Serial killing became a media spectacle at the turn of the nineteenth century when the prototypical serial killer, Jack the Ripper, emerged. And, with (him), the stereotype of the serial killer was formed as a white male sadistic performance artist, although such criminals are not all white, all male, nor their victims all female. The FBI defines serial murder as involving an offender associated with the killing of at least three victims, with a cooling off period in between.
When put into the larger context of crime in the United States, serial murders are extremely rare; even so, they shock the nation and grip our attention. This fascination is in part due to how these murderers have an uncanny knack for blending in to their community, which leads to the stereotypical response from individuals who knew the murderer, “He seemed like such a normal person.”
Many of the most notorious serial murderers are either from Washington State or were active there, including the nation’s most prolific (Gary Ridgeway, known as the Green River Killer) and the most famous (Ted Bundy) – along with more than 40 others. The landscape of the West allows a killer to move easily between urban and rural areas and has many wilderness areas where bodies can be disposed of in order to make them difficult to find. Law enforcement agencies call these locations “dump sites.”
Due to photography’s inherent affinity with investigative thought and evidence, criminology was one of the first fields to systematically employ photography. The images in Unmarked offer a spectral, haunted kind of evidence of the sites’ historical uses, and they rely explicitly on a spiritual experience of the place to mark the destruction of a life and commemorate the victim and the site’s use. In these images, there are no direct traces of the dead who were abandoned at these sites. These images are intended to read as having a “psychic weight” or gravitas. They avoid the derivative pathos of sites of tragedy and clichés of prefabricated sentimentality.
Disposal at these dump sites followed shortly after the victims were pushed to inconceivable limits of experience. These images address the nature of experience, the human capacity to commit evil, and society’s fascination with death as a spectacle by delivering deliberate visual dead ends that lure the viewers’ gaze without delivering knowledge, information, or meaning. After an ineffable suffering and an undignified death, victims were disposed of at these sites as if garbage, only to be accidentally discovered later.
As a latecomer who has visited these sites, months or years after the event and the associated media coverage, one is immediately struck by the absence of spectacle, the beauty of the sites and their silence and stillness. These images are intended to fill the black hole in memory left by the loss of the victims.
Stephen Chalmers has worked as a Lead Treatment Counselor to Severely Emotionally Disturbed children, worked as an Emergency Medical Technician, and taught gang children photography – informing his projects which deal with issues of loss. Chalmers has taught many workshops in alternative photographic processes and digital imaging, and been a visiting artist at numerous colleges and universities. He has also been a contributor to five books, and has been in group and solo exhibitions throughout the US and also in Australia, Ireland, British Columbia, Thailand, England, South Africa, and China. Stephen Chalmers earned his MFA in Cinema and Photography from Southern Illinois University, was the NW Regional Chair for the Society for Photographic Education for two terms, was professor of Photography and Digital Media in the state of Washington for eight years and is currently a professor of Photography at Youngstown State University in Ohio. The work of Stephen Chalmers is in several collections including the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Light Work, Polaroid, and the Getty Research Institute and has been covered extensively by international media including NPR, Huffington Post, and the Daily Mail (UK). Selections from his projects and more biographical information can be seen at www.stephechalmers.com.
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