Journey to the Scene of the Crime: Neil Rough’s Ghostly ‘Bodies Found’ Photos

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Sean Tejaratchi’s book Death Scenes: A Homicide Detective’s Scrapbook, with a forward by Geek Love author Katherine Dunn, is a macabre photo album that features real-life crime scene photos collected by LAPD detective Jack Huddleston when he was on the job from 1921 until the early 1950s. The images are disturbing, but perhaps the most unsettling aspect of the photos are the objects and environments around the bodies. It’s an intimate peek into the victims’ everyday lives — what they wore, where they hung out, where they slept at night.

Toronto-based photographer Neil Rough’s series Bodies Found: Sites, which we first discovered on Art F City, explores a similar strange connection. He photographs the locations where human remains were found and the people and routes he discovers along his journey to those places. Flavorwire recently spoke with Rough about the unsettling real-life inspiration behind Bodies Found and the eerie link between the photos and his new film Myrtle Beach, a documentary portrait of people from the coastal South Carolina city.

Flavorwire: Can you discuss the difference between the Bodies Found: Sites series and the other images of “routes” and people?

Neil Rough: They’re both really part of the same thing — not just the sites, but also the places en route to the sites. With the project, I felt for the first time that I was on this really weird epic road trip. I had a grant, so I was staying in hotels more than I would normally stay in at that point. I started to realize that my lines of travel were intersecting with those of other people’s. I realized those common spaces, a lot of the sites, are dependent upon travel themselves. The fact that these kinds of places exist along the route became something that interested me.

There are things in the routes/portraits section that are direct references to sites. I don’t make it explicit. Especially some of the photos with trucks. There’s a picture of a transfer truck in Utah. You see the white salt flats behind it. It’s along the interstate that goes through Nevada and Utah. That whole area is considered to be kind of a dangerous area. It’s along an area where a lot of people are found or have disappeared. There’s this whole belief that there’s a lot of truck drivers that cross the country, and they’re serial killers. There’s just something about the image of that truck near the red garbage, and the truck has the name “Smith” on it, which is most innocuous name, and then “In God We Trust” written on the side.

I always photograph people a lot. This is the first time I’m really dealing with landscape. I really had to start thinking of the landscape. The only reason I was there to photograph was because there was an actual absence. Some of the portraits were taken in an area where somebody was last seen. There’s a picture of a cadet where he was clearly the same age as a victim related to a corresponding site photo. It was a case in British Columbia where a girl had been killed, her schoolmates had raped, cut up, and burned her. The photo was taken not long after it happened. I realized when I saw him that this kid probably knew her and knew those kids. They’re the same age. It’s a small town. I couldn’t see not including portraits in a way, because to me it’s still sort of about people. I just didn’t want to be direct. Some of these deaths are accidental and random. Someone was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

It’s these interconnected stories, for better or worse.

That’s the only thing I really believe about photographs, for all its truisms. The only truism that I think maybe applies is being in the right place at the right time. So this becomes an inverted connection.

What initially inspired the series, and how to you research the locations?

I wouldn’t photograph every place I would go. Sometimes it would take me a couple of trips to decide how I really wanted to photograph a place. I never really took more than one photograph of any place. One or two max. I was using a 4×5 cam, a view camera. For every five sites I would go to, I might photograph two of them.

There was a series of things that inspired it. Years before I started working on the series, I wanted to get away form my own comfort zone, which was portraiture and walking around waiting for that thing.

After that, long story short, I witnessed a guy’s body being pulled from a river. I didn’t know what was going on. There was all this commotion, all these helicopters. There was intense quiet around the whole scene. There was a gathering around the riverbank watching this. When the actual thing happened, I saw it from my grandparents’ backyard. After, I went back to cooking. I started thinking about the scene on the river where everything was really normal in this really surreal way. But everybody was there to witness a devastating thing. It wasn’t interrupting their lives at all. In fact, people were having normal conversations while this thing was going on. It was really that scene on the river that I wanted to capture, a weird disconnect between tragedy and life kind of just going on. After that, reading the papers and the internet, something would just show up, a headline of some sort. It would strike me in a certain way, so I would save it. I started thinking about the scene that could have been playing out around that. Initially, I thought I would do these images that were slightly fictional and almost imagining a space outside the moment of tragedy, before or after, or just on the other side of it. After a while, I realized I was just going to be very direct about it and deal with the places themselves.

Did your work on Bodies Found inspire your new film Myrtle Beach?

Yes and no, I suppose. I never photographed a murder site at Myrtle Beach. There have been weird correlations with the movie. One man in the movie, who has become a really good friend to me now, his son was found dead in a river just north of Myrtle Beach. They didn’t know it was their son. They just heard there was a body found in the river.

Early on, a lot of [the film] was going to take place in Florida. There was one guy who was almost in the movie, who I saw in the rain one night. I got the camera, walked up to him, and asked if I could photograph him. I ended up not being drawn to him as a photograph. He had this patch over his eye. I hung out with him a few times. There’s a lot of darkness in the movie, but there’s something that always penetrates through the darkness. There was just something about this guy that felt like that wasn’t going to be there. He said, “Google me and find out about me.” I found out that two or three years before, he was home with his mother and grandmother. There were intruders at the door. He got knocked out unconscious, pistol-whipped, as well as his grandmother. His mother was robbed and taken with these 20-somethings. She gave them her bankcards, and I guess they didn’t believe her. They took her to get her to withdraw money. Then she was found dead 30 miles from Daytona Beach up a dirt road. I eventually found the site where she was found, but I didn’t photograph it.

One of the guys in the movie that I still film sometimes was arrested for attempted murder. He ended up being released. He reacted to someone’s provocation. He beat a guy up and almost killed him. It was initially listed in the paper as murder/attempted murder, because they didn’t know if the guy was going to live. The guy was facing a 20-year sentence in Boston for armed robbery. He ended up getting off.

Maybe it was a part of working on Bodies Found that made me a little more sensitive to the energy that some of these people were emitting, but there were definitely some weird correlations.

Click through to see a selection of images from Neil Rough’s Bodies Found series.

©Neil Rough

©Neil Rough

©Neil Rough

©Neil Rough

©Neil Rough

©Neil Rough

©Neil Rough

©Neil Rough

©Neil Rough

©Neil Rough

©Neil Rough

©Neil Rough

©Neil Rough

©Neil Rough

©Neil Rough