I have had more friends take their own lives in the last few years than I ever thought possible. Each of these tragedies has left me with far more questions than answers. If we have learned nothing else from what seems to almost be an epidemic, I hope we can agree there is no longer a stigma associated with suicidal thought and people should feel empowered to get help when overcome with darkness. There are very capable, caring professionals just waiting to help. If you are prone to thoughts of taking your own life, program this number into your phone and use it: 1-800-273-8255.
I don’t profess to have been close to Chester but I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with Linkin’ Park several times over the years. When you work with certain artists over and over again each time the connection gets a bit deeper. Just yesterday I was on the phone with the manager of another artist with whom I have worked quite a bit and he was excited to tell me that Chester was going to appear on their next album. Today I awoke to the incredibly sad news that Chester was found dead from an apparent suicide. The facts are still unclear but I feel compelled to scribble down a couple of my favorite memories as he was an individual that certainly left an impression.
I have photographed Linkin’ Park on location, in the studio, on the road, rehearsing and playing live. We did stills, we shot video, we filmed interviews. The last time I saw Chester I was working with another band that was rehearsing on the stage next to Linkin’ Park’s and we got to hang for a minute and laugh about the memories I’m about to share.
The first assignment with anyone is usually memorable as both the talent and myself are trying to get a read on each other. Boundaries are negotiated, tested, and if all goes well, discarded altogether. My first encounter with Linkin’ Park was in the midst of a major tour and to make the client’s deadline we needed to rendezvous with the band in Idaho. My crew and I flew out and after some negotiations with hotel management, converted the ballroom into a makeshift studio. We had all the shots blocked-out, lit and camera-ready before the band’s tour buses arrived the following morning just in case they threw us a curve ball and wanted to shoot immediately upon their arrival. We were prepared for anything…but not everything. As the band arrived Chester and the tour manager stopped by to check out the set-ups. Everything was good but they suggested just one change : Everything. They wanted to incorporate their graffiti in the shoot which had major logistical repercussions.
The band wanted to get some rest before their soundcheck that afternoon so we all agreed to meet back at the ballroom in a few hours. We scrambled and made a mad dash to the nearest Home Depot to stock-up on Krylon spray paint, plastic sheeting and masking tape. We meticulously covered the floors and walls with plastic in a manner reminiscent of Dexter’s kill-rooms. Given the time restraints it was a good plan with two foreseeable flaws, both of which we chose to ignore. My lighting gear couldn’t be totally masked from the spray so I knew I would be seeing artifacts from this day on my gear for years to come. The second and more significant issue was the plastic “balloon” we created was the antithesis of “adequate ventilation”. Setting up fans and opening doors wasn’t an option as we would be shut down before we began due to flooding the hotel with noxious fumes. Home Depot didn’t have respirators in stock so we endured the bonding experience by working in short bursts between dashing outside to breathe. The band came in and not only painted surfaces to be used in the images but gave me a pretty good hint about their past experience with photo sessions when they painted a happy face with the words “Smile Jackasses” directly behind where my camera was positioned. The session was reminiscent of shooting underwater where you keep surfacing for air and to discuss any tweaks to the shot before holding your breath and descending again.
I assume they appreciated the effort and were happy with the results as they recommended me for another job and four days later I was on set with them again in Los Angeles. They were amused to see I had saved the bit of plastic that said “Smile Jackasses” and had it suspended behind me at our second shoot.
I should preface this next account by stating that I am a bit of a germaphobe…not of the “Howie Mandel” variety but you won’t find me offering a sip of my drink to friends or walking barefoot in even the finest of hotel rooms. Furthermore, my assistant was aware of my germaphobic tendencies and he never missed an opportunity to give me grief for it. The following is an unlikely tale but, sadly, verifiable and has become a source of regular ridicule by those who know me well.
After the shoot the band invited us to their show and gave us full-access - backstage, on stage, anywhere we wanted to go. At some point we were told Chester would crowd-surf so we moved down to the base of the stage to get the shot of him airborne as he dove over us into the crowd.
We positioned ourselves below Chester who was crouching on a riser at the edge of the stage about ten feet directly above us. He was on one knee growling his signature scream into the mic. We were kneeling-down doing a quick lens change, as I looked up, just as I brought the camera to my eye and lifted my head, my assistant (you should really hear his account of this story) saw in slow motion a pulsating glob of some unknown origin exit Chester’s mouth, avoid hitting the mic and cascade down towards us. I’m told it appeared to be alive as it vibrated from the speakers and glistened in the multi-colored stage-light but I never saw it. I did, however, feel something hit deep in the back of my throat. I doubled over but found it impossible to dislodge from my throat that which Chester had effortlessly dislodged from his own. It was too far back. I lifted my head and stared into my assistant's eyes hoping to find some compassion only to witness his absolute, euphoric, elation. I visualized schematics of basic plumbing as I considered my options. Defeated, I closed my eyes, held my breath and swallowed the “oyster”. My own personal hell now existed at the nexus of Fear Factor and “The Junior Mint” episode of Sienfeld. A couple of days later I was just coming to terms with the horror when the band announced the cancelation of some upcoming shows due to Chester being “under the weather”.