Inside the Florida Capitol, six black-and-white photos convey the despair of the survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School (MSD) shooting almost two years ago: the student who watched her best friend die next to her; the teacher who was shot in the arm while trying to close the door of her classroom; the parents who learned of their children's deaths from text messages and social media posts long before they were officially notified.
Ian Witlen, a photojournalist and MSD grad, spent 18 months documenting the pain and hopes of the people who lived through the horror of February 14, 2018. He photographed and interviewed more than 75 people, including teachers, students, and relatives of those who were killed.
Witlen asked each of the survivors two questions: What was your personal experience that day? And what would you like to come from all of this? He snapped photos as they responded, capturing the moments when emotion overcame them.
"Some people have tells when they're describing traumatic events," Whitlen tells New Times. "They might touch their face. They might look down. Some people look like they're visibly in pain. Some people cry, break down. It's heartbreaking to see."
Witlen's project, "Anguish in the Aftermath: Examining a Mass Shooting," was exhibited last year at the Coral Springs Museum of Art. This week, some of his photos are on display in the fourth-floor rotunda of the Capitol building in observation of the second anniversary of the shootings. State Rep. Dan Daley, a Democrat whose district includes Coral Springs, invited Witlen to showcase his work.
Friday marks the 2 yr anniversary of the shooting at my alma mater, Marjory Stoneman Douglas.— Dan Daley (@DanDaley) February 10, 2020
I asked @IanWitlenPhoto to bring pieces from his powerful exhibit “Anguish in the Aftermath” to Tallahasee.
Please visit the 4th Floor Rotunda and take time to remember those we lost. pic.twitter.com/Q2CZLFtTSq
Daley says he wanted lawmakers and visitors to see how life-changing and gut-wrenching the shooting was and continues to be for his community.
"It's powerful," says Daley, who's an MSD grad. "And it's profound. This is what people need to see. As far as most of the state and country is concerned, people have moved on. It's in the past. We cried and we moved on. My community has not."
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Witlen recorded and edited each of the interviews to match his portraits, so Capitol visitors can listen to the voices of survivors affected by the tragedy.
"You can hear about this situation on the news. You can read about it," Witlen elaborates. "But when you have to look at a photo that’s slightly larger than life and see the pain in their eyes and hear what they went through, it can completely change your perspective."
Witlen says he hopes he can help viewers understand what the survivors and families have been through.
"And if there's something in their power they can do to keep something like this from happening again — if that's something they can do to make our society a little bit safer — I hope they can take this additional information with them to go make their decisions."