The Beltway Sniper

Thursday, May 13, 2010

On a cold, asphalt black night in 2002, leaves falling, I found myself standing in a vast parking lot.  The queasy sodium vapor stadium lighting made it quite obvious that the minivan I was renting was not going to work.  My assistant & I trudged back to the office & demanded another vehicle—anything but white.

All over the news, in Washington, DC that fall, mass hysteria put everyone on the alert for a white van.  All eyes were peeled for what came to be known as the Beltway Sniper.  I do not often capitulate to public opinion but I was not going to be pulled over for being a terrorist that day.  We were on assignment & after I related my reasons, Avis begrudgingly gave me another color & we were on our merry way.

It may have been a small thing, unfounded caution but, in photography, there are so many facets to a big production: weather, equipment, transportation, mood, disposition & old fashioned luck.  So many things can go wrong & make life hell that you become paranoid when the slightest perturbation disrupts your frail illusion of security.  With clients looking over your shoulder, we hold our breath anticipating problems.  Permits, permissions, model releases are checked & rechecked.  Equipment is duplicated so its failure does not slow anything up.  God forbid you did not remove the green jelly beans from the variety candy pack before the models arrive.  On a job it is always—ALWAYS—the photographer’s fault.

Recently back on Pennsylvania Avenue, just down the street from the White House, with assistant & art director in tow & with several hours to kill, I found myself at the front entrance of the brand new Newseum.  It is a monument to newspaper & broadcast journalism down through the ages.  Brilliantly the all glass facade reflects the city’s monuments while the windows display the front pages of dozens of papers from all over the USA.


All behind me rush hour traffic sounds & street noise mysteriously ceased.  The world stopped in its orbit.  Thrust back through time to that fearful day when the whole region was in a panic & I was unsure of what to do in response to the threat of an unknown assailant.  The bold letters barely stood out amongst all the other headlines about economy & elections & Obama.

I had spent seven clandestine years laboring on a project to dissuade America against the death penalty.  In & out of prisons to decipher the reasons anyone would/could take another’s life but most significantly, my government.

    The United States has the highest homicide rates of any affluent democracy,
    nearly four times that of France and the United Kingdom, and six times that
    of Germany.
                 --Jill Lepore, The New Yorker

Years ago the threat was national news.  Today I guess the execution was a local story.  Only one paper announced it; a mere footnote in our calamitous history.  Somehow we can justify invading Iraq, killing innocent civilians in Afghanistan & maintaining capital punishment to eliminate all other miscreants amongst us.

I wrote my book Final Exposure: Portraits from Death Row on scraps of paper, the backs of envelops & in the margins of magazines I was reading as we traveled from jail to jail.  I dedicated the book to my father who implanted the embryo of an idea when I was an adolescent.  The book eventually sat on his coffee table for a couple of years before it disappeared.  He never mentioned it once.

In 27 “contact visits” we explored the breadth & depths of murder.  We got an education in the jurisprudence system.  I took pictures in the bowels of America’s dungeons.  The one constant question we asked each inmate was “why?”  The answers varied from literal to philosophical & although we found it significant, history ignores the answers.

The reign of terror that John Allen Muhammad foisted upon the nation’s capital was unprecedented.  Fear visibly permeated the air.  He & his accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, picked off at least 30 “trophies” in the area.  DC, Virginia & Maryland residents clamored for their blood.  Unfortunately the government has, increasingly, left the punishment of criminals to public opinion.  “Big cases make bad laws.”

In the course of the twentieth century, capital punishment was abolished in much of the world, including all of Western Europe, but not the United States.  They, along with such hotbeds of government executions such as South Africa during apartheid, realized that the state, no matter how well meaning in concept, would eventually abuse the death penalty & use it as a “political” tool.  Looked at another way, capital punishment is an anachronism.

    The countries and times most notorious for severity of punishment
    have always been those in which the bloodiest and most inhumane
    of deeds were committed.
                        --Cesare Beccaria

Muhammad & company slew thirteen innocent people.  By definition his life is “less important” than theirs.  He chose by his own actions to diminish his own significance.  The victim’s families, justifiably, wanted his head on a pike.  It is a normal human emotion to seek revenge.  Leave me for ten minutes in the same room with him…  But society does not have that option.  Civilized people cannot solve the problem of murder with murder.

    At what point will incarceration be a greater social ill than crime?
                        --Mark A.R. Kleiman


pam allara,  July 19, 2010 at 3:18 PM  


re: your visit to Russia: I could not figure out how on earth you managed to decipher the Russian alphabet with rudimentary Greek. I was quite impressed--and found the photographs even more impressive. As for Final Exposure, you are right that capital punishment only demonstrates our own barbarism. But how sad that your Dad never acknowledged your achievement.

Oh, and green jelly beans? Why must they be removed from a photo shoot?

thanks for your terrific blog!

pam allara

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blog (blŏg, bläg) n. 1. short for Weblog 2. online personal journal with reflections, comments, and often hyperlinks provided by the writer 3. diary that is posted on the Internet 4. an experiment to verbalize my observations about the status of photography. It will be eclectic & deal with philosophy & practice of this universal art form. It will strive for periodic commentary about issues many photographers face, like ownership and the economy. It will also talk about pictures and what makes good ones and how to get them. No hardware. No software. No recycled clichés. No whining.