The Parkland shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in February 2018 – the deadliest in United States History – aroused new concerns about the gravity of gun violence in America. Ian Witlen, a photojournalist called to cover its aftermath for local news outlets, felt an additional sense of trauma when he arrived at the scene because Stoneman Douglas was the same high school he attended years ago. Places he held dear and associated with his own memories and adolescence were now tainted with death, and he was expected to photograph it.
Assignment after assignment added new layers of pain and introspection. As the days and weeks progressed, Witlen began questioning how local media was shaping the story, who was being interviewed, and how their stories were being told. Shortly after, he embarked on an oral histories project, photographing and interviewing survivors, asking them two simple questions: "What was your experience that day?" and "What would you like to see come of it." Much like the Shoah Project and other oral histories series, Witlen’s lens, ear, and microphone help these stories and those whose lives were lost live on and gives viewers deeper insight into an unimaginable event.
In advance of his solo exhibition at the Coral Springs Museum of Art, I spoke with Witlen to learn more about his experience and response to this horrific event.
Jon Feinstein in conversation with Ian Witlen
Feinstein: The project came out of your coverage of the Parkland shooting. How did you initially get assigned to cover it?
Ian Witlen: On February 14th, 2018, I received a call from the art director at Miami New Times. One of the news editors had been listening to Miami police scanners while in the office and heard a call come across that there was a possible active shooter at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. (The Miami New Times office is located in Wynwood, which is a 50 minute drive from Parkland.) I live pretty close to the high school, so I grabbed my cameras and headed out. What would normally be a quick 10 minute drive took over an hour. I saw multiple police agency and emergency response vehicles passing me on the highway.
I ended up having to park 1.5 miles away and walk the rest of the way. What I found had me in disbelief. As I approached the park near the school, I saw trauma response helicopters rotating their landing patterns on the baseball diamond where I used to watch local bands play. The same park I used to pass on my way home from school, many years prior. Looking back, I recognize now that I was in shock, but I quickly compartmentalized it and began documenting what I saw for the assignment. I didn’t get home that evening until 11:30pm, when I sat down to finish my edit. The next day I had been assigned to cover two vigils.
Feinstein: What sparked your interest in turning it into a personal project?
Witlen: I kept receiving assignments day after day from different publications. For months, I had daily assignments to cover what was going on at the school as well as the surrounding protests and support rallies. After a while I began to notice many students approaching them, wanting to talk about their personal experiences on 2/14 and in the aftermath. I kept seeing those students being turned away. I kept seeing the same 30-40 people being interviewed on the news. Not to discount anything they have to say, as every voice is important, but the school population was just under 3,400.
Towards the end of March, I had been on an assignment for The Boston Globe covering a press conference coordinated by a group of students who felt their voices weren’t being heard. As I was waiting to ask a student for some information for my captions, I heard a local news anchor tell a few of the students that their producers would be more likely to air the segment if the students aligned their message with a more recognizable organization. Here are these students who want to be heard, being told their voices don’t matter. I was disgusted. After that press conference I began to reach out to a few people to see if they would take part. In May on 2018 I began conducting the first interviews.
Feinstein: How does the title help convey your intentions?
Witlen: While working on the project, I gave it a temporary title: The MSD Portrait Project. I struggled for over a year to come up with a title that free of any political connotations and sensationalism. Not as easy as it may seem. As I began reviewing all of my interview audio and sorting the photos, I quickly noticed that no matter where each person was during this act of terror, they were experiencing a form of anguish. So much so, that it shows on their faces as they spoke to me about their lived experiences.
Feinstein: You position your interviews with a simple, yet direct question: “What was your experience that day? What would you like to see come of it”
Witlen: Being that this has been such a high politicized incident (and rightfully so), I wanted to make sure that I approached this the right way. As a photojournalist, we cannot take sides if we doing the job properly. While this is my personal project and I do have strong opinions, I needed to remove myself completely from the equation. So I approached this as I would any other assignment. Except this time, I was the one conducting the interviews. I decided that I would ask everyone the same two questions, and that I would do so without any comment nor follow up questions. This allowed each person to speak their minds.
There was a documentary crew that came with one of the subjects on the first day, I allowed them to stay and document for the interview. They told me that after interviewing the subject almost daily for a month and a half, I was able to get more out of him than they had. They were intrigued by my approach. I took what they said as confirmation that I had made the right choice in my approach. Years ago I had done a personal project interviewing and photographing child survivors of the Holocaust. I quickly learned that when you have a laundry list of questions, the interview you thought would take an hour becomes 4 - 5 hours long. Which is why I designed my project to be 2 questions without any comment or follow ups.
Feinstein: You mention Holocaust survivors: I think it’s interesting to think of this project in the context of other powerful oral/audio-visual testimonies. I immediately think of The Shoah Project. Do you see a dialogue between this work and other oral history projects of the sort?
Witlen: I definitely drew inspiration from The Shoah Project. It is an incredible educational database. For years I have admired the time and dedication it has taken to collect each survivor’s story. In order to advance as a society, we must learn from the past. I’m sure some would rather we forget these mass shooting and just move on, as I have heard so many say over the last year and a have. I have always intended for Anguish in the Aftermath to become an educational tool for schools to use. Once I find the proper place to house the full database of interviews and transcripts, I will make it available for academic research. Oral histories are one of our greatest academic resources. Without them, we cannot move forward.
Feinstein: Tell me a bit about your process and interactions with the survivors you photographed as you were photographing them?
