A Death in The Family
On Oct. 15 I got an e-mail from a friend saying that he read in the paper that a subject of a photo essay I did for City Paper in 2005 had been murdered.
His name was Clayton Oxendine, a 24-year-old Native-American man with two young sons, a taste for booze, and a loving but dysfunctional family. Oxendine lived most of his short life moving house to house in Southwest Baltimore, constantly surrounded by poverty, vacant buildings, and the drugs and dealers he found so hard to keep out of his life.
I first caught sight of him in 2004 while on the roof of my old photography studio, which was in a six-story warehouse that overlooked several of the most active drug corners Southwest Baltimore had to offer. One afternoon I watched as Oxendine got into a fight with several dealers who left, returned with a gun, broke down his door, and rushed into his home; five children under the age of 3 who lived in the house were on the front stoop and in the front room. I was fascinated and amazed that no one was killed in the altercation and saw an opportunity to show how little choice the children, caught in the middle of this kind of mess, had in the circumstances that would shape their lives. Over the next four months I cautiously got to know the family and began taking photos of them. For the next eight months I spent a good portion of my time with Clayton and his family and was open with them about my intention of using them to shed light on poverty and violent crime. The photo essay, titled "Family Album," was published in City Paper June 29, 2005.
I had only seen Oxendine a few times in the years since that photo essay was published. I only spoke with him once, because each time I saw him he was up to his usual antics: pestering drug dealers for another hit. Clayton was an addict and an alcoholic, hustling on the streets, so drunk and high that he would do anything for drugs. I had seen the dealers use him as a punching bag. It never fazed him. He would just keep on pestering, and they just kept knocking him around.
During the months I documented his family, I broke some basic rules of journalism: I became emotionally involved with my subjects and formed attachments to Clayton and his children. I taught him how to use a computer, the internet, even photo-manipulation software Photoshop. We wrote letters to judges, studied history and geography. I even accompanied him and his younger brother to court and parole hearings on several occasions. I gave him cash, bought his family food, ate dinners with them, and even cared for Edy, his 1-year old son, when he had the flu. One Christmas I gave the mother of Oxendine's children $50 and bought them several presents. However, trust levels with various members of the family fluctuated based on levels of intoxication.
I remember Oxendine thanking me for taking him and his boys to an art opening related to the story I did on the family. He asked me on the ride home why people were so nice to him. I told him that was civility and how people in most places treated each other. He then told me that was the first time he had been treated that way. After a taste of civility, he wanted more and asked me to help him achieve it. But when I tried to help him, by giving him work or directing him to various social services, he realized how difficult it would be for him to live a "normal life." He fell further into his hole, too afraid of failure and too insecure to make an attempt to get out.
In 2007 I left my studio and moved to another neighborhood. I avoided Oxendine and his family, even when they moved to a new home a few blocks from me later that year. Whenever I would see Oxendine, he would demand money, and it was obvious to me that he had spiraled out of control with the drug use. I mentally prepared myself for his demise and closed off my emotions to him.
When I heard that he had been killed, I wrote back to the friend who e-mailed me. I told him I expected this would happen and was surprised it had not happened sooner.
I remained hardened to his death until I picked up my partner of five years from work and handed her that week's issue of City Paper. She saw Murder Ink, his name, and threw down the paper in tears, saying, "No, no, no." The hopelessness in her voice hit me like a brick and brought my heart back to my relationship with Oxendine--a good, decent, kind individual trapped in a hole of predetermination.
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Baltimore, MD 21201