A Canadian author and resident of Newtown, Conn., is photographing and documenting the hundreds of thousands of sympathy cards received after the Sandy Hook school shooting in December.
Ross MacDonald estimates the town has received about half a million cards, letters and drawings from children and adults around the world.
"They're being stored in bins in the post office now," he told CBC Radio's As It Happens on Monday. "It’s being opened by volunteers who are discarding the envelopes and sorting the cards, letters and drawings into bins."
In one of the worst school shootings in history, a gunman opened fire inside Sandy Hook elementary school on Dec. 14, leaving 27 dead — including 20 children — and forcing students to cower in classrooms and then flee with the help of teachers and police.
Too painful to bear
The letters bring mixed emotions to local residents, MacDonald said.
"I see a lot of people I know who are coming into the town hall to pay their taxes and they can't look at it. Some people walk in and just see the bins and turn around and walk out. They can't bear to even look at it. So I think there's a lot of appreciation but it almost brings the sadness back. You almost feel sorry for the person writing [the letters] sometimes because they’re just so sad and shocked."
His biography on Amazon.com says MacDonald's illustrations have appeared in many publications, including Vanity Fair, the New Yorker, the New York Times and Rolling Stone, and was the subject of a one man retrospective show at the New York Times. He has written and illustrated several children's books, and has also worked on many movies as an illustrator, prop maker and consultant on period design, printing, paper and documents.
Having grown up in Toronto, he now lives in Connecticut with his wife and two children.
In a photo essay for U.S. magazine Mother Jones this month, MacDonald writes that the spontaneous outdoor memorials that sprang up in Newtown after the shootings, including angels, teddy bears and Christmas trees, became one of the symbols of this tragedy.
Paper has 'incredible power'
The town initially didn’t know what to do with the letters, MacDonald said.
"Their solution was to leave it there for a respectful amount of time and then remove it and incinurate it, mixing the ashes with concrete to turn it into a memorial."
MacDonald, however, felt it was better to preserve the paper.
"Actual pieces of paper have incredible power," he said.
With support from Mother Jones and Newtown town officials, he decided to launch a project to gather thousands of images to publish and create an extensive digital archive.
"It is my hope that we might also find a physical home for all these letters. Because the wisdom they express should not be lost to history," he writes in his photo essay.