Saturday, December 30, 2006

Ok, here we go. One of younger reporters, ambitious with talent to match, wanted to do this story. He'd seen this young woman wandering the streets of the downtown, clearly a prostitute. He's struck up a conservation, bought her lunch. Turned out she was a homeless drug addict (crack and heroin), turning tricks to get from fix to fix. Not a friend in town, and clearly headed for an early grave. Like, by the end of the summer early. So the reporter wants to tell her story.
Now, my paper is a good paper at what it does. This is not what it usually does. In fact, the phrase "downtown prostitutes" had been used as an example of exactly the kind of stories we were not allowed to do. So there was that obstacle. There was also the ethical question of how to shoot it. Do you show her face, obscure it, what do you show her doing? It's a small town, and by doing this story arent we kind of taking responsibility for her? Was she capeable of making the decision to let us tell her story, would she understand the consequences of appearing in the media? And, how do we not tell the story, and have to report it when they pull her body from the creek?
A good editor told the reporter to go for it, and he'd try and get it in the paper. I had expressed interest and had worked with the reporter before, so he called me one late afternoon and told me to meet him at the old cemetary.
We had to wait for awhile, gathering hard looks from the locals. Not the kind of neighborhood you want to appear to curious in with a camera. She suddenly shows up, bouncy and distracted. Skinny, in a short denim skirt and black tank top. Her face was scored by several deep sores. Bright, pretty eyes. She'd just scored.
We walked into the old cemetary, making introductions. She lay down on an old crypt, raised in a mound so she could keep an eye out. I guess I knew what we were there for, but it was still a shock when she lifted a small, filthy crack pipe to her lips and lit it. I started shooting. She finished, and slumped back against the headstone. Her hair fell over her face, and thats when I got the shot we published, with the cemetary stretching off into the background. She was blurry for a few minutes, and then came back. We chatted about movies for awhile, and the reporter , gently and professionaly, asked her if she didnt think that she was going to die out there. I guess, she said, don't know what else to do. We walked out, shook hands, and I drove to a field hockey game.
The story ran that weekend, bottom of the front, with this pic and a closeup of her crackpipe inside. They treated it right, and it ran long with a sidebar on prostitution statistics. The reporter called her "Maggie".
When you work on something like, this, its all you think about until it runs. When it does, your focus moves on to the next deadline. We got a few letters, some good, some pointing out that the only diference between this girl and others in town for years was that this girl was white. True. A week or two later the reporter told me "Maggie" was in treatment, She showed up at office for a follow up with the reporter, I said hi to her in the wood paneled conference room. Things looked ok.
I'm not sure of what happened next, but next time I saw her was on television, being yelled at by a videotape. She was living in a "real world" house, going through withdrawal with a camera in every room and dramatic music cues with each edit. I'm not going to name the show, but it rhymes with Dokt Er Fill. I only watched a little, until she was being berated by the host for her lack of will by the host. From a screen, she was watching his face on the screen yelling at her. They had made sure to list all of her sins, the addiction and the sex, they had even gone as far as to take her to the cemetary and do the same shot we did. I assume, eventually, she got clean enough for them to claim victory and bring a tear to the eye.
I'll be honest, I feel bad. When I met her, she was going to die, from the drugs or murder or something. So, the story saved her, the image helped save her. Thats what I want to do as a photojournalist, change the world for the better. But I feel like we drew her into the world of shock culture, now she's on a display to be cared for and jeered at for her transgressions, a stand in for our own collective guilt in our own weakness. Before, all she could sell was her body, and now she can sell her pain as well. Good luck, Maggie. I'm sorry, I was trying.

Here's another pic, not published because it would show her face. Figure it's ok now.