Behind the Scenes of Lost and Found by Frank Lovece
by Frank Lovece
Rating: 10 / 10Photographer Matthew Jordan Smith and journalist Frank Lovece teamed to produce Lost and Found , a photojournalistic book about the families of abducted children. What is it like to photograph and to speak with parents who have been through the worst imaginable? As the author relates, it's not what you'd expect.
I'm on the phone with the White House, which despite what, say, my parents might think is not something I do every day. But this is July 27, 2006, and America's Most Wanted host John Walsh – father of Adam Walsh, whose abduction 25 years ago helped kick-start a missing-children's movement – is joining other parents in the Rose Garden for the signing of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act. The law will, among other things, create a national sex-offender registry from the patchwork of state versions.
This is worlds away, as I learned from writing Lost and Found, from how law-enforcement even within my lifetime used to view missing kids. Before AMBER Alerts and "Have You Seen Me" milk cartons, the authorities in more instances than you'd imagine told parents they had to wait 24 hours before filing a report. Or that their child "must've just run away."
In that environment, Walsh and others helped found the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, the federally mandated, non-profit organization that helps families and law-enforcement in the search and, hopefully, safe recovery of missing children – and offers support should the horrific alternative occur.
The National Center offered another kind of support when publishing executive Richard Rabinowitz of American Photo magazine teamed with Microsoft to publish a book spotlighting the organization's work and the role of photography in it. Matthew Jordan Smith, a world-class photographer best known for fashion shoots and as the portrait photographer of stars like as Vanessa L. Williams and Michael Jordan, volunteered to take on the project, which involved going around the country to shoot portraits of affected families – from famous cases like that of Elizabeth Smart to many others whose stories did not reap national attention. An initial writer he was paired with did three or four interviews, then had to leave. I was called in.
I've parachuted into such positions before; during the years I wrote for Entertainment Weekly, my editor's nickname for me was "the Marines." And having been the founding Web editor for American Photo's sister 'zine, Popular Photography, I was a logical choice even though I write mostly about media and entertainment. But just as Matthew wanted to step outside the glitz of celebrity photography and fashion campaigns, I likewise saw the chance to do something closer to why people get into journalism in the first place. Here was a chance to take a story parents have heard so often that it can sometimes become background noise, and to tell it in a way that might make them see it fresh. I'd be working for a flat fee and travel reimbursement only, with proceeds from the book earmarked to help the National Center.
So suddenly I'm on a plane to Washington, D.C., having only "met" Matthew by telephone a couple of days before. I'd gone to his Web site; it's pretty damn impressive. So was Matthew on the phone, his voice soothing yet with an oddly childlike lilt. I can't remember if he'd been to my own site or if Rich– the project's prime mover and, as far as Matthew and I are concerned, the patron saint of photographers – had filled him in, but he sounded as happy and relieved to work with me as I with him.
We met Joann Donnellen, the National Center's media rep, at the organization's red-brick headquarters off a picturesque retail avenue in Alexandria, Va. My first interview was with Tammy Brannen-Graybill, whose daughter Melissa was abducted and presumably killed in 1989 by a sleazeball groundskeeper at their apartment complex, who lured the little girl out from a Christmas party. Melissa was never recovered, and so the snake got away with a 50-year sentence three years later for "abduction with intent to defile," and with standard administration reduction be out in 2018.
I sat in a cubicle with Tammy in the Forensic Imaging room. In the background, I could hear Matthew and Joann bustling, giving us space but concerned about how this delicate first interview would go.
Now, I'm a parent myself, of two boys, Erik and Vincent, to whom I would dedicate my portion of the book. But even if I hadn't been, I still could have empathized with Tammy and done what you always have to do whether you're interviewing a mother whose child had disappeared or Robin Williams pushing a new movie: You look at them and forget about all the baggage. You look at them as simply another human being, one who just got luckier or unluckier than you. And then, if you have a curious mind and you did your homework, you talk to them. That's all. You talk and listen, because they are going to be fascinating, and you're going to feel privileged that they're speaking with you, just you, and that you're able to ask all the things you've wanted to know. This presupposes, of course, that you did deep research first, because the more you know about something, the more you want to know.
Other journalists have their own ways of interviewing, but that's mine and I think it's served my readers and me well for the twenty-mumbledy years I've been doing this. And I could practically hear the various parties around me breathe a sigh of relief as Tammy opened up to me. I knew my part of this book had to be the real thing, not just feel-good pap, and I asked questions about things and events that I knew had to be hard for her to relive. At one point, she became teary; I gave her a little time, and then offered her some Tic Tac mints I had in my jacket. That's right, Tic Tacs. And you'd be surprised at how anything, even some silly little candy, can become a solid rock for someone to grasp – the sheer ordinariness can bring a person back to earth and actually, oddly, make them feel better.
