Stephen Chalmers is an unusual photographer. He graduated college with a B.S. in Psychology (and spent time in college working as an EMT) and only later receiving a B.A. and M.F.A. in fine art photography and cinema. His latest project, "Unmarked," came to fruition after he took a woman on a date along a Tiger Mountain trail near Seattle.
The duo learned that the trail was where a serial killer disposed parts of his victims.
"Just that little kernel of information really changed how I felt about what was otherwise a really fantastic early date," he told NPR. "I was struck by how my experience of this place was so changed by knowing the history of the location."
As a result, he's focused much of his time looking at the less obvious, and more hidden aspects of places. Think of it as criminology travel.
"I limited myself to the west coast since my folks live in San Diego and I was living in Washington. I would drive up and down the coast and inland. I would do Freedom of Information Act requests and would use police archives and newspaper accounts to find these locations as accurately as I could," Chalmers said in a conversation with The Huffington Post. "Shortly after that hike, I was giving an artist lecture in Boston and visited the Boston strangler sites, but they mostly happened in apartments and didn't have the same poignancy as the super beautiful mountain hike we were on that day."
The photos in the series are named for the victims who were dumped there. The photos are meant to be "quiet meditations on the violence people commit -- to have the person look at an image of a field or a steam, and think about the beauty of the site and name of the victim," he said.
As Chalmers discussed the series on his website:
Many of the most notorious serial murderers are either from Washington State or were active here, including the nation’s most prolific (Gary Ridgeway, known as the ‘The Green River Killer’) and the most famous (Ted Bundy) – along with more than forty others. The landscape of the west allows a killer to move easily between urban and rural areas and has many wilderness areas where bodies can be disposed of in order to make them difficult to find. These locations are called "Dump Sites" by law enforcement agencies...The images in Dump Sites offer a spectral, haunted kind of evidence of the sites’ historical uses, and they rely explicitly on a spiritual “experience of the place” to commemorate the destruction of a life and the memory of the victim and the sites’ use.
It's an odd vocation, certainly, but it comes from a place Chalmers holds dear. "When I give lectures on this work, I often tell a story of visiting Civil War sites with my family as a child...and trying to reconcile the gruesome historic accounts of these sites (illustrated with striking images by Alexander Gardner and others), with the beauty that is there today," Chalmers said.
All photos courtesy of Stephen Chalmers. All photos' titles are the names of the victims.