Son of Sam, Son of Hope

David Berkowitz

The Background

David Berkowitz killed six people and wounded more. He walked up to them and shot them at close range with a .44 caliber pistol. His actions terrorized New York City in 1976 and 1977. He left spooky notes for the police, taunting them and threatening more violence. Thousands of dark-haired people who thought he was targeting brunettes dyed their hair blonde. Thousands of others stayed indoors after dark. The neighborhood streets were eerily silent that year.

David had fallen in with a satanic cult. He believed that he was a soldier in Satan’s army, charged with terrifying the entire city. He was a stocky, wire-haired young man with flat gray eyes and a pleasant smile.

Reporters latched onto a satanic reference in one of his letters and began calling him Son of Sam.

David BerkowitzNow he is an older man living in a maximum security prison wedged deep in the forests of upstate New York. No hair to speak of, but still stocky and still sporting a pleasant smile.

David stopped hearing from Satan when he went to prison. Ten years later he heard from God. He became a Christian in 1987, and that changed everything for him. Well, not everything. He was still in prison. But he felt a whole new sense of purpose and significance. And eventually he felt something he never expected to feel. Forgiveness.

The Interview

I was invited by American Bible Society to photograph him in conjunction with a video interview that they were conducting. The first ten minutes of the interview were a strange mix of congenial pleasantries and awkward silences. He was nervous. We were nervous. But eventually the ice broke and melted and we were talking about real stuff. He told us what life was like for him in 1976, and he told us what life has been like for him since.

Throughout the two hour interview, he walked us through the full spectrum of emotions. From dark remorse and endless, persistent grief, to the overwhelming joy of faith, forgiveness, and acceptance.

David Berkowitz with his Bible

The Bible is full of stories about God bringing new life and purpose to people like me and you and even people like David Berkowitz. Everyday folks who fish and hang out at the water cooler, but also more sinister folks like cheaters and liars and even murderers.

David says that, through prayer and Bible study and relationships with others, God has found him. Changed him forever. Given him a purpose and a mission and even a new name: Son of Hope. Now David is an active part of a vibrant, global prison ministry, and he works with inmates who have mental health problems.

His murders have not been erased. They have not been deleted. They have not been forgotten. Not by him. Not by others. But they have been forgiven. He believes – and for what it’s worth, I believe with him – that God has forgiven him. We can whine and spit and doubt that all we want and it won’t make a difference.

The Photography

Ultimately I was not brought into that shoot as a judge, but as a photographer. And most people who read this blog enjoy thinking about photography, art, and communications. So the question I leave you with is, “How do you photograph a man sitting in a chair for two hours?”

Here are some of the things I tried to do to achieve variety and emotional impact:

  • Listen. Photography is as much about listening as it is watching. When people tell stories, they usually build towards some sort of emotional summit. That’s when I click away.
  • Wait. We are hideous creatures when we talk. Wait for a pause, a breath or at least a long vowel sound before you click. A good photographer has a musician’s sense of timing.
  • Revolve. During that shoot, I circled David Berkowitz like a planet. Sometimes stooping low, sometimes on my tiptoes. Sometimes zoomed in close, sometimes taking in the whole room with a wide angle lens.

Here are a handful of the photos from that shoot. Feel free to comment below about the David Berkowitz photos or this post in general.

David Berkowitz

"By God's grace I am living proof that anyone can be forgiven if they want to be. Who would have ever thought that such a wasted life like mine could be redeemed and salvaged? And by absolutely no goodness within myself?"

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