A photographer’s story: Remembering a striking military snapshot 10 years later

Friday, May 26, 2017
This iconic photo of a Marine Corps Colonel presenting a flag to 8-year-old Christian Golczynski at his father’s funeral in 2007 has been seen by millions.
AP photo by Aaron Thompson

A tightly folded American flag is passed from the hands of a kneeling United States Marine to those of a quivering, 8-year-old boy at his father’s funeral.

Instantly, an iconic wartime photo is captured.

In April of 2007, photojournalist Aaron Thompson was in Bedford County covering the funeral of Lewisburg native, Marine Staff Sgt. Marcus Golczynski, who was killed in enemy combat while deployed in Iraq. Thompson, who worked for the Daily News Journal at the time, was looking for a photo that would tell the heartbreaking story. He was one of several other photographers from newspapers around the area who covered the services.

This bronze bust honoring SSG Marcus A. Golczynski, USMC, sits in the Marshall County Courthouse Annex. He died while fighting in Iraq in 2007.
Photo by Jay Langston

Thompson had no idea he was about to frame a photo that would become his most well known image.

Ten years later, coming up on Memorial Day, Thompson recalled the details leading up to the moment of the snapshot.

“Covering funerals sucks,” Thompson said with a sigh before remembering the details of that dreary Wednesday. “I had met with Marc’s father, Henry, and his stepmom, Faye, and right when his death was announced we talked with them. They were happy to have us come in and take photos and do stories.”

Aaron Thompson reflects on the memory of 10 years ago taking a photograph of young Christian Golczynski receiving a U.S. flag at his father’s funeral. Thompson says its hard to believe a decade has passed since the photo became an icon of the Iraq war.
Photo by Claire Highfill

In order to prepare for the funeral at Wheeler Cemetery, Thompson left the church service early to choose a spot from which he could document the graveside part of the service. At first, he wasn’t so confident that he would be able to do the job justice.

“I was really, really concerned,” said Thompson, his blue eyes wide as he recalled how apprehensive he was. “Just ‘cause the physical layout of where everything was… and the lighting in the tent. So, I called my photo editor and said, ‘Look, I’m not sure what I’m going to be able to do here, because there’s just some technical issues with the layout.’”

Thompson’s editor insisted that he stay and shoot what he could.

When a member of the military passes away, an American flag is presented to a member of the family in the soldier’s honor. For the Golczynski family, unbeknownst to Thompson, that particular member would be Marc’s young son, Christian.

“When Christian stood up, I just happened to be at the right place to get a good angle,” Thompson said, but really capturing the sensitivity of the moment at a clear angle wasn’t easy. “Christian’s kind of backlit, and that was particularly tricky.”

Thompson recalled that other photographers were snapping the same moment, but it turned out that his off position actually worked to his advantage.

“I ended up with a cleaner background, where as they [the other photographers] had a lot more people in the background, so it was just a little bit more cluttered.”

As soon as the Daily News Journal published Thompson’s photo, its quality caught immediate attention. “The AP called and asked for it, so we put it up on the AP wire, and that’s when it exploded,” said Thompson.

Fast forwarding a decade later, Thompson’s image of the crouching Marine looking into the eyes of a fallen soldier’s devastated son is seen all over the Internet and around the globe. Awards that he won include one from the Southeastern Newspaper Publisher’s Association, the AP Managing Editor’s Photo of the Year, and a Pulitzer nomination from the DNJ.

“What’s interesting to me is that I’ve seen it in support of the war and in opposition of the war,” said Thompson. “I’ve seen it used both ways.”

Through all of the success and usage that Thompson’s image has garnished, the photo ultimately still generates a raw, emotional memory for him.

“I was just shooting and crying,” he said with a sobering look. “It was awful, one of the things I hated most about the job. But, it is important to tell the story and it was an important thing for people to see in such a moving photograph. I’m grateful for that.”

Claire Highfill is a journalism student at Middle Tennessee State University. She is one of a group of students who spent a week in Marshall County writing stories for the Marshall County Tribune.