When Dani lived with her mother, her bedroom had only a small window. Now, in her new home, her father’s lift gives her a larger view. Photo by Melissa Lyttle/St. Petersburg (Fla.)Times.
“Partnership of Photojournalist and Writer”
– Melissa LyttleThere’s this little girl, the woman at the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County, Florida, told me. Police found her in a filthy room the size of a closet, covered with feces and bug bites, unable to talk or eat solid foods. She had never been held, never felt the sun on her pale face.
“It’s the saddest story I’ve ever heard,” my source said. “With a happier ending than anyone could have hoped for.”
She wanted me to write the story. She had convinced the girl’s adoptive parents to share their saga. She only had one request: “I want Melissa to take the pictures.”
Some photographers are phenomenal artists. Others are extraordinary documentarians. Melissa Lyttle, my colleague at the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, is both. Her pictures are awash in light and imagery. They zoom in, capturing the most intimate moments, then soar above to provide sweeping context. They hold you, they move you.
They tell stories.
Besides having the eye of an artist and dogged devotion of a documentarian, Melissa is above all an incredible journalist. She doesn’t just take pictures. She asks questions, explores issues and emotions, tracks down background and expert opinions and makes her subjects feel comfortable enough to open their homes and their souls to her. Melissa writes with her eyes. In her scenes, she sees stories: characters and complications, terror and hope, resolution.
If my source at the Children’s Board had not asked for Melissa to take the photos for this story, I would have requested her myself. I knew Melissa’s work, her ethics and integrity, and especially her empathy would make her the perfect person to partner with for this project.
Reporting this story was an emotional journey, and without Melissa to talk with, I would have had a hard time bearing the anger and humility on my own—much less figuring out how to process and channel it. For example: We both fell in love with Willie. Willie was 10, growing up as an only child, when his parents brought Dani home to adopt her. While other kids would have been jealous or hostile, Willie adored his new sister. We watched them play, watched him tickle her, and try to coax her to talk.
Melissa spent hours playing with Willie while I watched Dani and interviewed her parents. Playing with Erector sets and Legos, video games and super heroes, she sat on the floor beside him and made him feel as important as his needy sister. One night, as they were putting away the toys, Melissa asked Willie, “Can I see your room?”
“I don’t really have a room,” Willie answered, his eyes dropping to the floor. “My room is Dani’s now. She needs it more than me.”
When Melissa told me this, we knew we had to hang out until bedtime. This perfect family, these selfless parents, had asked their young son to sleep in the laundry room so their newly adopted daughter could be upstairs near them.
The scene that evening, when Willie went downstairs with a flashlight so he wouldn’t be scared going to sleep—then climbed back up and curled on the living room couch—is one of the most powerful in the story. It shows how blind the parents’ love was for their new daughter and how much their son was willing to sacrifice for his new little sister.
If Melissa hadn’t been building Legos with Willie, we probably never would have known that he slept on the sofa almost every night, clutching a stuffed dog.
Road trips were essential. On our monthly trips to and from Dani’s house, Melissa and I had six hours in the car together. We talked about questions we had about the story, approaches to interviewing different people we needed to talk with, scenes we wanted to witness. During the long drive back, we debriefed about the horrors we had learned—and the incredible love and support we had seen—and shared our worries about Dani and her new family.
With the help of a researcher at the Times, Melissa found Dani’s birth mother. I don’t think I would have been brave enough to meet her on my own. Here was a woman—from her mug shot a tall, large woman—who had so severely neglected her own daughter that she had irreparably damaged her. Who had told police she didn’t do anything wrong.
What would she do to two female journalists who showed up on her doorstep?
“I think I should back the car in,” Melissa said. “In case we have to make a quick getaway.”
Melissa knocked. A frowzy woman in a housecoat and boxer shorts opened the door. I told her who we were, why we were there. Amazingly, she invited us inside. Melissa went in last, so the woman couldn’t lock the door behind us.
After we had finished reporting, when we thought we were ready to start writing and editing photos, our editors asked us, “So what do you have for the Web?”
In 21 years of working for daily newspapers, I had never done a multimedia presentation. I don’t even know how to get photos from my phone onto my Facebook page. But Melissa is totally tech-savvy. We didn’t want to bring another video photographer or audio expert into our project. It didn’t feel fair to do that to Dani or her family. So I asked questions and held the microphone. And Melissa did everything else. She shot video, recorded audio, spliced together slides and stills and music. She got help editing the final project, but did 90 percent of the work on her own.
Though I had been skeptical at the beginning—why did we need multimedia anyway?—after seeing Melissa’s footage I realized that there was no way I could describe Dani’s actions—her twirling and staggering, screeching and meltdowns—that would be half as effective as watching what Melissa had captured on film.
We talked about the story every step of the way. What scenes were the most powerful—and why? What themes were emerging? Where was it going to start? Where would the story end?
I thought it should begin when the world first became aware of Danielle, as she was known then. Neighbors had told us that the mother had lived in that house for years but they had never known a child lived there. Until one day when a face appeared in the cracked, dirty window. One neighbor thought it was a ghost. Another believed it was an angel.
Melissa, of course, didn’t have a photo of Dani’s face in that grimy window. But she had a beautiful photo of Dani just before bedtime. Her new dad was lifting her to the window in her pink bedroom, so she could watch the sunset. It was the only photo Melissa had in which Dani is truly smiling.
“I was thinking that might be the closing image,” Melissa said. “It’s sweet and I like the light, and it sort of sums everything up, him holding her up before he tucks her into bed.”
Those window images became our bookends—my beginning, her end.
Journalism, at its best, is collaboration. No single reporter can ask every question. No photographer can capture every scene. Alone, we can never fully absorb or vet or understand what we’re experiencing—at least not enough to have the authority to boil it down succinctly and share it with the world.
We need someone else who has been there, who has witnessed and wondered with us, who can help sort it out enough to explain it and validate our interpretation.
Someone to help us. Someone to push us.
Melissa watches and waits and listens. She is unobtrusive but aggressive when she needs to be. She embraces her subjects from every angle and feels their sorrow as deeply as their joy.
Every time someone asks me about “The Girl in the Window,” they ask how I was able to report this story and process all the emotions it evoked. I tell them, “There’s this photographer … an artist with a writer’s eye …”
Lane DeGregory is a feature writer with the St. Petersburg Times in Florida. For “The Girl in the Window,” she was awarded the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing. Her feature writing was recognized with the 2009 Batten Medal from the American Society of News Editors.