Editor’s Note: In the Capitol building in Tallahassee, the Fourth Floor Rotunda is where state lawmakers enter their chambers every time they vote on the laws that affect Floridians.
All this week in the space between the House and Senate chambers, six portraits are on display — the faces of people affected by the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, which happened two years ago Friday in Parkland.
Democratic state Rep. Dan Daley of Sunrise, a Stoneman Douglas alum, approached photographer Ian Witlen to bring some of his work to the Capitol to highlight the continued impact that the event has on the Parkland, Coral Springs and education communities.
The photos are a part of a larger exhibit called "Anguish In The Aftermath: Examining A Mass Shooting," which last fall WLRN visited at the Coral Springs Museum of Art. We’re bringing you that story again on our airwaves.
Originally published Sept. 18, 2019:
Teachers, students, and families from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School don't want people to forget how their lives were changed when a shooting claimed 17 lives on campus a year and a half ago.
So they have been telling their stories to a former student who has collected them for a new art exhibition: ‘Anguish In The Aftermath: Examining A Mass Shooting.’
The project, which was on display last fall at Coral Springs Museum of Art, aims to memorialize survivors’ stories through photography and recordings of firsthand accounts from that day.
In a multi-room gallery, photographer Ian Witlen points to photos of faces. Faces of students and former students, teachers. And more.
“It varies,” Witlen said. “You'll see some walls are grouped as students some are grouped as teachers and some are mixed. And then, as you get to the end, there's some of the families of the victims."
All of them have been affected by the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Witlen was affected, too. He graduated from Stoneman Douglas back in 2001 and covered the shooting as a photojournalist on assignment that day.
Fifty one of his portraits were displayed at the Coral Springs Museum of Art. They’re giant photographs - more than 2 feet by 3 feet - and all in black and white. The way they are framed in glass, opposite one other creates a mirrored effect. You can see the faces of one survivor when you look at another.
“It kind of shows the interconnectedness of everyone," he said.
The photos are all candid. Whether it's looking away or wiping a tear, the faces aren't just sitting posed and pretty. Witlen said, there's a reason for that.
“Going back to Columbine, what I've seen in history books are portraits of people, beautifully done, beautifully lit - don't get me wrong. But they're more along the lines of headshot. Posed photo. I never really connected with that,” he said. “I don't know how other people feel, but when you think of history and you really want to connect with something, it's something that’s raw and visceral."
Emotion is what Witlen wanted to show. Not any pro or anti statements about the second amendment - even though he knows some people will experience it that way.
“The project is completely a-political,” he said. “What they have to say, and what they've been through - I want people to be able to see and get back to the matter at hand - how this affects people in our society. And to me, it's so incredibly powerful to think about what's going through a person's mind in that moment… everyone is completely different.”
To capture how surviving a mass shooting really affects different people, Witlen asked everyone who sat to talk to him the same two questions:
"Please tell me your personal experience on February 14th 2018 and then, what would you like to see come from this?"
Witlen recorded their answers, and as you move through the exhibit, you can hear each person tell you - in their own words.
Like Diana Haneski, the media specialist at the Stoneman Douglas library.
Sep 19, 2019 at 1:08pm PDT
In her photo, she's looking away from the camera, and down. Whatever she had been saying - the photo was taken while she stopped. She held her breath.
Next to her picture, Haneski's story pours out of a handheld speaker. On the day of the shooting, she kept students in an equipment room in the back of the library. In the exhibit she recalls:
“We got 55 kids in there and 5 adults. It was 5 adults and 55 students, which seems like such a big number. We were all on the floor, hiding behind carts and things,” she said. “Because of the radio, I started hearing that they were looking for a shooter. Which, you know, put us in a fight-or-flight mode in a place we couldn't do either…”
Whining in the background of the audio, you can even hear the school's therapy dog, River, who lives with Haneski now. When she had her portrait taken by Witlen - River came along. And when Haneski came back to the museum to see the exhibit for the first time, River came too.
“Oh wow...I'm holding on to that air and you can see it right there in my cheek, and it's amazing that you captured that,” Haneski told Witlen.
“You had taken in a breath, and you just, you weren't letting it out," he said to her.
Haneski said, it's ironic that she was holding her breath as she was remembering what had happened. Now, breathing is a big part of her healing.
"This is basically how I've gotten through everything, by breathing,” she said. “We do these meditations… like, breathe in love, breathe out peace. But I feel very hopeful because, you know, I feel like I look different now than then. I want more joy."
Portrait to portrait, the healing process looks different for everyone, a year and a half later. You see shock, anger, sadness and signs of strength.
There's one image with a young man almost covering his face with his hand. His eyes are closed, and he's wiping away a tear.
Spencer Blum graduated last year. He was a junior when the shooting happened.
In the exhibit, you hear Blum recount some of the details from that day - like what was on the radio on his drive home from the school.
"And as we're in the car with my step-dad, my sister and my sister's friends. We hear Wolf Blitzer saying 'There was a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida - we're letting you know more news,” you can hear Blum say. “And then I remember as the day kept going on, the number of people who were dead continued to rise.”
After he safely evacuated campus, Blum learned one of his friends, Nicholas Dworet, was among those killed.
Blum said, his experience telling Witlen his story was a cathartic one. He’s taken his experiences with him as he’s embarked on college. Now, he’s a freshman at the University of South Florida, in Tampa.
Witlen emailed Blum the digital version of his portrait featured in the exhibit.
"It conveyed in that one photograph, so much power and emotion and feeling,” Blum said. “That's really what's so great about this project, is it one, allowed people to heal, but it's also allowing people who also might want to understand a bit more about what we went through... to come in and hear how we felt. Then, kind of get a better understanding of difficult it is to really heal."
And Blum said there are plenty of people outside of Parkland who need reminding that healing is an ongoing process after a mass shooting.
“People never cease to amaze me. And that is both in a good way and in a bad way. I cannot tell you how many people in the past have felt obligated or compelled to randomly give us their opinions,” he said. “You know, when people can go in and they can see this, it can give them a better perspective of at least - what we experienced."
Photographer Ian Witlen wants this exhibit to be an educational tool to offer up that perspective. After Coral Springs, the exhibit will travel around South Florida first. Then, Witlen hopes it can reach other communities recovering from mass shootings of their own, like El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio.
He said he will keep taking photos of Stoneman Douglas survivors in his hometown.
“There's people who aren't ready to speak yet. There's people that two years from now, might be ready to speak," Witlen said. "And I'm happy to talk to them then."