A 10-year-old boy from Riverside will appear in juvenile court next week to face murder charges. He’s accused of gunning down his father, Jeff Hall - the leader of the Southern California chapter of a notorious neo-Nazi group.
Photojournalist Julie Platner spent about a year documenting Hall, his followers and his children. Her final photographs were taken just hours before Hall was killed.
This was not the first time Platner has documented lives in turmoil. The 28-year-old photojournalist covered the aftermath of last year’s earthquake in Haiti. She’s taken her camera to the Middle East to document the violence in Gaza.
For this project, Platner spent months photographing the National Socialist Movement's leader, Jeff Hall, his family and his small cadre of swastika-waving followers.
“I slowly and slowly gained their trust and trusted them more as well.”
Jeff Hall was not shy about courting the press, but like most other people in the neo-Nazi movement he would not divulge personal details with many reporters. However, Jeff Hall let Platner in.
“I didn’t ask too many questions," says Platner. "I didn’t want to know what he did in his day job." Hall was a plumber.
"I just wanted to hang out and watch," says Platner. "I’m a very visual person and I think that made me a very non-threatening presence in a way.”
Hall had five kids from two marriages. “It feels like a normal home," says Platner. "I walked in on one Saturday and the mom [Hall’s second wife] had bunny rabbit ears on and she was jumping around with the two little girls. And they were lovely children – they are lovely children, you know? And she’s a good mom. They also have a swastika [flag] hanging in their living room. They were exposed to way too much, obviously. They’re the casualties of all this.”
Platner witnessed moments of what could be interpreted as indoctrination of the children by Hall and other members of the NSM. The NSM "lived in the house, they had their monthly meetings there. The children were there. The young boy [who allegedly killed his father Jeff Hall] was taught to use a gun and he was taught to interact with the life they were leading. If the tools, the weapons are there and the correct morality has not been given, it can be explosive which, tragically, is what we’ve seen.”
There’s a picture Platner took that illustrates this duality. A little girl, one of the Halls' daughters, doodles on the backyard concrete with sidewalk chalk. In the background are members of the NSM, including Jeff on the lawn, in Nazi garb – giving stiff arm salutes. Jeff’s wife is taking pictures of them.
“That’s their culture, that’s their life," says Platner. "They have bonded to this mantra of hate. These kids are exposed to it, and they are innocent! They are absolutely innocent. And that’s what that photograph is, and that’s what I was trying to portray.”
You see these two worlds co-mingling, and as we have now seen, those worlds have collided. Platner met Jeff’s son, who allegedly shot and killed him.
Platner says she didn't see any hint of trouble or tension. "I attribute it to the recklessness of bringing these messages to your children, of having weapons in the house. And I think there was some level of it to the child that it was just a game. I cannot really say if he knew what he was doing. He’s 10 years old. He couldn’t possibly have a firm enough grasp on the reality of that situation. Do I think maybe he had the thought that he was going to go downstairs and shoot his dad? Yeah, maybe. But I don’t think he understood really what that means.”
Platner photographed until the afternoon before Jeff was killed. "The last image I shot was one of the young boy sitting on the stairs, playing with his shoe, futzing with the laces and having his lunch, and I just looked and I saw all of these guys [from the National Socialist Movement] in their boots and uniforms surrounding him and him kind of looking like he was one of the guys, or trying to be one of the guys or just hanging out with his extended family. It was hard to process this, and what it means for him, for the family. But I guess that’s what we do as journalists – try and find that thin line and walk it. I took that shot and said goodbye, and walked out the door.”
Platner is a freelance photojournalist in Brooklyn.