Shooter’s brother uses photos to reconcile past
LANCASTER (AP) — Zachary Roberts, the youngest brother of the gunman in the infamous Nickel Mines Amish schoolgirl shootings 10 years ago, came back to Lancaster last fall to say goodbye to his mother, who was dying of cancer.
Amid the reality of her impending death, Roberts, 38, picked up a small rangefinder camera and began snapping photos: candid shots of his mother, Terri Roberts, and family around Strasburg and at their touchstone mountain cabin in Potter County.
He also found himself drawn to the early spring mud sales of eastern and southern Lancaster County that are dominated by Amish.
What emerged was Roberts’ first photographic exhibit, “An American Family,” which opened Friday and will be on display through November at Mulberry Art Studios in Lancaster.
In part, the collection of 17 black-and-white, documentary-style photographs is a moving, candid portrait of a loving family facing the mortality of their matriarch.
Just as compelling is Roberts again coming face to face with the snuffed-out innocence of 10 Amish girls shot by his big brother, Charlie. Five died. It was an act and betrayal that Zachary Roberts once found incomprehensible.
Roberts initially refused to attend the funeral of his brother, who shot himself as police broke into the schoolhouse. “I wanted nothing more to do with him,” Roberts recalled during a telephone interview from his home in Stockholm, where he lives with his Swedish wife and two young children.
He only came to the burial at the last minute after an Amish neighbor who Roberts did not know called him and said, “I just wanted to let you know that we welcome and love your family and we don’t hold anything against anyone.”
But when he unobtrusively took photos of Amish at mud sales in the cold in Bart, Strasburg and Refton last spring, Roberts found the images made him revisit a time and ordeal he thought was long buried.
Examining one image of five girls, their heads wrapped in white scarves, staring in different directions, the photographer found himself looking deeper.
“They remind me of the five girls who died. They would be around this age now,” he writes in the photo caption.
In another photo that shows the backs of a row of Amish men in black coats, Roberts writes: “How strong they were in the midst of such unimaginable tragedy.”
And on it goes. There’s a photo of a large group of Amish compacted around the auction ring, their backs to the camera. Roberts’ caption: “This reminds me of Charlie’s funeral and how almost 30 Amish men and women, some the parents of the victims, surrounded us and blocked the news media cameras.”
Window of a buggy
Through the window of a buggy, an Amish man’s image diffused by the glass: “This reminds me of my mom’s angel in black — the Amish neighbor who consoled my family on the day of the massacre.”
An Amish boy staring into space: “The Amish boy reminds me of how many of the survivors have struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder. I cannot imagine what those Amish boys saw that day (in the schoolhouse), and how they have to live with those memories.”
Ultimately, Roberts says the photographic journey helped him process the Nickel Mines Amish shootings.
“For me, living away from my family who were affected for so long — maybe I’d been holding it in a lot longer than the rest of my family. I needed some time in Lancaster County and with my family to process it,” he says.
“It did help. The photographs were the abstract way of explaining it. That’s the great thing about art. You can express yourself quite easily.”
And, he says, the images he made of his mother blessed him with a fresh stamp of what his mother’s life has been about and an understanding of what is
important to her.
Terri Roberts continues to defy predictions of her demise. She continues to live in her home in Strasburg and says she is doing well.
The photography exhibit is currently running in Stockholm’s Fotografiska, one of the world’s largest and most prestigious showcases for contemporary photography. Roberts was one of 31 photographers selected to display from among 3,000 applicants.
The photography exhibit also was featured last month in the New York Times’ “Lens” blog. The photos received much acclaim for capturing the intimacy of their subjects.
But some criticized Roberts for photographing the Amish.
Asked about that criticism, Roberts says he did not feel he was prying. He said there were media and many photographers at the public events, including one professional taking photos from a crane.
“It just felt like this isn’t a problem,” he says. “Nobody approached me.”