By the end of he interview, I felt as if I had an honest understanding of what Tammy had endured. Not the emotions; God, no. I could only get a glimmer of a tragedy I don't know how I could have gotten through myself. But she had spoken with candor and feeling, and I felt satisfied about both the literal truth and the emotional truth. Later would come the job of transcribing the tape, and choosing the words that would tell other parents, in encapsulated form, what this fellow human being like them had gone through. Matthew and I would later decide, after a few more interviews, that the best way to communicate to our readers would be with a few paragraphs of background followed by long, verbatim chunks of our subjects' stories, in their own words.
Every parent I know who has read Lost and Found and seen Matthew's haunting yet hopeful portraits has told me it makes them think about their children in a new way. That's exactly how it should be, and it's gratifying to no end to feel you did something good, something that might affect a family for the better.
"It's a great, great book, absolutely," Walsh is saying to me now, over the phone, back in the present. "I think that book, Lost and Found, is a passionate statement about the victims, it's a photographic journey, and it's something I think all parents should probably take a look at. It bothers me when people say, 'It can't happen to me,' and you look in that book and you see it's happened across all socioeconomic lines. It happens in the ghetto, it happens in Beverly Hills."
Matthew gives his own feelings about his work in the Introduction of Lost and Found. The book, all proceeds of which go to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, is available exclusively from Wal-Mart at this link, for under twenty bucks. You can preview it with a slide show of some of Matthew's photographs at this page of the National Center's website.
Following are some photographs I took of Matthew at work shortly afterward in nearby Spotsylvania County, Va., where we met Patti and Ron Lisk. Here is their story, from their page in the book:
The Ladybug and the Bear
The school bus dropped 15-year-old Kristin Lisk and her 12-year-old sister, Kati, at the end of their home’s long driveway in wooded Spotsylvania County, Virginia, on May 1, 1997. Their parents, Ron and Patti, returned from work shortly thereafter. In the interim, a sociopathic predator identified years later as Richard Marc Evonitz had struck. Five days later, highway workers tragically found the girls’ bodies snagged on a tree stump in the South Anna River, 40 miles away.
The sheriff’s office said forensic evidence linked these murders with that of another county youngster, 16-year-old Sofia Silva [profiled elsewhere in the book], who'd been abducted the year before. But then the trail went cold until 2002 – when Cathy Nahirny, an analyst with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, and Charles Pickett, its Lisk-Silva case manager [both interviewed elsewhere in the book] connected crucial bits of new information that identified Evonitz as prime suspect. A serial rapist/murderer who'd fooled family and friends for years, Evonitz killed himself when cornered by police near Sarasota, Fla.
Photographer Ron and nursing instructor Patti – whose license plate reads SCHWOOP, the sound she playfully imagines a soul makes when taken up by the Rapture – have since adopted two Romanian orphans, sisters Suli and Karli.
Patti Lisk: I think our faith in God got us through it. God has an ultimate plan for your life. I really don’t want this part of the plan, to be honest. I have some questions to ask when I get there.
Ron Lisk: There’s a whole series of things you keep on reliving, and I’ve got to come to peace with that. I’m only probably about 80 percent there. Every now and then I feel, Oh, if I were home or if I had done something different, that this wouldn’t have happened. And even though all the investigators told me, “Ron, if it wasn’t that day it would have been another,” it’s very hard to come to grips with it. Before this happened, I wasn’t that sensitive to what’s really out there. I’m very sensitive now. Every time I hear about something like that on the TV, it just tears me up horribly. It doesn’t have to be an abduction. It can be about [children with a] bad family life, exposure to drugs, broken home, trouble in school.
Parts of that calendar time I don’t really remember. I mean, you ask what happened? Got me. I just don’t remember. I was just reacting back then. We got several cards, and I didn’t read but a fraction because it was so painful. It wasn’t that I was trying to be unappreciative or disrespectful. That’s the part that makes it hard: You’d like to show appreciation, but there’s nothing left in you. You’re just trying to survive.
PL: [Adoption] was a really hard decision to make. Y’know, the Bible tells us not to look for signs per se, but I thought I’d be really bold and pray that I get a sign from God that I should do this – so I should know without a shadow of a doubt that this is what I should do. [By the end of the second trip to Romania to meet Suli and Karli,] it’s almost time to leave for the airport, and I’m a basket case. I’m praying, “God, y’know, I wanted a sign, I wanted to feel at peace about this, and I really don’t.” So the translator comes to get us and we get in the car and he says, “Oh, Patti, today is Mother’s Day in Romania.” I’m like, Great. He says, “I got this for you.” [Patti shows two handmade keepsakes – a plush ladybug and a plush teddy-bear face, each with candy-cane-colored strings]. My Kristin’s very favorite thing in the world was ladybugs, and Kati’s favorite thing was teddy bears. So he says, “I got these for you,” and he put both of these little guys in my hand. I couldn’t believe it. I thought, Oh my God! What is the likelihood of him giving me these two things?
RL: When you see things like that, when you encounter those, you gotta believe that there is a God.