Gauzy southwestern skies, empty suburban streets, and generic tract houses aren’t images typically associated with a violent crime spree, but when photographer Jesse Rieser was assigned to document the impact of a serial killer on Maryvale, a neighborhood in West Phoenix, he couldn’t ignore the surreal contrast of blazing bright light in an area grappling with devastating misfortune.
“This work comes from a place of my psychological response of first visiting the neighborhoods under the pretense of tragedy,” Rieser tells Co.Design about his series, Stalking a Serial Killer, by email. “The harsh Arizona sun became part of the experience when dealing with such a dark and tragic subject.”
Between August 2015 and July 2016, a serial killer murdered nine people in Maryvale. (There were 12 shootings in all, but a few victims survived.) There was no discernible pattern between the victims, who were all shot at night, often walking to their cars or houses. The suspected killer, 23-year-old Aaron Saucedo–drove around the neighborhood in his BMW and picked his victims at random.
Until last month, when police arrested the suspected shooter, there had been few leads and little progress in the investigation. For nearly two years, the neighborhood’s residents–predominately low-income African-American and Latino individuals and families, many of whom are immigrants–had been living in constant fear that they, or their loved ones, could become the next victims of a senseless act of gun violence.
In October 2016, Rieser received an assignment from Society, a French magazine, to document the killer’s impact on the community, which yielded Stalking a Serial Killer, a series of photographs and quotes that, at first glance, tell a specific story about how a serial killer affected an entire community’s psyche. But the series also reveals the tangled, interlinked social challenges facing the United States in general.
“This story was to serve as a metaphor for issues plaguing American policy and politics–a lack of immigration reform, racial inequity, a shrinking middle class, community policing dysfunction, a lack of mental health care, and quotidian gun violence,” he says.
When Rieser and reporter Emmanuelle Andreani-Facchin visited Phoenix, the killer was still at large. He visited the streets and locations where the murders occurred, but didn’t necessarily include those specific sites in the series–it was more about capturing slices of the entire neighborhood since everyone in the community was impacted by the shootings. Because Rieser avoids the familiar language of crime photography–gruesome shots of crime scenes, police tape, crying and/or fearful faces–the series becomes even more haunting.
“You couldn’t help but to feel a sense of dystopia, revealing a failed suburban state–years of crime, gang and drug violence preceded the killings,” Rieser says. “I am always striving to make work that goes beyond the surface and engages on a psychological level.”
Meanwhile, Andreani-Facchin spoke to people in the neighborhood to hear their perspective about the killings. Anonymous quotes taken from those interviews, which are interspersed throughout the series, speak to police distrust, the failure of the American Dream, and speculation about why the murders were taking place. What’s especially worrisome is how immigration policy potentially impacted the investigation. For example, some people told Andreani-Facchin that their neighbors knew who the killer was, but were to scared to tell police because of SB 1070, the controversial 2010 bill that mandated people to have paperwork that verifies their immigration status on them at all times.
Rieser hopes the series helps people understand the many layers of racial inequity that exist in America today, but also how their own communities aren’t so dissimilar to Maryvale when you zoom out. “[You] can find parallels with Flint, Michigan’s water crisis and how if that happened in a white affluent neighborhood, the issue would have been resolved much faster,” he says. “Yes, the neighborhood is poor, but it’s one with pride–a pride you can find all across America no matter the communities racial or economic distinction.”