Although she was a voracious reader, she was not really a news junkie. Her father, though, could sometimes convince her to watch the news with him. PBS NewsHour was a family favorite, and when Jessica recognized one of its regular commentators on a San Francisco street, she had her picture taken with him. The photo, now framed, shows a smiling teenager next to a happy—if a bit surprised—Mark Shields.
Her high school had links to prominent journalists—it was named after C. K. McClatchy, and Joan Didion (who would later become one of Jessica’s favorite writers) is an alum—but it wasn’t until her senior year that she got interested in journalism. Jessica enrolled in a photography class at a local community college, taking black-and-white pictures on a 35-millimeter Minolta X570 that was older than she was. Despite her inexperience, many of the photos she took then display characteristics of the more sophisticated shots she took later on: buildings at unconventional angles, an emphasis on symmetry and recurring patterns, evocative lighting. Her love of photography prompted her to join UCLA’s campus paper, The Daily Bruin, soon after arriving for her freshman year.
Robert Faturechi, a colleague at the Bruin, recalls working with Jessica on stories, he as the reporter and she as the photographer. “She really wanted to get to know the people, the subjects, the topic—everything,” says Faturechi, now a reporter at the Los Angeles Times.
In the summer of 2008, she and Faturechi won a traveling scholarship, and spent two weeks in Thailand reporting on the effects of the HIV/AIDS epidemic on children and sex workers. Faturechi remembers Jessica’s ability to connect with everyone, from Wik, an HIV-positive orphan, to Bill, an American she met on a long train ride who was very open about his fondness for Thai prostitutes. “I don’t want to be judgmental, but he was a creepy guy,” Faturechi says. “But Jess was not fazed by that.” She would later write that the man made her “uneasy,” but told her mother that she never saw her subjects as anything less than human beings to be greeted with an open mind and genuine interest.
The resulting series, published in The Daily Bruin, reflects the effort she put into that kind of reporting. Whether portraying Wik, nasal cannula in place and arms wrapped around an orphanage worker, or a rain-soaked alley that leads to the Classic Boys Club, the photos vividly evoke the locations and people they depict.
Jessica also wrote about how her perception of photography and journalism was shaped by the trip. “We often assume that a single photograph can encapsulate an entire life, a whole idea, or a whole person,” she wrote. “And yet, as iconic as photographs can be, they often fail, just as words fail, to achieve such lofty goals. . . . Words and images must work together in order to tell a whole story.”
During the trip, Jessica mentioned to Faturechi that she felt tired and rundown. She didn’t think much of it, as they were working long hours on little sleep in the hot Thai summer. But by the time the series was published in early December 2008, Jessica still felt sick; she had pain in her hip and back, and kept getting chest colds. She wondered if she’d caught tuberculosis in Thailand. Her doctors were puzzled until she mentioned a “little bump” on her abdomen. Pheochromocytomas, tumors of the adrenal gland above the kidney, are rare, occurring in between two and eight people per million each year. Of those, only 10 percent are malignant.
On Christmas day, 2008, Jessica posted on her Facebook wall: “I have Cancer + 10 questions you might ask.”
The cancer had already spread to her bones; her hip, she later wrote in Giant Robot magazine, “looks like a coral reef.” A picture of her tumor, that she insisted her surgeons take after they removed it, accompanied the article. It was a pink-and-white knot about the size of a grapefruit. Jessica described it as “freakishly mesmerizing.”