Lately, people have been asking me if I have nightmares about the work I do. I rarely think about my work literally. I don’t try to get inside peoples’ heads – I want to report facts as part of a story and I want to get those facts right. I try to remain impartial and merely respond to the facts. But there are a few cases that I found highly disturbing and a few images I unfortunately return to that hurt me to my core.
When I was in college and as a young adult, I was a medical photographer, first at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics and then at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary in Glasgow. My role was to be an adjunct for teachers, many of them studying anomalies of the human body through documentary photos. My protection from some truly mind-blowing situations was that I was behind a camera: I saw gangrene, a woman whose every blood capillary exploded in her body making her look like a grape, I saw peoples’ innards as part of surgery and I recorded their nose jobs for rhinoplasty surgeons.
While I’m in the field for television production, I am not the one with the camera. I don’t have that emotional shield. I’m the one receiving documentary photos, usually by the hundreds, of victims in situ at a crime scene and then at their autopsies being taken apart, piece by piece. I find the human body fascinating. I find violent crimes that destroy the human body positively horrific.
The story that disturbed me so much was perpetrated by James Marlow and Cynthia Coffman, spree murderers who abducted 4 innocent young women, raped them and then killed them across a long swathe of the southwest in the mid 1980s. Upon looking at the evidentiary photos of each of 4 crime scenes where Sandra Neary, 32; Pamela Simmons, 35; Corinna Novis, 20; and Lynel Murray, 19 were murdered, the photos of Lynel Murray’s crime scene caught me sideways. Not only had the 19-year old psychology student been abducted from her part-time job at a dry-cleaning business, having her life altered irrevocably within seconds, but Marlow and Coffman dragged her off into a lair for a session of torture bar none. Her end would have been terrifying, painful and extended far beyond something cruel and unusual. The image of her that won’t go away is that of her death mask, a look almost of relief, with the grey eyes of the dead open and looking up.
The public always get to hear extensively about murderers – it seems to hold our fascination. But for me, I work in service of the victims. To see Lynel Murray, who could have gone on to have an amazing life, was taken by two people who saw no value in it except for their own consumption, is astonishing in the worst way. I am beyond having any appropriate words of condolence for every person Lynel Murray’s life touched while she was here and what a loss that is for them.
James Marlow and Cynthia Coffman were sentenced to death in the State of California in 1990. I cannot see any place else for them but incarceration – I don’t see rehabilitation in their futures to re-emerge productively back into society. Marlow and Coffman were a son and a daughter. They had brothers and sisters. Coffman was a mother herself. Tragedy in these cases is unrelenting.
In my mix of photos from over the years that are stuck in my head, I do have some from my medical photography days, too. One is of a baby, but this was no ordinary baby: it was documented while it lived through 2 torturous days of its life. Its shape was something more like a triangle, with no discernible limbs or sex. It did have eyes at the top of the triangle, something in the shape of a nose and an opening for a mouth. I don’t know the genetic background that created this baby. I do know the terrible grief the parents experienced watching its labored and short life.
I think on these things as I try to gently and sensitively go through my day’s work. Most people that know me don’t see me in this light, but these images are a guiding force that help me try to embrace and understand all of humanity and the struggles we go through just to exist.