Trolley Square gunman Sulejman Talovic was an enigma. From all we can tell, he lived a pretty private, lonely existence. No real friends, didn’t use a computer, etc. So when we found out that he had a girlfriend who like him had immigrated to the United States from Bosnia, we had to find her. He had spent long, late hours on the phone talking with her, we realized this might be the only person who could tell us who he was and what he may have been thinking as he prepared to go on a murderous rampage. Tribune reporter Lisa Rosetta and I flew to Amarillo, Texas. We didn’t even know if anyone was going to talk to us. This whole trip could be for nothing. But we’ve got a few addresses and a couple phone numbers gathered through some impressive reporting. We met up with our translator and started searching. The translator helped us narrow it down to the most likely address, but no one was home. Since we’re pretty exhausted from the early flight, we decided to call it a night. The translator agreed to make some phone calls that evening to try and set something up and we hit a local Texas steakhouse so we could say we tried the local cuisine. After dinner we decided, on a whim, to drive by the girlfriend’s house again. They were home, but we didn’t have all of our equipment, or the translator. We called the translator and agreed to meet back at the house in 15 minutes. By the time we got back with cameras, notepads and recorders, our translator was already inside with the girl and her mother (they have asked, for their privacy, that we not name them beyond the girl’s name, Monika). While we had been unsure how we would be received, they welcomed us into their home to talk. It was a little tense at first. Especially on the photography side. I brought my cameras in, but made sure everything was in my bag. I didn’t want their first impression of us to be the cameras. And when they told us that they didn’t want their names published that pretty much ruled out photographs. I decided to just sit back and listen to the interview for a while. I planned on explaining that I could make photographs of the girl where she would be unidentifiable, but maybe if they talked for a while they would warm up to us. The interview was very intense. At first Monika seemed a little aloof, like a normal teenager. While she was talking, her mother would interject a comment to her in Bosnian, and the girl would retort right back. But soon enough she opened up. While this girl had never met Sulejman, or even seen a picture of him, they had spent a lot of time talking on the phone during the 16 days leading up to the shooting. These were long conversations that often lasted into the early hours of the morning. Monika started to tell us about the last phone call they had, where Sulejman hinted that something “great” was about to happen to him and that she was going to be angry with him. And Monika just broke down into tears and put her hands over her face. She was devastated. And so was I. Here was this emotional moment and couldn’t shoot it – my cameras were still in the bag. But you have to remember that at this point, it was critical that we get this interview. Pulling out a camera while things were still sensitive could have blown the whole thing. Monika’s mother told us that she never talked about her experiences during the war in Bosnia, and then proceeded to show us the scars on her legs from when she was hit by a grenade (meaning a mortar shell). She told how her husband was taken away to a camp where he was held for a year. She told how she was alone with her two children, and how men threatened to cut off her daughter’s head. She told how men put out their cigarettes on her 6-month-old baby’s neck. I had heard a lot of similar stories from the wars in Yugoslavia. After a trip to the Balkans in 2000, I read everything I could get my hands on. But hearing it in person is always more harrowing that you can imagine. Finally Lisa had asked about every question she could think of, some of them twice. I brought up the idea of taking some photographs, mentioning that if they didn’t want us identifying them, there were still pictures we could do that wouldn’t reveal who Monika was. But by this time they had warmed up to us, and said it didn’t matter if I photographed her face. Since she mostly talked to Sulejman in her bedroom, I suggested she show us her bedroom, and we could take a photo in there. Often a person’s room is a great visual reference of their life. It was so dark that I had to set up a couple of strobes, which I positioned to bounce off the curtains and walls for some soft, even light. While I was doing this, the girl sat on the bed and began talking with Lisa.
She talked about school and her friends in Amarillo. The stories started rushing out, and we were astonished at the level of violence she had been exposed to. She talked about a girlfriend at school getting shot right next to her, the girl’s brains spattering onto Monika’s clothes. And more. Through all of these stories, she was in tears, and seemed to completely tune me out. Even so, I put my cameras on single-shot and took selected frames here and there. Especially with the strobes lighting the room, I was careful to only fire when it was a decisive moment.
She then talked about Sulejman and their final phone call. She was very emotional now, and after a few more photographs I realized we were to the point that I needed to stop photographing. She started to say things to Lisa that were very personal. It was time for me to go. This had become a very private moment. I picked up my equipment and left the room, leaving them to talk alone. As I came back into the front room where the girl’s mother was, I looked over the numerous photographs in small frames all over the room. A lot of them were from Bosnia in the ‘90s. Her wedding photo was there, as well as photos of family. Men with that Bosnian haircut that I can’t describe in words, and their leather jackets and cigarettes. Bosnian women in beautiful dresses with their hair covered. At that moment I felt everything welling up inside me. As I took in the photos of these people in their times of happiness, all the stories of the evil that overtook them came over me like a wave and I felt so sad. I’m sure part of it was also watching Monika break down in her emotions. I had to quickly sit down and focus or I was going to lose it. Finally the time was over. In tears, Monika told us how she’ll never again find a friend like she had in Sulejman. How she’ll never find another boy who will stay up all night on the phone with her, hanging up at 4 a.m. to catch a mere hour of sleep before he goes to work at 5. She told us that she goes to bed every night with her phone on her pillow, waiting for it to ring, for him to call. But nobody ever calls anymore.
Mike Terry: At work Chuck always has a sort of maxim he has reminded me of while I have been learning. “You are a person first and a journalist second.” It seems really basic but it is so easy to be desensitized and detached. It was a good story and your post was the story of the photos that rounded everything off. Stuff like this is invaluable to us younger folks who are still figuring this industry out. Well done and see you around.
andrea morales: Thanks for posting this. I found your blog through a series of links and am very happy I did. I’m just starting in this career, so finding insight on this level is always a gift. Thanks for keepin’ it real.