Photographer Interviews

Tracing the Life of a Mentally Ill Murderer

September 13, 2016

By David Walker

State governments face legal and ethical challenges in deciding what to do about mentally ill citizens who pose a threat to public safety. California Sunday Magazine recently explored the subject in a story called “Man in the Woods,” about a recluse who killed two men in separate encounters in the woods near Fort Bragg, in northern California. The ensuing five-week manhunt ended in the man’s death when a police SWAT team ambushed him on a logging road last fall.


Aaron Bassler’s father, Jim. © MCNAIR EVANS

The 35-year-old man, Aaron Bassler, had descended into mental illness and isolation over a period of years, slipping through the cracks of the state’s mental health system. California Sunday Magazine commissioned McNair Evans to travel to Fort Bragg to take photographs for a story written by Ashley Powers. The images, posted with the story on June 2, evoke a haunting, tragic drama.

“I realized I was going to have to deal with it symbolically” because the events of the story took place several years ago, Evans explains. “In order to do that, I tried to have empathy with Aaron [and] think about and feel how he must have felt, and make pictures from his perspective.”

Taking on the Assignment

Evans, a 2015 PDN’s 30, is best known for Confessions for a Son, his book that explored personal memory and family history after the sudden death of his father. The work came to mind for California Sunday Magazine photography director Jacqueline Bates when she was looking for someone to photograph “Man in the Woods.”

Evans had some reservations about the assignment. “There’s a difference between treading in your own closet, and being vulnerable with your own experience, and asking other people to make themselves vulnerable with theirs,” he explains.

But he decided to take it after reading a draft of Powers’s story. “She was extremely sympathetic to everyone involved,” he says, adding, “Jackie said, ‘We want you to meet [people involved in the story] where they are, and make work that is respectful of who they are, and of a very difficult situation. We want to feel the substance of this story in your pictures.’”

Bates says she talked to Evans about “the key subjects to photograph, the locations that made sense for each portrait, and also how the landscape played such an important role in the story. We agreed it made sense for him to spend a significant amount of time in the dense forest and also along the coastline.”

Capturing the Story

Evans spent about a week on the story, including four days in Fort Bragg. Prior to his trip, he studied Powers’s story for ideas about the scenes, symbols and metaphors that might convey the story visually. He also tried to glean as much as he could about the personalities and stories of the various subjects. Several—including Bassler’s father and sister—were reluctant to be photographed. Evans says he won them over by explaining that Powers’s story was sympathetic and respectful to everyone, and that it was ultimately for the betterment of the California mental health system.

“I look for connection and shared experience, and try to be honest about my intentions, and open about who I am, and I feel that’s the best way to connect with people,” he says.

When he went to photograph Jim Bassler, Aaron’s father, he started by photographing objects and rooms inside Bassler’s house while he was out doing maintenance work on his fishing boat. “That gave me time to familiarize myself with who he was as a person. You learn a lot about someone by photographing their home,” Evans says.

When Bassler came in for the portraits, Evans explained his ideas, and solicited Bassler’s opinions. For instance, Powers had likened the coastline of Medocino County (where Fort Bragg is located) to a puzzle piece in her story. “When I walked into Jim’s house, there was a [picture] puzzle on his card table. It felt like a serendipitous gift,” Evans says. “We talked about his life, and life experiences, and I took pictures of him while he was doing the puzzle.”

Bates had asked Evans to photograph Sheriff Tom Allman at his desk. Evans coached Allman about his posture and hand placement as they talked about the sheriff’s experience leading the manhunt. “If you can get someone to go through different body language indicative of different emotions, it’s going to create an emotional response. That’s what I look for: when [the emotion] looks real.”

Evans recounts that sheriff’s deputies took him on a five-hour hike “through Jurassic Park-like terrain and vegetation” in Jackson State Forest, near Fort Bragg, to Aaron Bassler’s hideout. “The pictures had to communicate Aaron’s perspective,” Evans explains. “They had to be about a sense of place, and a sense of being.”


For the assignment, Evans says he tried to think about how Aaron Bassler must have felt and “make pictures from his perspective,” he says. © MCNAIR EVANS

Connecting the Pieces

Bates says the image that has stuck with her the most “is the opener of the dense forest, with a big gaping hole in the middle. It’s as if Aaron Bassler disappeared into that hole, his mental illness leading the way.”

Evans also photographed around the town of Fort Bragg, where the Bassler family still lives. One particular photograph shows modest houses and parked cars along a quiet street. It could be almost any American town. A fence, visible at the end of the street, separates the town from the Pacific Ocean beyond. To Evans, the ocean was a metaphor for renewal that was just out of reach. “That fence, and that fact that you couldn’t go past it, created this almost maddening banality,” he says.

Evans says the subject matter of the individual images “is kind of a bunch of boring stuff.” But that’s his intentional approach to projects, he explains. “Pictures should build on one another in terms of mood and feeling and color and consistency of palette. When I approach an assignment like this, I try to make photographs that help each other reveal.”

Although Evans shoots personal work on film, he prefers to shoot magazine assignments digitally. “I want to be able to completely binge. I don’t want to think about how many pictures I take,” he explains.

He shot “Man in the Woods” with a Canon 5DS, using 25, 35, 50 and 100 mm prime lenses, and relying mostly on available light. He delivered a wide edit of about 90 photographs to Bates, and left the final selections and sequencing to her. “My job is to make the raw materials for a story, in a way which they can interrelate dynamically and visually, and after that, it’s not my job!” He quickly adds, however, that Bates “is a world class editor.”

Good editors teach you something about your work, and I felt like I learned something from this.” In particular, he had photographed physical evidence from Bassler’s case, including candy wrappers, rifle rounds, and the playing cards found in Bassler’s backpack. But Bates decided to use illustrations representing the evidence, rather than Evans’ evidence photos. “That was the right choice, because those pictures were a little too spooky, maybe a little sensational, and definitely quite literal,” Evans says. The illustrations, and their presentation in the margins of the story, “is much more metaphoric,” he adds.

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