Freeing the innocent

We had just placed our lunch orders at an upscale restaurant in downtown Joliet when the call came. What was expected to take most of the day ended up taking only about an hour. We were on our way to watch a wrongfully convicted man be freed from prison after nearly three decades.

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I accompanied the Springfield-based Illinois Innocence Project on Feb. 11 to see their client, Christopher Abernathy, set free. I’ve written about the group extensively, becoming intimately aware by osmosis of the gaping holes in the justice system which allow innocent people to be imprisoned. IIP has seen several victories throughout their existence, and they’re applying what they’ve learned to help improve the system.

Abernathy was accused on false testimony of the gruesome rape and murder of a young girl he knew. There was no physical evidence against him. His freedom finally came after IIP arranged DNA testing on several items of evidence in the case, which proved he was not the killer.

Back at the restaurant, the waiter rushed to the kitchen to reroute our food from plates into plastic to-go boxes, and we promptly piled into the van, wolfing down our food as the driver sped through the city. We pulled up to Stateville Correctional Center beneath the imposing 30-foot-high concrete walls and walked to the lobby. The howling wind made what would otherwise have been a pleasant day almost unbearably cold, but I stood with the other photographers in the parking lot outside the lobby door. A few minutes later, Abernathy walked out, wearing only a few thin shirts to protect him from the wind. He was in such pain from a shoulder injury that he had to cradle his bad arm with his good one, so he wasn’t in any shape to hold a press conference.

Accompanied by his family, his legal team and the private investigator who kept his case alive for eight years, Abernathy walked to a waiting car and waited to be driven away from the only life he’d known for more than 29 years. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to be cut off from the world for that long, then suddenly be thrust into the society and expected to live a normal life. The unfamiliarity, fear, isolation and loss of identity (even if for the better) would be overwhelming.  Luckily for him, he has a dedicated team of supporters who will move heaven and earth to help him. Indeed, they already have.

Read more about the case here.


Rooting out racism with the Dominican Sisters

“We could get rid of all the overt bigots who really do harbor racial hatred,” Dias said, “and we would still have a problem.”

If the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and countless other black men at the hands of police have collectively had any positive outcome, it has been that America is talking about race at what appears to be a deeper level than I’ve ever seen in my 30 short years. (Thanks in major part to the growth of prominent African-American voices like Ta-Nehisi Coates in the media.) If nothing else, it has made a lot more white people aware that the system we have doesn’t work for black people, and that’s a problem.

People like the (mostly white) Dominican Sisters of Springfield recognized the problem awhile ago and are working to fix it within their institution, with the help of African-American allies whose trust they have earned. I wrote about the Dominican Sisters’ effort for this week’s cover story here. I’m proud of how it turned out – both the writing and the photos I took.

SDART co-coordinators Leroy Jordan (front) and Sister Marcelline Koch (back).

“…[H]ow people have been treated and still are treated is totally against what God made us to be and what God calls us to be,” she said. “I think Jesus came to really show us how God wants his love to be operative in our world, and racism is the antithesis of that love. If I embrace racism and racist practices, I can in no way square that with who I am called to be.”

This is the kind of work that will need to happen all over the nation if we ever want to definitively deal with the divide between black and white people in America. Until that intentional, genuine effort happens, we can expect more of the same tension, tragedy and fear.

SCODR co-chairman Kenley Wade
SCODR co-chairman Kenley Wade

These folks are doing groundbreaking work with the help of Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training, and it makes me proud of Springfield to know there is an appetite for this work here, not just in the black community, but among white leadership, as well.

Proximity to power

Sometimes I take for granted just how lucky reporters are. We often get to stand next to people with vast amounts of power and confront them with demanding, penetrating questions. In light of that, it’s sometimes difficult to not delude myself by thinking that I’m important because of my proximity to power or because I have the privilege of being somewhat defiant toward powerful people. I think proximity to power tends to falsely feed one’s ego.

That notion was hammered home to me on Monday at the inauguration ceremony for Illinois’ constitutional officers. As a press photographer, I had the privilege of standing inside the ropes, right at the foot of the stage, less than 20 feet from the most powerful people in the state. The new governor, Bruce Rauner, is a multi-millionaire with potential to do who knows what with his new powers, and here I am allowed to stroll right up to him and demand he talk to me. (Anyone who has watched Rauner with the press knows he doesn’t always comply with such demands, of course.)

