In the blink of an eye, Dani, in the arms of her father, can switch from happily building sand castles to running around and throwing a violent fit and her parents need to calm her down. Photo by Melissa Lyttle/St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times.
“Finding an Extraordinary Moment During an Ordinary Ride”
– Melissa Lyttle
“Our Emotional Journey—Traveled Together”
– Lane DeGregoryIt wasn’t long after I started as a photographer at the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times that I knew I wanted to work with Lane DeGregory. We didn’t know each other; in fact, we’d never met; I was assigned to the Tampa bureau, she worked in the main newsroom in St. Pete. Still I felt as though I knew her from reading her, especially one Sunday morning when she described putting her dog, Dakota, down. Tears fell into my cereal bowl as I read her words. Lane always had a special way of revealing the essence of someone’s character by catching subtle details that told so much. I wanted to bring the same power and depth to my visual storytelling.
Soon, I had my chance. I was paired with Lane to tell the story of Lillie, a 14-year-old in foster care, who was pregnant and in need of a family. For about a month we worked as a team on Lillie’s story. When I photographed a moment unfolding, Lane took notes about the dialogue and recorded sensory observations like how things smelled or sounds she heard. So as not to interrupt what was happening, she jotted down questions to ask later. We talked constantly about themes; at times we’d try to boil the story down to just one word. We shared notes about nuances that we picked up in our subjects. With our close collaboration, I felt for the first time as a photographer that I was working with a writer who really wanted to hear what I thought about the story.
We quickly figured out that our approaches to telling stories were strikingly similar. Each of us brought to our work the sensitivity and empathy required in telling someone else’s story. We both recognized that it was critical to build relationships of trust—with each other and with our subjects. Sharing these attributes contributed to the depth of work that we achieved in a short time. We weren’t surprised to find out how well our words and pictures complemented each other. This experience became an entry to what has become an enduring and extraordinary partnership.
These dimensions of our reporting evidently came through in the story the Times published. When Carolyn Eastman, director of communications for the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County, Florida, who had brought Lillie to Lane’s attention, learned of another girl’s horrendous situation, she got in touch with Lane. As they spoke, Eastman let it be known that if they went ahead with telling Danielle’s story, I had to be the photographer. She had observed how we handled ourselves with Lillie and this led her to trust that in our hands Danielle’s life circumstances would not be sensationalized.
Danielle’s mother had left her alone in a room the size of a closet for the first seven years of her life. When discovered, she was emaciated and covered in bug bites and had a swollen diaper leaking down her legs. Not surprisingly she had no ability to socialize or respond to stimulation, nor had she learned to speak, walk or feed herself. Diagnosed with “environmental autism,” Danielle was a feral child.
After Danielle spent a year in hospitals and nursing homes, Bernie and Diane Lierow of Fort Myers Beach adopted her. They call her Dani. Eastman arranged for us to meet the Lierows. She explained that they were uneasy about drawing media attention but also believed that by telling their story other people would be encouraged to adopt special-needs kids.
Eastman and Garet White, Dani’s caseworker, rode with us on our initial three-hour drive to the Lierows’ home and gave us important background information. Once we arrived, they relayed their trust in us to the family as we sat with the Lierows in their living room. Lane spent a lot of time that day talking with Dani’s adoptive parents, at times pressing them for difficult details as she tried to figure out what the story was. They let me hang out with Dani in her room, which gave me the chance to observe her movements, watch for subtle moments, and most importantly, give her the opportunity to grow more comfortable with my presence.
Because we had worked together on Lillie’s story, from the start of this one Lane and I relied on each other in ways that had become instinctive. I relayed quotes or dialogue to her and she described scenes and situations to me so each of us knew what to look for and ask about during our subsequent visits. In all, we made five visits to the Lierows’ home, and during our six-hour roundtrip drives, we debriefed, going over what we had seen, heard and felt. We talked about emerging themes and figured out what elements we needed to tell the story. These road trips became a combination of a therapy office visit and journalism think tank.
After we reported the story for a few months, our editors asked for two things. They wanted us to collect material for an online multimedia presentation and to find Dani’s biological mom and interview her.
It was 2008, and multimedia was in its infancy at our newspaper. It now became our job—one we tackled together—to figure out how best to fit in the demands of collecting audio and video on top of the words and photographs we had thought would be our only way of telling this story. Fortunately, our reporting had been thorough and the bond of trust we had established with Dani and her parents was strong. So we made a concise list of questions to ask for the audio part of the multimedia package. With a rough edit of my photographs, I had a good idea of the ambient sounds we wanted to use with these images. Though we didn’t call it a storyboard, that essentially is what we created. Then we set out to collect the missing audio and video. This approach made the editing process a lot less daunting.
Locating Dani’s biological mom required a lot of on-the-ground reporting. Lane and I began with the police report and ended up, after several dead-ends, with us approaching a doublewide trailer in the middle of nowhere. As we tried to talk with neighbors of Dani’s mom, they seemed visibly scared of her, as though they feared retribution. Before we went to the trailer where Dani’s mom lived, Lane called her editor to tell him where we were and ask him to call the police if he didn’t hear from us in an hour.
We parked and approached the door, terrified of what we might find on the other side. I climbed up the steps and knocked. A woman answered. Lane introduced us and told her we were doing a story on her daughter Danielle and wanted to know if she wanted to talk. “My daughter … have you seen her?” she said. We told her we had, that we had talked to other people about her daughter, and how we wanted to hear her side of the story. She invited us i
n. As we sat at her dining room table and talked, I shot pictures as she became emotional. She gave us court documents, which provided us with incredible amounts of information that we would have never had access to since the case was handled in the juvenile division and was therefore a closed file.
While she and Lane talked, I sifted through the court transcripts and paperwork, which read like a screenplay. What we learned on that day opened a window that allowed us to dig deeper than we thought possible, and together we did.
As our reporting drew to a close, Lane sent me drafts of what she was writing. We talked about structure and decided together on scenes to include in what would one day be published as “The Girl in the Window.” On our way back from interviews, Lane would read me quotes; this helped her to decide which ones she was likely to use. Even though my photo editors at the paper are excellent, Lane’s feedback on my pictures proved to be invaluable; she understood the nuances of the story and the complexity of the issues we were trying to convey. In turn, I gave her prints that she used as visual clues for her writing; she hung dozens of them around her desk to help set the mood and revive memories. As I wrote my captions, Lane was at my side, providing descriptive nuggets and reminding me of quotes that didn’t make the story but fit perfectly with the picture.
With too many stories, photojournalism is treated as an afterthought and handled with a service mentality. Assignments arrive from the newsroom—“Go take a picture of this person doing that”—and the photo department fills the order. At the Times, photographers have opportunities to engage with what the story is—from a visual perspective—and are given creative freedom and time to do their work well. Still, we usually work independently of the writer.
Having worked with Lane, I find it impossible to imagine a writer and photographer approaching a story as emotionally challenging and as complex as this one on her own. During our five-month reporting partnership on “The Girl in the Window,” we bonded as friends, and with our shared commitment and passion for storytelling we pushed each other to become better journalists.
Melissa Lyttle is a photographer at the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times. Her Web site is www.melissalyttle.com. “The Girl in the Window” won a first place award for Best Published Picture Story in the 2009 Best of Photojournalism contest sponsored by the National Press Photographers Association.