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FEAR Project: Phoenix

December 15th, 2006

Firm and authoritative, the female prison guard said “Sir, my orders are you only take pictures of the fence, not of people.” (at left: Erika outside the prison)

It was dusk, the purple hues colored the landscape, the watch towers, and the razor wire outside the Eyeman Supermax prison.

“I’m sorry,” I said while continuing to shoot. “The man who attacked Erika, here, is behind the wire. She helped put him in prison.”

I was starting to think she was going to physically stop me but, as the team we’d become in our few short hours together, Erika spoke, her light-hearted and care-infused demeanor calming. (at right: the razor wire)

In the world of trauma victims, as media, I am often immediately tagged as exploitive, dangerous, self serving, and callous. However, it is a unique position as a journalist to accompany a survivor of violent crime. Alone, with a camera, so many doors would be closed and hostile but with Erika they swung wide. They grew wider when professionals spoke with her for here was a survivor, a success story, an embodiment of their purpose to serve and protect, to care for, to defend. (at left: at the hotel getting ready for the day)

For Erika this was an opportunity to reflect, to ask questions, to get the “behind the scenes” look at her grueling experience from 1998. It was a purposeful self-indulgence, a catharsis intended to show others that the services are there to help, that “it” can be done. (above: driving endless streets)

In 1998 Erika was kidnapped by her ex-boyfriend. Hog tied in the trunk of her own car on a hot Phoenix night she was alternately choked, gagged, penetrated, and humiliated. She didn’t know if she’d end up dead in the desert as her ex’s moods shifted. At sunrise he stuffed her in a sleeping bag and hauled her into his apartment, dropping her face-first onto concrete slab in the process. There he re-tied her and raped her. Through compliance she managed to calm him; when he fell asleep she untied herself and ran with nothing but a pair of socks and a towel. As she fled he cried out “Don’t do this to me!” (at left: Erika and Shumaker)

During our whirlwind visit we met Detective Shumaker at the Tempe Police Department. When Shumaker came out she held a thank you note from Erika. (at right: Detective Shumaker)

“We only get a few of these,” Shumaker said about the eight year-old note. “We tend to hang onto them.”

Erika remembers an all business detective with hints of care beneath her professional demeanor. Shumaker, Erika recalls, had made an extra effort that day to ensure Erika’s safety and comfort. Here, at the reunion, Erika saw more of the person inside the tough cop and she also had confirmation, as if she needed any, that what she’d been through was tough. (above: Detective Shumaker)

“You’re lucky to be alive,” Shumaker said repeatedly. “You did all the right things. I’m so glad to see you here, see you doing so well.”

Our 36 hours together in Phoenix took us to the scene of Erika’s kidnapping and rape. Like that night in 1998 we drove for hours through endless suburban sprawl. We made portraits in the ER, something that took only two days to get access for as opposed to the eight months it took me in Seattle. There nurses who’d never met Erika hugged her and congratulated her on making it through the ordeal. And, like in a secret society of kindred experience, one of the nurses disclosed her own rape to Erika. (above: the wall of shame, at right: Detective Gissel at the CAFV)

We went to the CASA, a reborn organization that gave Erika all the guidance and resources she needed to navigate her recovery and legal process.

At the Center Against Family Violence (CAFV), a facility housing forensic exam rooms, detectives, counselors, and hundreds of stuffed animals for all the victimized children they see, we saw the wall of shame. There, the mugs of dozens of convicted abusers, some sentenced for life, were tacked to the wall. These were only for the year 2006.

And we saw prosecuting attorney Terry Jennings. Without him Clay would not be serving a 14 year sentence. As a plea deal, Clay was only convicted of one count of rape. In Arizona, each instance of penetration is a count of raped. When he was sentenced Erika thought 14 years was a long time, a harsh sentence for a man she had cared for. Now, halfway through those 14 years, she is realizing how her life has permanently changed. That night of brutality and the fear of being left for dead in the desert was just the start. 14 years, she feels, is nothing compared to what she will live with for the rest of her life. (at right: Erika at the courtroom witness stand)

So there we stood in that very desert with Erika swapping identity changing and other personal security stories with a prison guard. I photographed fence up on fence of razor wire in the fading light, watching armed tower guards watch me through equally long lenses, and listened to our guard tell us just what a hollow tip from her 9mm could do to a man’s torso at 75 yards. (at left: Prosecuting Attorney Terry Jennings)

Clay was on the inside. Erika was outside living a new life–and doing very well, all things considered.

The highway lights flicked by as we drove out of the desert’s darkness to the Phoenix airport. Erika spoke with admiration for the people who helped her and at the opportunity she had, by working with the FEAR Project, to meet them again. And then she thanked me for being committed to the work, for choosing to forfeit a higher income job to have the time to do this work. (at right: prison watch towers in the desert)

With difficulty I thanked her. I tend not to think about the sacrifices I make for the opportunities it gives me; if I did I’d probably have given up long ago. And I feel that my hardship is meager compared to that of every survivor’s story. That a person, like Erika, is willing to share her story to help others is an opportunity I can’t afford to pass. I just hope I, like the system, can do her justice.

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