Photographer Interviews

Picture Story: ProPublica’s Pulitzer-Winning Story “Trapped in Gangland”

May 3, 2019

By David Walker

The federal crackdown on MS-13 has reverberated through immigrant communities, trapping people between their fears of gang violence and deportation. ProPublica’s Hannah Dreier recently won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing for her series “Trapped in Gangland,” about how the crackdown has shattered lives on Long Island, New York. The photographs, by Natalie Keyssar, capture an atmosphere of foreboding in the community, and its sense of fear and loss.

“Natalie got things I would never have expected a photographer to go out and find [and] she saw things I didn’t see. I could look at her photos and sort of enlarge my own reporting,” Dreier told PDN.

Between 2016 and 2017, MS-13 murdered 11 immigrant teenagers in Suffolk County, New York, for refusing to join the gang. Several teens were maimed in machete attacks but managed to escape. But because local police cooperate with ICE, victims and their families were often too fearful of deportation to seek help. And when they did, police often dismissed missing teenagers as runaways, and delayed their investigations. Police also mistook teens trying to escape the gangs for gang members, resulting in deportations of innocent teens. “Trapped in Gangland” tells the stories of some of the teens and bereaved families. Dreier and Keyssar also reported a related story for The New York Times Magazine.

Keyssar says “Trapped in Gangland” was one of the most difficult stories she’s ever photographed. “On the one hand, you’re shooting a lot of stuff that’s invisible or impossible access-wise, plus the population you’re dealing with is…terrified of the authorities, they’re terrified of losing their jobs, they’re terrified of gangs.” She adds: “You want to show their struggle, but you also want to make sure you don’t do any harm.”Dreier started work on the project in 2017. At the outset, she asked ProPublica photo editor Jillian Kumagai to assign the photography to Keyssar. Dreier explains that she wanted to work with a Spanish-speaking female photographer, and she was familiar with Keyssar and her extensive work in Latin America.

“We were doing intimate stories about scared young people and grieving mothers, mostly talking to people in their homes, and I think women sometimes can enter that kind of space more easily,” Dreier says. “And I wanted to make things as comfortable for our subjects as possible, starting with speaking to them in their own language.”

Kumagai asked Keyssar to capture a sense of place by photographing certain locations that were central to the story, such as the woods where gang attacks occurred. Kumagai says she also asked Keyssar to convey the idea of absence “as a result of death or absence of personhood in the sense of [not] being safe and secure in your country. I think it pervades the stories and relates to what [subjects] tell about trauma and loss.”

Keyssar estimates she spent a total of a month working on the story over a period of a year starting in Fall 2017. Because her challenges included access and depicting past events, “you start with what you can shoot,” she explains. “I knew this work was going to be a lot about portraits.” She had to find creative ways to photograph people who were too fearful to show their faces.

To win trust, Keyssar spent hours listening to people tell their stories to Dreier. Dreier says Keyssar “was this calm presence in the room” who went for long stretches without lifting her camera, while Dreier asked probing, often painful questions.

“She put people at ease,” Dreier says. “I almost felt like we were playing good cop-bad cop, and she was good cop. She would be talking about whatever reggaetón star they were into, or what they were going to have for dinner.”

That rapport-building “paid huge dividends,” Dreier says. For instance, when they interviewed a teen who had barely survived a machete attack, he eventually offered to show his scars so Keyssar could photograph them. “He took off his shirt and posed in a place where there was more light,” recounts Dreier, who is accustomed to more negotiation with subjects for photographs. “His consent was much more organic and I trusted it more for that reason.”

Keyssar and Dreier worried constantly about the danger people might face for cooperating with journalists, and whether their consent was genuine. Marginalized people are sometimes eager to please, Keyssar explains, adding that her status as a North American journalist “has this power associated with it.” People might be quick to give consent, but later withdraw it, or at least betray reluctance. So Keyssar asked several times. “It’s really important not to grab that first ‘Yes’ and run with it,” she says.

Listening for hours to peoples’ stories influenced her approach to all the photographs, not just the portraits. “That really colored the way I was seeing Long Island in these nondescript suburbs. It really took on a horrific, choked quality for me,” Keyssar explains. “And I think that started to come through in the images.”

For instance, frantic mothers had searched up and down quiet suburban streets in vain for the missing teens. Keyssar captured a sense of foreboding with images of banal-looking houses and suburbs. In the woods where gangs hung out and sometimes lured people to kill them, Keyssar reflected on the stories she had heard and looked for symbolism to convey eeriness.

“I’m thinking about: What’s the last thing these victims saw? I’m looking at the way the wind is moving through the trees and imagining these scenes I heard about in detail.” She adds: “The woods almost became a character… It’s almost this sort of twisted fairy tale, where kids were going in the woods and not coming out.”

Kumagai praises Keyssar for her empathy and fearlessness. “These were stories about police and gang members in active MS-13 territory, and it couldn’t have been photographed if Natalie was daunted by either. She wasn’t,” Kumagai says.

Among the images that stood out for Kumagai was one showing a stand of dead, sun-bleached vegetation set against the dark, empty woods. “I love this [photo] because, to me, it’s about the woods as a resting place…I see it as a picture of a ghost or an unmarked grave,” Kumagai explains.

After the series ran, Keyssar posted on her Instagram one portrait of a gang victim, obscured by a curtain. She wrote, “The story of migration in this country sometimes seems to get repeated until the horrors lose their meaning—but those stories our ours.”

A way to avoid normalizing the horror, Keyssar believes, is for journalists to stay on the story about migration, build a record of [immigrants’] treatment, avoid stereotypes and “not get used to this horrific status quo.” It is also important, she says, to focus on individual cases—to “put faces on statistics and generalizations”—to show that government policies do have consequences for the lives of real people.


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