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Theo Wenner on Shooting Homicides and the Detectives Who Live With Them

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Theo Wenner is a hotshot photographer. Fashion. Celebrities. Editorial. Big, glossy shoots for arty magazines you’ve never heard of, let alone read. He’s also the scion of a family which is intricately bound to celebrity: his father is Jann Wenner, founder of Rolling Stone and Us Weekly. Theo does resemble his father a bit, the planes and shadows of the irresistibly charming Jann are evident in Theo’s face. He seems younger and more impressionable than he is, which is fortuitous. It’s a face you want to say yes to.


Yet Theo has gone his way. When he hasn’t been jetting from one fancy shoot to another, he’s been hanging out not with models or actors but with the NYPD’s homicide division. The resultant book of Wenner’s portraits, Homicide, is a gritty love letter to New York’s finest. We talked about how and why he came to do this side project which became a major part of his life and changed the way he sees the world.

Homicide for Beginners

Lisa Levy: So how did you get involved in the project? This seems like a departure from what you usually do, or is what you do for money different than what you do for art?

Theo Wenner: Yeah. it is kind of a departure photographically, but I’ve always been very interested in American culture and mythology. I wanted to look at what that mythology looks like. 

Lisa: Look at it as a photographer or as a person? Did you read a lot of mysteries or watch a lot of mysteries? What detectives are in your canon?

Theo: I mean, so many, I couldn’t think of it on the spot. Tons and tons.

Lisa: To me Homicide means the David Simon show, which predates you.

Theo: Actually, I love that show.

Lisa: Yeah, I do too.

Theo: I love the book that he wrote called Homicide. I think it’s a masterpiece. 

That’s one of the best books I’ve read on homicide and detectives and just seeing it firsthand—it felt so unbelievably true to what I saw. I actually went back and read it again after I finished this project.

Lisa: So it sounds like that was a motivating factor.

Theo: I would say I’m a big fan of his.

Lisa: Well, he’s really changed the way we look at cops. The Wire to a large extent really humanized and demonized the police.

Tell me about the cops and their response to you and to the project. I guess some of them are probably comfortable with press, but you were in places that photographers don’t usually go.

Theo: I don’t think any photographer has. They don’t even let police officers into the places that I went. I mean, it was pretty incredible and fascinating. And since it had never been done before, there was no precedent. I mean, there were no guidelines to measure against, so it was uncharted territory.

Lisa: That’s great, as an artist.

Theo: Which is a photographer’s dream, obviously.

Lisa: Right. I mean, it sounds like gaining trust would be your main obstacle when you’re starting out.

Theo: Oh, absolutely.

Be Relentlessly Yourself

Lisa: And given that we are in the middle of a civil rights movement that has to do with police, they must be defensive or a little bit skeptical of how they’re being portrayed in the press.

Theo: I think when I first started spending time with them, they’re always making fun of each other, you know. They did the same to me and I think they saw that I could handle it and give it back to them. You just gotta be yourself, like you can’t be the person that you think you should be around them. You just have to relentlessly be yourself.

Click to view slideshow.

Lisa: I guess, you know, it’s their job. They have a nose for lies.

Theo: Yeah. Maybe the best nose I’ve ever seen for that. That’s their literal job.

And I thought about that very thing before meeting them. And I was like, you know, don’t dress different. Don’t do anything different. Don’t pretend like you’re not from Manhattan.

Lisa: Well, how did you manage to get access?

Theo: Oh, that took, it took years. I didn’t even really know who to ask or call, and I have this amazing producer that works for me. And we were figuring out where or what is the entry point? And we got in touch with a retired detective who is a consultant for film and television. Thinking that that person probably knows current homicide detectives. And then from there we got in touch with a current homicide detective and met him. And then from there he put us in touch with the D C P I, which is the press division of the N.Y.P.D. Asked them. They didn’t even respond. I didn’t even get rejected. I didn’t get an answer.

Then we were hounding them. And eventually got them to agree to speak on the phone. Once I got them on the phone, I explained what it was. I think once they heard it from me, it made a little more sense to them. Then I started the project. They eventually agreed and had very specific parameters about what I could and couldn’t do. I had a babysitter with me.

Lisa: They have handlers?

Theo: I would’ve normally not agreed to such extreme guidelines, but I knew that I just needed to get in the door. And that’s exactly what ended up happening, just gaining trust, getting to know these guys. And then eventually them not noticing I was there.

Lisa: Yeah. Well, I guess that’s your ideal, right? People are behaving, like they’re not being watched or photographed. They’re just doing what they would normally do.

Theo: It’s only natural. In the beginning, people are aware of the camera, but over time you forget, you know, it just becomes background. You just, you’re not thinking about it like you did on day one. By the end I was just with them all the time.

Lisa: You were embedded.

Theo: I was in, I mean, they were, they were talking to me as if I was one of them. They’re always just talking about a theory or a scenario. They just talk out loud, they riff, and being a part of those conversations was pretty incredible.

Lisa: Do you feel like they forgot about you? 

Theo: Oh no. I was very clear that what I was doing was not any sort of political statement. I’m just documenting what it is—I have no agenda either way.

You Never Forget Your First Homicide

Lisa: How do you feel about it now? Do you feel like there is a political message to the book?

