Javier Cazares speaks to his daughter, Jackie, in her bedroom in Uvalde, before going to sleep on June 13, 2022. Jackie was among the 19 children and two teachers killed in the shooting at Robb Elementary School. She loved her family and friends and had dreams of one day visiting Paris. (Courtesy of Tamir Kalifa)
Until recently, Austin’s Tamir Kalifa was known as a leader of the sprawling indie-rock orchestra Mother Falcon. But for the last several years he’s carved out an identity as a freelance photojournalist chronicling the struggles of grief-stricken communities.
On Wednesday, Kalifa received the 2024 American Mosaic Journalism Prize, one of the most prestigious awards in the profession, for a revelatory series of reports in the New York Times examining the sorrow of the families of children killed in the 2022 Robb Elementary shooting in Uvalde. Kalifa will receive $100,000 from the Heising-Simons Foundation, which created the prize to promote longform journalism focusing on underrepresented groups.
Kalifa spoke to the Chronicle from Tel Aviv, where he is covering the Israel-Hamas War. He said the award came as a surprise to him – he had not applied for it – but it will help him continue his very particular work.
“One of the hardest things about journalism is sometimes feeling that it’s extractive,” Kalifa said. “So I’ve tried to refine a certain method of working, a certain practice, that is more mutual and consensual. In Uvalde, I really tried to build what I thought of as a ‘cathedral of trust’ where I felt free to work and preserve not just difficult and painful moments, but moments of levity that helped balance out the heaviness. Because that’s the reality of these places. It’s not just darkness, nor is it just light. It’s both. They have to exist together.”
Kalifa said that after his initial visits with the people of Uvalde he knew he wanted to commit at least a year to the community. At first, he drove back and forth from Austin, staying in cheap Airbnbs. For the last three months of the work he rented a converted storage container so he could be available to the families who had become his friends. They collaborated with him, inviting him to create lush photographs in the bedrooms belonging to their dead children and at their children’s graves.
“I didn’t want to miss a moment of trying to visualize this staggering grief, which persists long after the media cycles move on,” Kalifa said. “And part of visualizing it was just being patient and being available for when the families were open to having me be with them.”
Kalifa’s own family is Israeli and he happened to be in Tel Aviv in early October when the current war broke out. He has remained there since, using his work to illuminate the humanity of Israelis and Palestinians alike. He said he’s grateful to the Heising-Simons Foundation for its support of freelance journalism.
“Not only are they rewarding the work in Uvalde but they are also using this as inspiration for other freelance journalists and other newsrooms to really commit to longform storytelling,” he said. “And that is vital. Journalists dedicate their lives to the pursuit of truth, as best as we are able to understand it. That’s something worth supporting, not just on a foundational level, but on an individual level, in supporting and patronizing local news – because it’s not free and the health and vitality of our systems depend on it.”
That sentiment extends, of course, to this publication, which is tied to Kalifa’s story through its past coverage of Mother Falcon. “I think back to [former Music Editor] Margaret Moser and the love that we got from the Chronicle back in the day, which really did wonders for us. So it’s awesome to talk about all this. And, yeah, I’m planning to record some music when I get back to town.”
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