I was contacted by Design Director David Speranza to do a shoot for a feature in Road & Track. The article was about teen drivers being undertrained and the outdated drivers license exam process. I was asked to photography Danica Lacey and Martha Tessmer on location just outside Fresno California. While in high school Danica was driving with her friends and boyfriend when she lost control of her car and killed her boyfriend Donovan; Martha's son. Here is a bit of their story:
From the moment she got her learner's permit, just after her 15th birthday, Danica followed every traffic law, every rule of the road. She obeyed every nuance of California's strict graduated-licensing laws. She looked both ways at every intersection. She never got so much as a parking ticket. Then came that night in the middle of July.
Lacy's boyfriend Donovan Tessmer, a star running back at Liberty High in Madera, California, had just finished his last day of football camp. The couple had the rest of the summer in front of them, but this night began quietly enough. Lacy and Tessmer remembered making plans to drive a few friends to see the new Transformers movie.
Lacy would drive. She was the only one old enough to have passed all her licensing requirements; Tessmer was 10 days too young to drive at night with passengers. They picked up three friends in the silver Toyota Corolla that Lacy's father had bought her for her 16th birthday, headed to the Cineplex, and spent two hours watching Camaros come to life on the big screen. As they started home, Tessmer realized he left his Game Boy in the theater. Tessmer and Lacy split up. He went back to the Cineplex. She went off to get gas, chips, and energy drinks.
When Lacy swung by for the 20-minute drive home, Tessmer and his two football-player friends piled into the Corolla's back seat and did what teenage boys do: They began wrestling over the snacks. With the stereo pumping out music and three boys wrestling in her back seat, Lacy started driving faster. Too fast-75 or 80 mph in a 55, down the back road to Madera Ranchos. Most drivers avoid the deserted two-lane that winds through the apple orchards, but Lacy liked how it was usually free of traffic.
"Can't you keep this car going straight?" Tessmer joked from the back seat. The silver Toyota was trying to tell Lacy something, but she didn't understand. "You mean like this?" she said. She playfully jerked the steering wheel.
What happened next was a confluence of physics, bad luck, and bad judgment. In that long moment when the car began to slide and Lacy realized something was very wrong.
The Toyota left the road and careened into an orchard, crashing into one tree, then another. A rear door was ripped off. The boys in the back, unbelted, were hurled from the vehicle. Lacy and her front-seat passenger were merely shaken up. Two of the rear passengers were seriously injured. Donovan Tessmer, the third, wasn't so lucky. "I saw him lying in his own blood," said Tessmer's best friend, Dustin Simpson. "We were having fun, and in a split second, he was dead."
I first met with Martha. She now travels across the country for Impact Teen Drivers talking to students about what happened with her son Donovan. I have a 21 month old daughter and since she was born the only thing I've ever truly cared about is her well being. If something happened to her I honestly don't know how I would handle it. Martha talks about her story day in and day out and she has an amazing attitude about everything that's happened.
As I photographed her lecture to the freshmen students at Riverdale High School I found myself sitting in the seats watching Martha and the students. These are teenagers and that means they (think) they have more important things to do than to sit and listen to an adult talk about "blah blah blah, don't text and drive". As the lecture went on some kids were goofing off (that probably would have been me in high school). They weren't loud but there was the noticable sound of a group of people who are mostly trying to keep quite but are still talking to the person next to them. That is until the video of Danica & Donovan's story was played. At that point the entire room went silent. By the end of the video many of the kids were crying. Once the projector was turned off and the lights came back on the room remained silent. The murmur was gone and you could only hear Martha speaking about her son's story.
After the lecture we went back to Martha's house. She showed us around her house, which was filled with pictures of both her children and she had stories for each photo. We had a few hours before we were to meet up with Danica so my assistant and I hung out with Martha in her kitchen. Martha talked about her lectures and her family. One of the strangest coincidences of the shoot was the fact that my assistant, whom I randomly found through a Facebook referral, went to high school with Martha's daughter and they knew each other. Although he didn't know Donovan, the two families actually had quite a bit of history together.
Finally it was time to meet Danica at the crash site. We arrived before her so we would be set up and ready to go once she arrived, hoping to minimize her time at the site. She was friendly and smiled when she arrived, but you could tell she was't comfortable. The magazine wanted her to be photographed in front of the tree the car crashed into. Danica's mom showed up shortly after Danica for moral support. Up until this point, Danica had never been back to the crash site. Danica said she probably wouldn't have been able to do the shoot if her mom wasn't there.
Having their photo taken for most people probably isn't on the top of their list of things to do normally, let alone under these circumstances, but Danica was great. She even sat patiently in a very hot car with the windows rolled up far longer than I would have before asking if she could roll down the window. I was so focused on taking pictures it didn't dawn on me that the windows were up and she probably needed some air. But knowing she probably wanted to get out of there I went as fast as I could with as few setups as possible so she wouldn't need to stay longer than necessary.
This was easily the most emotional photo shoot I've done and I was actually nervous prior to the shoot because I really didn't want to screw it up. In the end I'm very happy with the images we got and I'm glad to have met and spent so much time with Martha and Danica.