You will want to look away when you see the photo, but Nardyne Jefferies hopes you won’t.
She wants you to see the cut that exposes flesh and bone across the top of her beautiful 16-year-old daughter’s chest.
She wants you to see the blood behind the ear of a girl who read books when she sat in timeout, loved pineapple on pizza and used to send text messages that read, “I looovvvvve you Mommy.”
She wants you to see the slightly open lips and the forever-closed eyes of a teenager who was home-schooled in the nation’s capital so that she would stay safe but was killed in a barrage of bullets anyway.
Before the shooting in Santa Fe. Before the one in Parkland. Before Las Vegas and Aurora and Newtown, Jefferies was trying to show us what gun violence looks like.
She was trying to show us it isn’t all flowers and balloons and sidewalks streaked with wax from candlelight vigils. It also isn’t what we see next to many victims’ profiles: smiling faces, selfies in front of scenic vacation spots and photos of families with arms interlocked. Those images show life and happiness. They show moments when goals were still being set, futures still being imagined and petty fights still being held because how could anyone know how quickly it was all going to be swiped away.
Jefferies has those kinds of photos of her daughter Brishell Jones, too.
But those images aren’t the ones that the Northern Virginia database coordinator believes people need to see if they really want to discuss gun violence in this country. Instead, following her daughter’s 2010 death in the South Capitol Street massacre, in which nine people were shot and three killed after attending a funeral, Jefferies placed the teenager’s post-autopsy picture on a poster board. That is the picture she shoves in the faces of politicians in hopes that they might understand, really understand, what happened to her only child.
“I don’t know how you can have a conversation about gun violence and yet depict it with pre-gun-violence images,” Jefferies told me recently. “That’s not what gun violence looks like.”
I have seen the photo, and it’s found easily online with a search of Jefferies’s name. She took it herself and has seen enough eyes turn away from it that she knows it makes people uncomfortable. It should, she said: “There shouldn’t be anything comfortable about so much bloodshed in a first-world country.”
When I first heard that Jefferies held the photo up at a D.C. Council meeting, I wondered whether it would pull people into the conversation or push them away. Was it too extreme?
As a former police reporter, I have seen many autopsy photos and have spent time at crime scenes and in morgues. I also spent a week in Guatemala with a reporter whose beat was called “nota roja” (red note) and required him to often walk up to dead bodies as part of the reporting. There, as is the case with many other countries, crime-scene photos regularly run in newspapers and on television.
Here in the United States, what the media shows the public is given careful consideration guided by an ethical code to minimize harm. Many outlets usually only publish photos of the dead or dying when those images show distant places or are necessary to capture a horror that would otherwise be hard to convey. Even then, they do so knowing they will probably face criticism from parts of the public. After newspapers across the nation ran the falling man photo, which depicts a man plunging from the twin towers in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001, they heard from outraged readers who found the image disturbing.
Jefferies’s image is also disturbing — so much so that we aren’t publishing it here so that our youngest readers don’t unintentionally see it. But as disturbing as it is, so too are the frequencies of these mass shootings and that 3-year-olds — mine included — know what lockdown drills are and understand that they need to be very, very quiet when a teacher tells them to huddle behind a closed door.
Maybe it’s finally time we start listening to what Jefferies has been telling us for years. Maybe it’s time we stop sanitizing the issue of gun violence. The image of her daughter is extreme, but how many more young people need to end up in the morgue before we agree that these are extreme times?
Before anyone starts pulling out their pocket Constitution, this is not about gun bashing. I grew up in Texas, where people carry firearms like Bibles into church. Jefferies also respects the Second Amendment and doesn’t like the phrase “gun control.” But she believes rights come with responsibilities and safer gun laws are needed because “not everyone with a pulse should have a gun.”
What this is about — what it has always been about for Jefferies and should now be about for us, too — is taking the blinders off and really seeing what is happening around us.
There’s another photo that is hard to look at and also captures the toll of gun violence. It was taken of Jefferies at the scene of the shooting.
In it, she lies on the ground, her face contorted and shiny with tears. Two people try in vain to comfort her. Her feet aren’t visible, but if they were, you’d see they were bare. When she heard her daughter was hurt, she didn’t pause to put on shoes. She just ran.