Theo: That’s up to the viewer. 

 Lisa: And what do [the cops] think about the photographs?

Theo: I’ve heard from quite a few of them. I think they liked it. I mean, these are guys that have a very difficult job. They deal with life and death on a daily basis. Those are some pretty major consequences.

Lisa: So did you go out with them to a lot of scenes?

Theo: Yeah. A lot, a lot. A lot of homicides.

Lisa: And what was it like at first?

Theo: I mean, you’ll never forget your first homicide. You’ll remember every single detail about it, which I do. You have no idea what you’re gonna see. I mean, knowing that you’re about to see someone who was shot in the head…

Lisa: Right. So therefore there is probably very little head left.

Theo: They all do it in their own way. Their ability to connect with somebody and read a room is just unbelievable. They’re like encyclopedias of human nature.

Lisa: Well, it’s, it’s interesting coming from you who does a lot of work with celebrities and with people who have exaggerated personas. It sounds like these cops like have the goods, but they want to come off as normal and just like everybody else, so that they’ll get the confessions.

Theo: They can talk to anyone. You could be talking to a monster who just killed his girlfriend with an axe—which I saw firsthand. I saw a crime scene where a guy had killed his girlfriend with an axe, which was, I mean, you could imagine…

Lisa: Probably something you will not forget anytime soon. 

Theo: Yeah. And then I watched the interrogation of the suspect. I watched the detective talk to this guy and remain calm and not show any sort of judgment towards him.

Lisa: That’s also something reporters do all the time. Project trust so you know, yet get the information that you need, even if it’s uncomfortable. How did the cops put people at ease? Was it just kind of bantering and you know, making it feel like everybody was friends?

Theo: Yeah. Just banter. I think on some level everyone has something they can find in common with somebody,

Lisa: And some people are very good at spotting those things or complimenting people.

Theo: And you know, one thing they do also is they’ll rotate detectives in an interrogation to see how the suspect may respond better to one cop or another. They have roles. The tough guy, the comedian…

Lisa: That is interesting in terms of your celebrity work because these guys are acting too. It’s for a purpose—they have these personas they can put on.

Theo: Yeah.

Lisa: And as a photographer, I would imagine what you want to do is capture those personas and then go past that to find the real person.

Theo: Yeah. And it’s interesting, even the way they talk to witnesses is kind of similar. Because witnesses are so used to seeing TV shows.

Spot the Cop

Theo: They have a certain look. I was asking them why they have to dress that way? Cause they look like—

Lisa: They look like cops.

Theo: They look like the detectives you see on TV and it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Lisa: That’s interesting. Well, it’s also their suits, right? They don’t make a lot of money, and they have to wear a suit every day. You’re not going to Hugo Boss. 

Theo: it’s a very specific type of suit. I call it the cop suit.

Lisa: I think it’s time for cop core to come around. Everybody will be letting themselves go bald and get kind of fat. 

Theo: The ties are amazing too. The colors!

Lisa: That reminds me of the part in The Wire where they cut people’s ties off. And they’re all on the wall—that had to be a real thing. It’s so specific.

Theo: Yeah. That’s amazing. Is that when you fall asleep on the job, they cut your tie?

Lisa: Yes. That’s exactly it. I think is it Bunk Who’s sleeping and then the other cops come over with a scissor and you see the wall of ties. It’s really brilliant.

Red on the Board

Theo: They like all those traditions. I think it’s probably so specific to each precinct, but they give a trophy at the end of the year to the person that closes the least amount of cases.

Lisa: Right. So like in Homicide, it’d be the name with the most red on the board.

Theo: Yeah, the person with the most red on the board gets a trophy.

Lisa: Oh wow. 

Theo: You don’t want that trophy.

Lisa: How long were you were you working on this book?

Theo: I think I spent about two and a half years photographing them.

Lisa: That’s a significant amount of time.

Theo: Yeah. I mean sometimes I’d do a fashion shoot or advertising job in the day and then I would leave the set and go directly to the precinct.

Lisa: That must have been really jarring.

Theo: Yeah. It was jarring.

Art About Homicide

Lisa: So what do you want the person who sits with the book for a while to think? Have you achieved your goal?

Theo: You’ll have to tell me. I mean, I there’s nothing I specifically want someone to feel looking at the book

Lisa: That is also political.

Theo: I would just want someone to spend time and look at the photographs. I mean, you can come to your own conclusions. And many people see it in different ways. That’s what I want.

Lisa: Right. You want the viewer to form their own relationship with these photographs.

Theo: Yeah. I would like them to also like go back and look at the book a couple different times.

Lisa: Every night?

Theo: At least.

Lisa: And then they can buy their friends a book.

Theo: Yeah, exactly.

Theo: Did you like the book?

Lisa: I love the book. 

Theo: So glad to hear that.

Lisa: This is essentially a kind of art book about homicide. My philosophy is that crime sites should be very interested in this and all those people who are obsessed with true crime should be interested too. What I wanted to do was to put this out there as narratives about cops. I do think you’re telling a story that is complicated. Those cops feel complicated—even when they’re trying to be light, there’s kind of a heaviness about them.

Theo: That’s a really good observation. I’m glad you like the book a lot. That’s really good to hear and thank you.

View the full article

Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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