Journalism Student at Northwestern University

Harsha Maddula

VERY IMPORTANT: THIS POST IS NOT IN AND OF ITSELF A PIECE OF JOURNALISM. FOR NEWS ON THE TRAGEDY PLEASE REFER TO THIS COLLECTION OF DAILY NORTHWESTERN ARTICLES, VIDEOS AND PHOTO ESSAYS ON THE HARSHA MADDULA PASSING. My purpose here is to collect and briefly reflect on the images I shot for the Daily during the week of September 23-29. My images do not reflect the Daily’s complete visual coverage, and my writing on this blog, drawn from my own notes, has not been fact checked by the Daily copy staff or editors. It exists to give context to these images, not to tell a complete story.

That said, I’ll begin.

I’ve waited a while to put up these images, and considered not doing so for several reasons. The painful events of the first full week of NU 2012-2013 are starting to fade from the forefront of the collective campus consciousness; the three-hundred-plus frames were difficult to revisit;  most include close or distant friends of mine in distress; despite my best efforts to be unobtrusive, I’ve since worried that the shutter noise of my camera was an unnecessary irritant for mourners at the vigils Thursday and Friday nights.

But I am putting them up. I’m not sure I can articulate a clear reason.

Quickly, for those who don’t know: A Northwestern University sophomore named Harsha Maddula went missing during “Wildcat Welcome” – freshman orientation week – before the start of Fall quarter. He was last seen by some friends at a party off-campus Saturday, Sept. 22. The evening of the first day of Fall quarter, Thursday, Sept. 27, searchers found his body floating in Lake Michigan, north of campus. The exact circumstances of his death are still unknown.

An editor woke me up Monday morning, Sept. 24, and told me to run to university police headquarters. He said something like “the parents are outside.” I thought he was referring to the parents of Dajae Coleman, a teenager from Evanston who had been shot and killed leaving a party a few blocks from campus. I’d heard about the missing student, but the story was still vague. When I got there and saw Maddula’s parents, surrounded by a large group of South Asian men, I realized what I was covering. (I’m not including any images of Maddula’s parents in this edit. Those images strike me as invasive and not particularly visually necessary.) Word had gone out over social media from the New York-based Maddula family. A troupe of Chicago volunteers, most three of four connections removed from the Maddulas, had shown up to mobilize a search. They spoke to (at least) tens of students over the course of the day, but at this point the story was so new, and people were so busy preparing for the school year, that only a small portion agreed to join the hunt.

Eventually, they assembled a group large enough to meet the number university police said was needed before they’d form a search party. Then began a stretch of waiting around outside headquarters.

Searchers were let in to be given directions. The press were asked to stay outside.

Searchers were paired off and spread out. However, low numbers and confusion about techniques and goals led most who I spoke to to wander around a bit aimlessly. A police reference to “checking in bushes” turned greenery into most involved students’ focus.

Tuesday and Wednesday, work obligations kept me from the story. Thursday, early in the day, I went to cover  the searches, which were by that point university organized and leaving at regular intervals. The story had ballooned, and the television press was there in force. According to a Daily reporters’s count, more than 200 people had shown up to volunteer.

NUPD, this time with maps and instructions students seemed to more clearly understand, took the lead. They addressed first the press and then the volunteers.

I spent some time with the searchers, then ran back to the newsroom to work on my edit. I was there a few hours before we started hearing some rumors about a development. We learned there would be an outdoor press conference. We went, and I crouched down dead-center in front of the podium. Two other photographers were on student reaction (a crowd had gathered.) After what felt like a long period of waiting while a press crush developed, university spokesman Al Cubbage arrived to be the bearer of bad news. Harsha Maddula had been found floating in Lake Michigan. Cubbage took questions about alcohol, illness (Maddula was diabetic), and suicide.

Afterward, as the crowd dispersed and the TV press drove off in their vans, I got ready to sprint to a vigil that was happening at the same time at the rock, which was planned before anyone knew what had happened.

I’m including one of my first frames upon getting to the vigil, because despite its distorted nature I think it still carries some weight:

An apparently random group of clear-thinking students went and got candles from somewhere in the student center. (At this point I was compensating for the dark with very slow shutter speeds. I was freehanding the camera and it shows.)

The editors, reporters and designers of The Daily Northwestern put together a powerful piece of collaborative journalism by the next morning. The cover image, shot by photo editor Mariam Gomaa, is the single most powerful instance of visual journalism of the week in my opinion.

The next night a more formal, much larger (~2,000 people) ceremony was was held.

Victor Shao, Associated Student Government president and one of the student organizers, spoke early.

Chaplain Tahera Ahmad introduced five students of different faiths, each of whom led a prayer for the dead.

The South-Asian-interest a-Capella group Brown Sugar performed.

Afterward, a Maddula family member spoke to a group of students and faculty.

And that was one of the last images I made from this story. The next day, it was back to shooting football for me.

(Again, I urge anyone interested in the ongoing coverage story of this case and not my vague personal ramblings to head to the Daily Northwestern.)

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3 responses

  1. Some serious reporting here – thanks for sharing.

    October 6, 2012 at 5:39 am

  2. Pingback: Vigil for Alyssa Weaver « Rafi Letzter's Blog

  3. Pingback: New Image and Two Awards | Rafi Letzter's Blog

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