It was a very, very pretty morning. Five days before Christmas, I met our police beat reporter, Gus G. Sentementes, at the scene of a homicide in Westport.
The sun glinted off the sides of the downtown skyscrapers, visible to the north. The residential street of tidy attached houses was deserted, except for a few homicide detectives wrapping up their work after the early-morning shooting of an adult male at the corner of Paca Street and Atlantic Avenue.
Wet patches of asphalt and concrete sparkled where workers had hosed down the bloody aftermath of the killing. Yet some six hours later, at least a half-dozen distinctly red bloodstains remained on the street and sidewalk, gleaming in silent reproach as Gus and I examined the scene. We were at this corner because this particular shooting had the distinction of being the 277th homicide of the year, surpassing the total for 2006.
Gus, who always manages to retain his sensitivity and compassion despite a steady diet of violent crimes, told me why these stains had not washed away.
Apparently the victim had been shot in the head. Blood that comes from brain matter or other body organs is more gelatinous and doesn't rinse away as easily, Gus explained matter-of-factly. My finger stopped clicking the camera button while I digested this revolting detail. Hmmm, I thought, the unexpected facts one learns in this job.
Nonetheless, I knelt down closer to the largest of the bloodstains on the sidewalk, intent on documenting this red emblem of death. I concentrated on composing the photo, focusing intently on the center of the stain, in a feeble attempt to make a universal image that might sum up the hundreds of deadly shootings that had taken place in Baltimore that year. When I turned in the opposite direction, the sun caused lens flare in the viewfinder, and when I shifted my camera angle slightly, the rainbow-colored discs of light pointed in a line toward the dark red blotch. A graphic icon for Charm City in 2007. Somehow the lens flare, which can either sweeten an image or become a cliche, seemed altogether appropriate.
Photographing the bloodstains seemed so callous, despite the need for documentation of a scene made newsworthy simply by the number 277. The lens flare, caused by the magic of light and lens optics beyond my control, was an acknowledgment that we can't understand everything, even when it is in focus in front of us.
Later that morning I covered a high school program to counter violence, taught by a woman whose fiance had been murdered. The following day I photographed a mother standing by the cross she had erected on the spot where her son had been shot last summer. The bloodstains were gone, but it too was gleaming, with her fresh tears. This assignment was followed by a remembrance for more tragic deaths, this time for homeless men and women who had died during 2007. As the official homicide count begins for 2008, I wonder what my personal tally will be in the new year as a witness to violence, death, grief, crime, and their root causes of drugs and poverty and senselessness.