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



The story and pictures of a single mother and her 11-year-old son dying of cancer was titled "A Mother's Journey."

But what no one ever anticipated at the beginning was the other long journey that step by gradual step would tightly envelop a Bee reporter and photographer, taking them to places they never expected to go.

Places painfully intimate, emotional and raw. Places that tested the bounds of journalistic objectivity and human sensibilities. Places that leave marks for a lifetime.

And to think it all started so inauspiciously, so mundanely.

Renee C. Byer, who last week was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for feature photography for her outstanding work on "A Mother's Journey," is not a morning person.

So the routine May 7, 2005, assignment to photograph the annual and very popular Susan Komen Race for the Cure didn't come at an ideal time.

Wake up at 5 a.m.; hustle to the race parking lots by the time they open at 6.

After a few hours, Byer had finished her main chore, shooting the race. Now she was hanging around the finish area looking for a possible secondary race photo or a picture for a potential future story.

She knew there would be a traditional cancer survivors' walk and celebration following the race. She spotted Cyndie French amid the sea of people and took her picture, thinking she was a survivor.

Byer went up to French to get photo caption information. They began talking. No, French said, she was not a cancer survivor; she was there providing support.

However, she said, her son Derek was very sick and undergoing treatment for a rare form of the disease.

A single mother with a blunt, straightforward manner, French told Byer her family was struggling emotionally and financially. She invited Byer to see for herself.

This could make a good story, Byer thought, though never expecting then it would become "the story."

She promised to call French, who was skeptical at first. "I thought, sure, right, whatever," she said. Yet, the more they chatted, the more she believed Byer.

Leaving the parking lot after nine hours at the event, Byer caught French out of the corner of her eye. "I screamed out my window. 'I'm going to call you.' "

Byer then worked on other assignments. She talked with reporter Cynthia Hubert, who had been exploring story ideas dealing with UC Davis' pediatric hospice but was running into roadblocks.

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