Photos of crime victims, such as Chandra Levy, can become numbingly familiar

Frozen in time: This photograph of Chandra Levy is the image conjured in the public imagination when her name is mentioned.
Frozen in time: This photograph of Chandra Levy is the image conjured in the public imagination when her name is mentioned. (Family Photo Via Modesto Bee/associated Press)
By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 24, 2010

The trial of the man accused of killing former Washington intern Chandra Levy has begun, returning her story to the spotlight. With that reentry comes the familiar photograph of her: the mass of long, dark curls, head tilted to the side, a hint of a smile. Over the course of a decade, that picture has become so recognizable that it now leaves one numb.

As in so many cases of missing persons, a singular photograph stands in for the complexity of their personality -- their sense of humor, tangled relationships, particular intelligence. Usually the photo is chosen quickly and with little thought by loved ones who almost certainly are in a state of fraught emotion. They grab for what's handy -- anything that will give police and all those eager volunteers combing the streets and the woods a clear depiction of the victim's hair and eyes.

They're not thinking of how important that single image will become -- how, as the story unfolds, the photo will be studied and dissected. It will be judged, perhaps even derided. JonBenet Ramsey will forever be the smiling pageant child. That image was parsed ad nauseam in an attempt to measure the parenting skills, and the level of love and devotion, of John and Patsy Ramsey. The photo served as an indictment of the kiddie pageant community. It sparked conversations about overly sexualized children.

Laci Peterson was the pregnant woman in her little cocktail pantsuit. All that most anyone can remember about her is that she was expecting a baby. But who was she, really? Would we remember more about her if only her smiling face -- not her round belly -- had been seared into our memory?

The photograph that defines Levy is often cropped into a head shot, one in which her hair not only fills the frame but explodes outside its boundaries. When the photograph is shown in its entirety, it reveals her sitting casually atop a photo studio dropcloth. She's leaning on one arm and wearing a ribbed ivory tank top and a pair of jeans.

Over the years, while the case was still under investigation, the photograph telegraphed a number of different messages about Levy, depending on the prevailing story line. When the tale focused on her personal life and her affair with her hometown congressman, Gary Condit, the image took on the look of a glamour shot with the emphasis on her body language, her bare arms and a smile that suddenly seemed sly.

But when the narrative shifted and she became a young girl who was in Rock Creek Park at the wrong time, the cropped version of the picture seemed to be the better representation of the woman now stuck in the public consciousness. That subtle tilt of the head now called to mind the posture of the traditional class photograph or something straight out of a Sears portrait studio. The smile turned demure.

During the course of a police investigation that took so many turns, the public's understanding of Levy was constantly shifting. That photograph seemed alive, almost as if it were changing week to week, day to day, every time a new detail emerged. The image was rich with meaning. And it was important for us to look at it because it told us something. Or, at least, it kept us wondering.

But now the story of Levy's death at age 24 has a nearly complete narrative. The prosecution and the defense will argue over which story is true, whether the police have found the guilty man.

The defendant, Ingmar Guandique, and his attorneys are trying to manipulate and control the image that will become cemented in the public's mind. The man who was first paraded before the cameras was a prison inmate wearing an orange jumpsuit and a scowl. Now he is the gentleman who introduces himself to prospective jurors in a soft voice: "Me llamo Ingmar Guandique."

On that day he wore a sport coat and a yellow turtleneck with a collar high enough to cover a tattoo bearing the name of the gang to which it's alleged he belongs. If ever clothes were put into the service of swaying public opinion, the courtroom is the one place where most folks strive for a look that is reserved, conventional and wholly unremarkable. If the defendant wants his clothes to convey anything, it is to remind those citizens who sit in judgment that he isn't that different from them.

The picture of Levy, however, has gone silent. It has turned her into a ghost. There's no time stamp visible on the family photograph, but it doesn't need one. All one has to do is look at the jeans. They are high-waisted and light blue -- relics of a time that predates today's fashion of low-riding silhouettes and expensively manipulated indigo. Her hair has the kind of untamed volume mostly seen on those who've yet to feel the pressures of an aesthetically constrained professional environment. Levy is forever "the intern."

Her picture has sadly become part of the popular culture wallpaper. The young woman from Modesto, Calif., has been tragically reduced to an unremarkable snapshot -- the answer to a dehumanizing trivia question. One wishes that a new photograph would emerge, one that the public has never seen, one with different hair, perhaps with a more serious expression, or one of her laughing. Another image would force the public gaze to linger. People would be forced to pause and ask: Who is that?

We may never know the answer to that question. But at least having a continued sense of curiosity is better than feeling nothing at all.

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