Baltimore street photographer: Processing grief with a camera lens

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“I’m trying to find the beauty that I lost when I lost my son,” said Doug Ebbert of Harford County.

The last time Doug Ebbert saw his son, Jesse, awake was on New Year’s Eve 2013.

Jesse and his girlfriend were going to a black-and-white dress-up party at a friend’s house, and stopped by his folks’ house in Harford County on the way. Doug and his wife, Rita, snapped a few pictures of the young couple: Jesse in a black vest, his girlfriend, Allison, in a black dress.

“I remember telling him, ‘You’re really doing well,'” Doug said. At 26, Jesse had just recently moved to his own place in Canton. He had a nice girlfriend and a good job as a sous chef at Cinghiale, a high-end Italian restaurant in Harbor East. Though he’d always been a creative kid, Jesse had struggled in school and drifted around. It was in the kitchen that he found where he belonged.

He’d “make art out of food,” Doug said.

At the party, Jesse complained of headaches before falling asleep for the night.

When he didn’t wake up in the morning, his friends, at first, chalked it up to exhaustion — after all, he was a chef, working long hours, sleeping little. But by the afternoon on New Year’s Day, he still wouldn’t budge. Allison called Doug and Rita; an ambulance transported Jesse’s unconscious body to three different hospitals, where the doctors would try in vain over the next 10 days to wake him up.

Early tests ruled out alcohol poisoning. Then a CAT scan indicated a possible aneurysm. Finally, doctors discovered a cyst in Jesse’s brain that had created immense pressure inside his skull. Jesse was in a coma, his brain badly damaged. Doctors tried to control the swelling, even putting him in a hypothermic state for a few days.

But it was no use. On Jan. 10, 2014, Jesse Ebbert was removed from life support.

It took a while for the grief to hit. After 10 days in the hospital, Doug was in a daze. He remembers being at the funeral home, and laughing. People said it sure seemed like he was handling everything really well. Later, he and Rita headed to Canton to clean out the apartment they’d only just helped Jesse move into.

“That was just the biggest wakeup call,” Doug said.

A few months later, Doug visited a blog called “What’s Your Grief,” co-run by Litsa Williams. He’d met Williams at the hospital through the Living Legacy Foundation, an organization that had managed the donation of Jesse’s organs, his tissues and eyes. It was on the blog there that Doug read about using photography as a therapy. He’d enjoyed taking pictures in his youth, and decided to pick up the habit again.

“I’m trying to find the beauty that I lost when I lost my son,” he said.

It became an excuse to get out of the house, to stay engaged with the world. “You can’t just sit around all the time and think,” he said. He and Rita would drive around the area, taking pictures. He set up a website to share and sell his photos. He hasn’t made any money yet; but if he does, he’ll donate it to a scholarship fund he and Rita set up to honor Jesse’s memory at the Culinary Institute of America.

“I think it’s something he’d be proud of,” Doug said.

If there’s one regret he has, he wishes he’d taken more pictures of his son.