The Hurt In Their Eyes

St. Petersburg Times photographer Edmund Fountain talks about his Dart Award-winning portraits of men whose lives are still shaped, up to 50 years later, by the brutal abuse they suffered at the Florida School for Boys.

For the reporters of "For Their Own Good" — the Dart Award-winning St. Petersburg Times series on the lasting effects of physical abuse at the Florida School for Boys — having dozens of sources was a double-bind. Many men repeating the same story established the history of abuse at the school, extending over decades. The consistency of their descriptions gave each individual greater credibility. But in the writing, even the most memorable details — "blood on the walls, bits of lip or tongue on the pillow, the smell of urine and whiskey, the way the bed springs sang with each blow" — risked becoming dull if they were repeated again and again.

The photographer on the team, Edmund Fountain, faced the same challenge of balancing the systemic with the individual, but in a different form. He took portraits of all of the men they interviewed, and he spoke with the Dart Center about his approach.

In each photograph, an individual human being confronts the viewer with a palpable sense of vulnerability and hurt. But instead of being diminished as they are replaced by others in a multimedia presentation or laid out next to others in newsprint (PDF), the effect accumulates. It is, perhaps, the visual equivalent of the one passage in the written story that takes advantage of the men's sheer numbers, by invoking their names:

Boys were dragged to the White House in ones and twos and threes, and sometimes there was a line outside, and sometimes a white dog kept watch.

Here came Marshall Drawdy, Eddie Horne, Robert Lundy, Manuel Giddens . . .

And Jerry Cooper, snatched from his bed at midnight and dragged through the dark, bare feet over wet grass.

Shut your f------ mouth! one of the men told him. What do you know about a runner?

Just outside the door he saw a limp figure lying still. A boy. Blood on his pajamas.

And Larry Houston, Bryant Middleton, Donald Stratton . . .

And William Horne, waiting to go through the door when he heard a boy scream inside.

Then: I think we done killed him.

And Charles Rambo, George Goewey, James Griffin . . .

And Roger Kiser, a scrawny orphan. The stench hit him as he walked through the door. He tripped and fell and a man grabbed him and slung him on the bloody mattress. Over his shoulder, he could see that the man only had one arm.

Bite that pillow.

And Paul Carrin, Michael Greenway, Henry Williams, Roy Conerly, Willie Roberts, John Brodnax, Frank Marx, from different cottages, different years, different circumstances, the same destination.

And Willy Haynes, who had asked the judge to send him here, who had wanted to throw a football under the pines. Over 18 months, the men dragged Willy into the White House again and again.

Lay down. Hold the rail. Don't make a sound.

He could hear the strap coming. It started with the pivot, the shuffle of boots on concrete. The strap hit the wall, then the ceiling, then thighs and buttocks and back, and it felt like an explosion.

When he got back to the cottage, Willy stood in the shower and let the cold water wash bits of underwear from his lacerations, as his blood ran toward the drain.

Read the Dart Award-winning series "For Their Own Good."

Read more about the Dart Awards.