photographing what's not there

I worked on a really difficult story last week. It was difficult for multiple reasons — because the story was about something that had happened in the past and because it was an emotional story that involved victims of sexual abuse. adam lee brownI don't usually work on hard news stories. All of the spot news I've been sent out on has been something that never really materialized into a bigger story. This is fortunate because that means I've never had to cover something that would be horrible for the people involved, but also because I've never dealt with the emotional implications of a breaking news story. Although my story was not necessarily spot news (a fire, car accident, shooting, etc), it was still part of a breaking news story and that meant there were victims involved.

adam lee brownLast Sunday, a man named Adam Lee Brown allegedly attacked a young boy in a Wendy's restaurant bathroom, attempting to sexually assault him and also stabbing him. The boy is alright, and Brown is in custody — and a quick check on him revealed that he was the center of a national news story in the 90s.

daniela lilesIn  1993, Brown was sentenced to 16 years in prison. He had sexually abused nine victims in his hometown of Roseburg, all of which were children. Though sexual abuse stories are, sadly, not uncommon, what brought it into the national spotlight was that Brown was one of the first people accused of intentionally trying to infect children with the HIV virus.  Brown had HIV, and most of his attacks centered around the fact that he was incredibly angry about having the virus. So, he attempted to infect children with HIV with incredibly brutal methods — I won't list them here, but you can read the story to find out. Fortunately, he did not succeed in giving anyone the virus.

roseburg oregonMany news stories were being written at The Oregonian about Brown, his previous attacks, his new attacks and analyzing his madness. Brown was only sentenced to 16 years (of which he only served 11) because 1) he was given a plea bargain because his victims were children, from whom it is incredibly difficult to get a solid testimony in court and 2) it was the 90s and he was HIV positive, meaning many thought he would die in prison.

Roseburg, OregonBut apparently, after serving his prison sentence, Brown returned to Roseburg, the town where he had committed these crimes. And he went virtually unnoticed by the general population, most of who now know about his crimes from the news.

A reporter, Kimberly A.C. Wilson, and I went to Roseburg to find out a few things. We wanted to figure out what the town thought about Brown — if it had been surprising that he had been re-arrested, if they remembered his original crimes, etc. We also wanted to talk to those involved in his life — his father, the victims, the police, etc. Sadly, most people only knew about his attacks because of recent news reports, and there were not many people who wanted to talk, except for Daniela.

roseburg, oregonOne of the most difficult parts of the story was talking to one of the only outspoken victims, Daniela Liles. She's my age and an incredibly brave and wonderful person. We did a video interview about the original attacks with her and her mother. For a still, I had the idea of photographing her in front of an overexposed window to showcase the idea of a "memory," like my dark scenic pictures. I suppose I could've made her photograph dark as well, but Daniela seemed so much like she was empowered and overcoming everything that had happened to her. And though the story is dark and hard to digest, she is an incredibly inspiring person and I wanted to portray her as such. We chit-chatted a lot after the interview, too — just about stuff 22-year olds talk about — and I hope to meet up with her if she's ever in Portland while I'm here!

Roseburg, Oregon at nightIn addition to that, the story was also difficult because it wasn't a spot news story where I could photograph the police in action. Brown wasn't in Roseburg anymore, and it was hard to place him there in a photograph when, well, he wasn't there. I decided to take a series of moody photographs to represent his hold on the community. I chose to take pictures at twilight — the light would be eerie and blue and dark. I thought this was the best way to photograph what was basically the representation of a dark memory.

One of the most important places that Kimberly and I went was Flagg Street. Brown had lived on this street, and apparently all of his victims also lived there — they had all been abused at a daycare on the street or his home. Only two people still remained on this dead-end street that lived there when the original case happened, one of whom is now senile and the other who did not want to speak to us. But I found some children who had just moved in a month previously, unaware of what had happened there in the past. That was the picture that ran, and is probably the best one that sums up the entire situation.

At the end of this day, I was emotionally drained. I took the landscape pictures at night and was just creeped out the entire time, with all of the facts of the story repeating in my mind. I think I probably could've found more to photograph, but was just so disturbed and shaken. When I got back to my room, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit was on. Needless to say, I wasn't in the mood to watch it. I felt a bit silly for being so bothered by everything — by a memory of something that happened 20 years ago — but I supposed that just makes me human. I'm glad I had the experience to work on this story, especially with such a talented writer as Kimberly Wilson, and know it will give me a better perspective and knowledge to do similar, important stories in the future.