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Pulitzer Prize-Winning Photographer's Journey Was Emotional, Painful

A week later, Byer and Hubert visited the French home.

Things did not go well, especially for Byer. She shot a few pictures, but Derek was ill at ease and suspicious. "He was asking," Hubert said, "Who are these strangers in my living room?"

"I turned to Cyndie and told her, 'I don't know if can do this,' " recalled Byer, who questioned whether Derek would ever put his guard down and let her in.

French said she challenged the photographer. "I told her if she wanted to deal with the raw and real, to find out what cancer is really like, she was going to see it."

What it was not, French said, was a sentimental story, like that of a sick and pliable 3-year-old surrounded by stuffed animals.

"I told Renee, 'He's 11 and angry and tweaked at the whole world,' " French said.

Byer and Hubert talked. They decided to give it a try, to give it some time.

Thus began the remarkable journey. They started slow. Byer would visit and stay for hours, watching and observing, often not taking pictures at all.

Days turned into weeks turned into months and, finally, almost an entire year.

"She came over so much, I wanted to charge her rent," French said. "It got to the point I often didn't know she was there, and she was taking pictures."

There were treks to the grocery story, many outings to Derek's favorite restaurant, Nick's, visits to see doctors, etc. There were highs and very deep lows. There were quiet moments, "f-bomb moments," sweetness mixed with anger and frustration.

Over time, Derek's guard came down, so much so he would ask his mother when "the Bee ladies" were coming.

Byer and Hubert juggled other assignments between visits, but they always stayed in contact with French. There were days Byer would stay from 10 a.m. to midnight. During the last several weeks before Derek died, she and Hubert stayed with the family often.

The moments at times were so painful, so amazingly intimate that Byer would not -- could not -- shoot pictures. There were times she and Hubert gave French space to grieve alone, though French remained fiercely committed to showing people what things were really like, in the belief it could help others in similar situations.

Byer and Hubert gradually found themselves bound emotionally, too.

"You come to care about people, and they cared about us," Hubert said. "We're humans first and journalists second ... He was our friend, and we were his friends."

Derek and Byer connected at a different level, French said, recalling that in February of last year, Derek asked her whether "if something happened to me, could she be his mom."

Mark Morris, the paper's director of photography, said editors were concerned that Byer had invested so much personal time and emotion with the family that they made it a point to talk to her frequently, a concern heightened when Derek died.

French had similar worries and said she watched both women closely to gauge how they were reacting.