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It’s unmistakable. That gazebo. That hexagonal cover to that picnic table. One needn’t notice the flowers, or even the poster, to the memory of Tamir Rice to recognize this utility structure as that under which the 12-year-old was murdered by Cleveland police. Even the bollards between us the viewer and the polygon shelter seem instantly familiar. For it was between those bollards and the gazebo that the cop car screeched to a halt, it’s door flew open and the first emerging officer shot Tamir dead. In the blink of an eye.

Tamir Rice was shot twice from less than 10 feet.

Back in 2014, as I watched the footage of Tamir Rice’s murder, I wondered then, why did the the cops mount the curb? Why did they bypass the pavement and careen the patrol car onto the grass? Into the park? Why the frantic invasion of a place for play and recreation? Why, given the clear lines of sight (evident both in this photo and in the murder footage) from a good distance away, did they not approach slowly and with caution?

“This court is still thunderstruck by how quickly this event turned deadly,” wrote Ronald B. Adrine, Cleveland Municipal Court Administrative and Presiding Judge in an Administrative Order on the case. “On the video, the zone car containing Patrol Officers Loehmann and Garmback is still in the process of stopping when Rice is shot.”

Misinterpreting a situation and mistaking a toy for a gun (in the case of Tamir Rice) — or mistaking anything handheld, or any motion toward a hip or a pocket (in the cases of thousands of others) — is the defense to which law enforcement turns repeatedly and, calamitously, the one which almost always exonerates them of their crimes.

This is a photo made by Alanna Styer. It is part of the project Where It Happened for which Styer visited and photographed 54 sites where people of color were slain at hands of law enforcement. In 2016, The Guardian reports, 1,093 people were killed by police officers in the United States.

“That is an average of three people a day,” writes Styer. “The incidents detailed in my archive span 50 years, from 1965 to 2015. This book documents only 54 of the tens of thousands of deaths that have happened over those 50 years.”

Mostly, the locations and details of those thousands of deaths aren’t known beyond the memory of friends and family, the accounts of the cops involved, and the reach of an investigation … if one occurred. Even then, the details remain contested. The majority of the places in Where It Happened are new to us, the audience. But Styer’s photo of the gazebo at Cudell Recreation Center is not new. It’s power rests, for me, in the fact that I have previous familiarity with the place through the news coverage and activism in the aftermath of Rice’s murder. I recognize the site. You probably do to. We might also recognize the site of Michael Brown’s death on that tarmac road with verges of short, thinning grass. We may recognize other sites of avoidable killings that made it to our news feeds and memory. We don’t, regrettably, recognize the vast majority of the tragic theaters to which Styer’s work speaks. There are too many.

Styer’s photo shifts our vantage point from the elevated view of the CCTV across the street and down to street level. Whereas previously the benches and the posts were rendered in the indistinguishable and out of focus action of the footage, they’re now brought into sharp focus. We see the underside of the gazebo roof, not the top. We’re provided a perspective from the asphalt where the cop car could have and should have been.

Being “in” this image, I only want to get out, of course. A world in which this wasn’t a murder site and you or I didn’t recognize it as such would be, inarguably, a better world. Specifically, I want to step back. The unnecessary haste with which officers Timothy Loehmann and Frank Garmback charged into this scene gloms onto this image. That unfathomable CCTV footage is this photo’s frame.

Loehmann and Garmback’s excessive urgency which escalated the event from zero to murder perverts Styer’s image. But it also makes it. This photo works upon and within the collective exposure we’ve had to that grainy footage. Styer’s tribute here isn’t working in isolation but in extension of previous visual feeds to which we’ve all been audience. This image is an intervention and it works to disrupt our (possibly passive) consumption of death. It revisits the space and time of an event in which Tamir Rice had, essentially, no agency. The stillness is terrifying. True, the image could be read simply as a visual description of a memorial but I argue that precisely because it grounds us between the CCTV camera and Rice’s swift execution, the photo re-activates both the event and our relation to it.

Acts of police brutality (or citizen brutality, e.g. George Zimmerman against Trayvon Martin) frequently spurn a battle of images — calls for the immediate release of dash cam footage; calls for body-cams; different photos are circulated and cast as sympathetic, or not, to the victim and the perpetrator; media outlets trawl the social media feeds of victims, perpetrators and associated individuals. Whether conscious or not, Styer is reacting to such frenzies. She is paying homage to the victims, months or years after the news story has passed and the casket lowered. Where It Happened is a dark type of pilgrimage but I feel Styer is making it in good faith and I argue she’s returning with images that are a positive contribution. Google Street View does not make imagery that is conscious or respectful (interestingly, it hovers above street level like CCTV, delivering a detached record). Cellphone images may carry as much, if not more, respect as Styer’s photographs and this might be based on a personal connection to the victim, but those amateur images are not made by an artists intent on publicly disseminating them and talking about the issues that forged them.