Witlen: As each person speaks to me, I have the timestamps of my camera and audio recorder synced to each other. That way when I was ready to sort the photos, I could pull the exact moment of audio from when the photo had been captured. What I looked for were their emotional reactions to discussing what they had gone through. I made sure that each person who took part was comfortable throughout the entire process. Being that I’m photographing them as they speak, you can hear the faint sounds of my shutter in the background. Initially I wanted to have the audio mastered to remove the clicks, but then I worried that making any edits to the audio could question the integrity of the project.
I had prior interactions with some of the students and teachers due to my ongoing assignments, so some felt a bit more comfortable than others. I didn’t give anyone a time limit, so they had the freedom to say as much or as little as they wanted. If someone needed to stop or asked me to turn off the audio recorder I did. That only happened a couple times. But the freedom to speak their minds seemed to be a cathartic experience for many of them.
Feinstein: Can you tell me about one or two quotes that hit you particularly hard?
Witlen: One that I found interesting, was a teacher who discussed all the preparations they had done over the years in the form of Code-Red drills. That he had made all these preparations and discussed them in class over the years. Though in the moment, every plan and consideration he had made had completely left his mind. His body’s natural fight or flight response took over. It proves that it doesn’t matter how many drills these teachers and students have done, no amount of preparation can adequately train you for this type of situation. His interview ends with him saying, “And that shouldn’t be something that goes through a teacher’s mind.”
I heard so many unique perspectives. A teacher who was experiencing survivor’s guilt, because he helped Scott Beigel, one of the victims, get his job at the school. Two teachers who are married to each other sat for the project back to back. The husband had been grazed by a bullet and hit with the shrapnel of another. He stared down the gunman’s barrel while getting his students to safety. I found out during my interview with his wife, that she hadn’t asked him what he had experienced. Which is another form of survivor’s guilt. “...I didn’t see the blood, the bodies, or anything like that. But what I’m stuck with is my mind trying to picture it. Like what did my husband see?...“ He didn’t want to burden his wife with what he had seen and she didn’t want to make him tell her about it. They both had the same concerns for each other. After the interview, I encouraged her to speak to him about it, and it seemed to help them both.
These are just pieces of the larger picture. Every single interview has stuck with me. Every single one of them is just as important as the next. Like the student who watched her best friend bleed out next to her. The teacher who lost student’s in her classroom. The students watching the carnage unfold on Snapchat at Walmart while the gunman was likely watching over their shoulder. So many perspectives of the same act of terror.
Feinstein: You mention in the local news interview about the show that this project helped many of the survivors process their pain.
Witlen: I had prior interactions with some of the students and teachers due to my ongoing assignments, so some felt a bit more comfortable than others. I didn’t give anyone a time limit, so they had the freedom to say as much or as little as they wanted. If someone needed to stop or asked me to turn off the audio recorder I did. I was only asked to pause the recording a couple times. But the freedom to speak their minds seemed to be a cathartic experience for many.
Before starting the project, I had been worried that I would be re-traumatizing people by asking them to recall what they had gone through. Before beginning the project, I spoke to a psychologist about how to approach my interactions and if the way I had phrased the questions would bring anything up. As well as what to do if someone broke down during an interview. Though my worries were quickly resolved when a student thanked me for giving her the opportunity to speak her mind. She cried for the first time in 4 months during our interview. She said that it had actually made her feel a sense of relief, like a weight had been lifted. That is when I knew I was doing the right thing. That I wasn’t only documenting their lived experiences for history’s sake, but that I could help some heal in the process.
Feinstein: It seems like every week now, another tragic shooting takes place. Does this impact how you look at this work and the upcoming exhibition?
WItlen: I made it a point not to mention Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School nor Parkland in the title of the project, because unfortunately this wasn’t an isolated incident. Mass shootings are becoming more and more frequent. A few times I had been in the middle of conducting interviews, while receiving texts and notifications of another mass shooting taking place at the same time. Time and time again we watch the aftermath of another mass shooting in a school, or a movie theater, or a shopping mall, or a place of worship, or anywhere else. I never imagined that an act of terror like this could ever happen in my hometown. If I have learned anything, its that this could happen anywhere at any time.
Feinstein: What do you hope people who see this work, either in exhibition form, or online, will take from it?
Witlen: When I began conducting my interviews, I didn’t know in what form the final body of work would be shown. Online, in print, or in a museum. I have been extremely fortunate to have partners in the Coral Springs, Museum of Art, Community Foundation of Broward, and Florida Humanities Council. They have enabled me to debut the body of work in the museum setting. My hope is that it will travel. The intense national pro and anti gun debate has gotten to the point that most people seem to forget about those who are affected by these mass shootings. They will live with this for the rest of their lives. What I have done is take an apolitical approach to show the viewer what each person has had to endure. You can view the exhibition in three different ways: Each framed 30” x 40” portrait is paired with an audio excerpt in the subject’s own voice, that can be heard via an audio tour device. If the viewer doesn’t want to hear they audio, then they have the option of reading the transcription on the placard next to each piece. Or the exhibition can be experienced by simple viewing the photos. It is hard to walk through the exhibition and not feel something.
I hope that they will be drawn in by the photos and want to learn more about each person’s lived experience. I noticed after hanging the entire exhibition, that as you walk through it, you can sometimes see the reflections of the other portraits in the glass of the piece you are looking at. This makes it a bit more interactive and helps to illustrate that while each story is very different, they are all connected. It adds an entirely different element to the experience. As you exit the exhibition, you will be directed into a decompression area. When exiting the decompression area, each person has the opportunity to contribute their own voice by answering the second question. We have a blank wall set up to place hand-written responses to the question, “What would you like to see come of this?”