Best of the Week

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In the face of death, the party of a lifetime

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This week’s Best of the Week goes to the team of Elaine Thompson and Gene Johnson who chronicled how one man, in the face of death, created the party of a lifetime.

In a world focused on life and survival, death is often unseen, endured in private and acknowledged in glowing obituaries or tragic news stories. It’s also mostly out of the control of the person who is dying.

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Robert Fuller stands after a bout of nausea, where a portrait of him before he became ill hangs on the wall, at his home in Seattle, April 5, 2019 – AP Photo / Elaine Thompson

Now, with nine U.S. states allowing terminally ill people to end their lives with fatal drugs, thousands of people have legally chosen how and when to end their lives.

Seattle Photographer Elaine Thompson has long wanted to show the real, personal side of what often comes across as an impersonal process. She spent months looking for the right subject, getting tantalizingly close to success before plans fell through. She stuck with it, and when she found Bob Fuller, she enlisted reporter Gene Johnson to tell his story.

Although Fuller decided to end his life after a terminal cancer diagnosis, many people still believe so-called “Death with Dignity” laws are immoral

From the beginning, it was important to Johnson not to glorify Fuller’s choice or paint him as a saint. Although Fuller decided to end his life after a terminal cancer diagnosis, many people still believe so-called “Death with Dignity” laws are immoral. As Thompson trailed Fuller through the process – watching him pick up his fatal drugs, meet with the volunteers who guided him and attend his final church service – Johnson researched and interviewed and worked to portray Fuller’s complicated backstory in riveting detail, demonstrating how he came to make his final choice.

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Portraits of Robert Fuller as a baby, a boy and as a young man line a wall at his home in Seattle, April 5 2019 – AP Photo / Elaine Thompson

Together, Johnson and Thompson spent hours with Fuller and his friends, including observing his joyful yet heartbreaking end-of-life celebration and his death.

The result was a poignant, personal picture of one man’s journey. Thompson’s powerful photos showed a man surrounded by friends who smiled and cried and lived each of his final breaths alongside him. Johnson’s striking story captured the breadth of emotion in Fuller’s final hours, and wove a rich, nuanced narrative that took readers on a journey that led him to the end. The story ran on newspaper front pages including the Seattle Times and generated discussion across the internet on end of life decisions.

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Reese Baxter, left, puts a ring on the finger of Robert Fuller during their wedding at their home in Seattle, May 10 2019. Later that day, Fuller plunged two syringes filled with a fatal drug cocktail into a feeding tube in his abdomen. – AP Photo / Elaine Thompson

For breathing life into this tale of death, Thompson and Johnson win this AP’s Best of the Week prize.

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