Fernando Decillis Learns About Unsolved Murder Through Popular NPR Podcast

Aug 30, 2019
Photographer Spotlight

There is a cold, if obvious, truth about homicide-related cases: the longer a killing goes unsolved, the less likely the murderer will be brought to justice.

A statistic, courtesy of the Washington Post, provides a sobering example. WaPo looked at 8,000 homicide arrests made across 25 American cities since 2007 and found that only five percent of cases that stayed unsolved after one year led to an arrest.

Again, that's just for cases within the last decade or so. Given that context, imagine how difficult it must be to solve a murder that occurred more than half a century ago.

Andrew Beck Grace and Chip Brantley

Therein lay the challenge for Andrew Beck Grace (left) and Chip Brantley, Alabama journalists who recently went back to their home state to try and uncover the truth behind the 1965 murder of Rev. James Reeb for NPR’s White Lies podcast. Reeb, a white civil rights activist, was beaten to death in Selma, Alabama by a group of white men for promoting rights for black Americans. Atlanta-based photographer and avid NPR listener Fernando Decillis got a chance to retrace and document Andrew and Chip's investigative steps.

[The story] is a fascinating murder mystery that is tied closely to the Civil Rights movement and the political climate of the South at the time. I definitely learned more about the history of the South from spending time with Andrew and Chip. They’ve been researching the story for years. My favorite types of jobs are when I get to speak with people who are experts on something. It was really cool to hear their conversations.

Andrew and Chip began revisiting the case in 2015, the 50-year anniversary of Reeb’s murder. They parlayed their findings into a seven-part series which runs more than six hours in total and was released between May and June of this year.

Screen shot life

Almost immediately, Fernando realized that the best way to capture Andrew and Chip's experience was to shoot them at various locations in and around Selma.

Working with Andrew and Chip was a great collaboration. We were all brainstorming to come up with the best locations to show the viewer. They had a story for every place we visited. It even seemed like they had a story for everything we saw along the way. 

One of the main spots was the Edmund Pettus Bridge, perhaps the epicenter of the Civil Rights movement. The bridge, tragically named for a former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, became a throughway for nonviolent demonstrators as they marched from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama to protest a lack of voting rights for black people.

A different look at a famous bridge

The [area around] the bridge was muddy and flooded, so it was really difficult to get to this location. My assistant John and I were filthy after! The property they are standing on was significant to their case. I also liked that it was a different point of view of that bridge than people are used to seeing.

Fernando had done a story on the 50th anniversary of the March 7, 1965 protests in Selma (Rev. Reeb joined the demonstrators a day later and was killed on March 9), and his familiarity with the location helped the group navigate the terrain. Along with the shot below, the bridge image helps to give the audience a “sense of place.”

Strange fruit along this trail

The location in the shot with the Magnolia trees gives a geographical sense of place, which I like. Everyone knows Magnolias grow in the South and the Spanish moss lets you know it’s somewhere by the water. The big trees are all grown up in a row with a dirt path [in the middle], so you can tell that it’s a place with history. 

Fernando’s favorite shots from the project were taken in an old shed with which Andrew and Chip became intimately familiar during their investigation. The two spent much of their time sifting through old court documents trying to piece together the puzzle of Reeb’s murder.

You can almost smell and see the layer of mustiness in this shot   

The series in the shed is my favorite. It was really visually interesting to me. These rooms look almost exactly like they appear. I was going for a mysterious look. [The location] made me think of the Goonies — the dark spaces as well as hunting for treasure.

Smart placement of the iPhone flashlight

I let them use their phone lights because that’s how they actually looked through the files. I wanted to tell a story about what they actually did. They were in a dark shed looking through court records that had been kept since the late 1800s. The only work I really had to do in post was color grading and color balancing. Most of the work went into lighting it and creating atmosphere.

Keyest Art

The image above became the key art for White Lies when it launched on iTunes, which doesn’t often use original photographs for its podcasts. This made for a special moment for Fernando in spite of the somber nature of the story. Interestingly, Fernando’s key takeaways from the project had more to do with Andrew and Chip's passion for the work than the subject matter itself.  

White Lies is a double entendre you see

I’m a longtime NPR listener and supporter, so I couldn’t wait for the podcast to come out. It was cool to see the image in iTunes! Hearing people talk from all walks of life about their passions and tell their stories might be the best part of being a photographer. 


Assistant: John Song


White Lies Hosts: Andrew Beck Grace, Chip Brantley

Check out more of Fernando's work at fernandodecillis.com.

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