking cakes. Kids learning to swim and scoring touchdowns. Soup kitchens, holiday meals, kids and wives crying as soldiers leave for wars.
Burriss has taken more pictures of hugs and kisses than maybe anybody alive.
The only thing that matters to Burriss is how regular people live life in Rock Hill and York County and beyond, how they work with their hands and backs and raise kids, how people cry and laugh. He does not care if somebody is rich or poor, famous or unknown.
And he gets the pictures every time.
Hundreds of photographers and reporters and editors have come and gone over the past 40 years at The Herald.
In thousands of assignments over the past 12 years, Andy Burriss took most of the pictures to go with stories and columns I’ve written. That meant that I had an impossible task – trying to put together words that would somehow approach the greatness of his pictures.
It was impossible, but an honor to be teamed with the very best. I was inspired each time, though, to find the hidden gem in each story and try to tell a story that would matter as much as the picture.
After dozens of Mayor’s Frog Jumps at the Come-See-Me Festival, there was a kid and his mom this year who ordered and kept the frogs before the jump.
Burriss and I went to their house, and the lids came off the big boxes of frogs. The kid and his mom chased the frogs in a frenzy that seemed to spray in six directions at once.
Burriss chased the kid and mom to take the pictures – including a classic of one frog on the kid’s shoulder. The frog seems to be looking at the kid; the kid is sure looking at the frog.
And everybody saw it because Burriss took that picture.
Andy Burriss never asks for anything except the chance to try to do it again tomorrow and the tomorrow after that. To have the chance to take a picture that would make Herald readers laugh or cry, gasp or think.
That picture is always the breath on the mirror of The Herald’s readers looking at the paper and, more recently, heraldonline.com. A mirror, breathed upon with a Burriss picture, that shows what it means to be alive.