Bruce Rauner

I like the photo above because it reminds me that even the most powerful people are still just people, with the same fears, problems, flaws and goofy facial expressions as the rest of us. Luckily, I know where my real value comes from, and it has nothing to do with whom I get to stand near.

A moment’s rest

The hummingbird’s heart beats more than 1,200 times per minute while flying. At rest, it’s closer to 250 beats per minute, which is still ridiculously fast considering that the human heart beats about 200 times per minute during intense exercise.

I rarely see hummingbirds rest, but a few years ago, I saw one preening itself on a twig during a beautiful summer evening. Luckily, I had my camera with me, and this little guy wasn’t afraid of me at all. The result is my favorite photo I’ve ever taken.

Ruby throated hummingbird

The joy of flowers (and bugs!)

Everyone who has ever held a camera has taken a photo of a flower. It’s pretty much required. The natural beauty of flowers (and the fact that they rarely move) makes them a perfect subject for photography. To me, flowers are a genuine expression of the joy and majesty of creation. So of course I have to share my flower photos…

This is the pistil of a hollyhock flower. I think it looks more like a sea anemone. Note the little balls of pollen (I think…) on the stamen (again, I think…).


Hollyhocks are similar to sunflowers in that they’re tall and happy plants that attract a lot of bugs. I love bugs.

Here’s one in flight, about to visit a sunflower.


On a different sunflower, I found this guy gal rooting around for pollen.

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The white lily is less exuberant than a sunflower, but it compensates with simple elegance. Here, you can see bits of pollen on the stigma – that tall, bulbous thing in the middle.


Here’s a close-up of the pollen from the stamen. I think it looks like bits of rust.


Seeing the intricacy and detail of something we deem “common” reminds me that anything can be beautiful at the right scale.

Blagojevich’s last stand

It was six years ago that former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich was arrested at his home on federal corruption charges. While looking through some old photos from the Illinois State Capitol, I found some I took during Blagojevich’s impeachment trial in the Illinois Senate. It was a surreal experience, seeing someone who held so much power fighting for his life.

As Blagojevich approached the stand to deliver his speech about why he shouldn’t be impeached, he glanced toward the press box on the Senate floor. His lips were pursed and his eyes seemed to acknowledge his fate. For a brief second, this big-talking hotshot seemed like a normal person.


However, the minute he began his speech, he was back to his usual arrogance. Several times, he looked directly at the special prosecutor, who sat only a few yards in front of him, as if daring the prosecutor to face him directly.

_MG_2166Blagojevich is in a federal prison in Colorado now. The Senate voted to impeach him that day, and a federal jury later convicted him of corruption.  Even though he’s been out of power for six years, his legacy of mismanagement is still alive in Illinois. Looking back now, I don’t feel sorry for him. He bought the ticket, and now he’s taking the ride.

Broccoli and etymology – a delicious dish

This is what a broccoli floret looks like when it’s magnified who knows how many times.IMG_6385[1]

I like taking big photos of small objects. It’s usually called “macro” photography. The prefix “macro” comes from the Greek word “makros,” meaning “long or large.” I’ve always thought it was silly that “macro” ends up meaning the same thing as “micro” in this context. Micro, of course, comes from the Latinized form of the Greek word “mikros,” meaning “small, little, petty, trivial or slight.”

Interestingly, the word “meager” is a cognate of “macro,” from the Old Norse word “magr,” which evolved into the Old English word “mæger,” meaning “lean or thin.”

And yes, I did have to look all of that up.

Pouty puppy

My dog, Britain, craves attention. If she’s not being petted or fed, she’s usually mopey. I caught her moping while I was playing with my flash equipment and decided to have a little fun at her expense.

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Typically, the subject’s eyes should be in focus, but I was using my smartphone to trigger the shutter while the camera was on the floor, so I couldn’t quite tell where the focus was on that small screen. Next time, I’ll use the tablet. When winter comes, I plan to put out some bird feed and station the camera next to it so I can get close-up shots of the birds eating.