I admire and have reported on Josh Begley’s project Officer Involved which uses code to automatically render both satellite and Street View images of sites of deaths involving law enforcement. Thousands of sites. While the subject is the same Styer’s work is considerably different in tone and effect. If Begley manages to remind us of the scale of the problem then Styer’s work reminds us to recognize each depressing part of the problem. I can’t code or manipulate Google Maps API but I can walk, bike or drive to killing sites within my own city. Styer’s practice takes time and effort, away from the screen. In 2015, Teju Cole reflected upon the problem of the constant visibility of death. In Death In The Browser Tab, Cole recounts his discomfort with only *knowing* the death of Walter Scott through the infamous footage made by passerby Feidin Santana who was hiding in the bushes. Cole had the opportunity to visit North Charleston and with a friend he found the parking lot of Advance Auto Parts on Remount Road in which Officer Michael Slager first stopped Scott. Then Cole traced the steps of them both to the park in which Scott was slain.

“[…] being there also revealed, in the negative, the peculiarities of the video,” writes Cole, “peculiarities common to many videos of this kind: the combination of a passive affect and the subjective gaze, irregular lighting and poor sound, the amateur videographer’s unsteady grip and off-camera swearing. Taken by one person (or a single, fixed camera) from one point of view, these videos establish the parameters of any subsequent spectatorship of the event. The information they present is, even when shocking, necessarily incomplete. They [videos] mediate, and being on the lot helped me remove that filter of mediation somewhat.”

Styer’s practice is one response to the problematic mediation that Cole describes. Few of us can identify the problem, let alone respond to it. And just as Cole felt better for mindfully visiting the site of Walter Scott’s death, and just as Styer was compelled to visit 54 catastrophic sites, we can choose to seek out a different image. Away from local TV news and social media, death might become less abstract? The sheer scale of the issue might become overwhelming. It is. But are we citizens that feel or do we just talk about what it is to feel?

Are we inured and numbed by murder on our screens? Or are we compelled to act because of it? We can all easily research the institutional violence in our communities. Maybe some of us might be compelled to make pilgrimages of our own and to carve out time to think about the violence that always plays out on our streets before it is broadcasted into our homes. Styer took the time and she has mediated at these sites. Her image of the gazebo in which Tamir Rice was shot and killed gave me the opportunity to mediate. I am grateful for that.

Sometimes photographs are about what’s literally depicted. Sometimes the lessons in photographs are in the method by which they were made. In Where It Happened it is both.

Alanna Styer is currently crowdfunding a book of images from her series Where It Happened. Please consider supporting the production of the photobook, titled No Officers Were Injured In This Incident, by visiting Styer’s Kickstarter page

Listen to a radio interview with Styer about the project and her goals for the book.

 

 

 

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With the PG&E power plant in the background, from left, Terry Phillips, Jusuw a May-Loto, Meritiana Loto and Justice Phillips relax on their porch on Harbor Row in Hunters Point. Residents successfully lobbied to shut down the pollution power plant in 2005, the single largest stationary source of air pollution in the city at the time. © Alex Welsh

THE DOCUMENTS OF A PHOTOJOURNALIST

Last April, San Francisco’s Superior Court played host to legal wrangling between the San Francisco Police Department and a young aspiring photojournalist. The ignition to court battle was the gang murder of Norris Bennett in the marginalized Hunter’s Point neighbourhood.

A young (then unnamed) photojournalism student had photographed at the murder scene of Bennett. The SFPD issued a warrant for the images and seized them during a search of Welsh’s domicile.

The photojournalist invoked California’s shield law to regain possession of his images and have them withdrawn as evidence. In July, at the time of the ruling, my colleague, Brendan Seibel, wrote a splendid piece about it for Wired’s Raw File.

THE DEFINITION OF JOURNALIST

A shield law is legislation designed to provide a news reporter with the right to refuse to testify as to information and/or sources of information obtained during the newsgathering and dissemination process.

What is interesting is that the ruling soon became involved in determining whether or not the young photojournalist was “a journalist”. Seibel explains:

Supporters of the student, including professors and professional journalists, highlighted several instances of publication in sworn statements. According to testimony filed in the motion to quash, photographs taken by the student have appeared, both in print and online, in San Francisco State University’s magazine, the Wall Street Journal and the Oakland Tribune. These articles have not been publicly connected to the photographer to protect his identity. The student had also approached the Wall Street Journal about publishing his current project, although the paper had not committed to purchasing the series.

The warrant was overturned and the student won the case. First amendment activists and free press advocates celebrated the ruling.

THE COMPETITION OUTING OF A PHOTOJOURNALIST

Fast forward to November 2009 and Alex Welsh (San Francisco State University) wins Gold in the Documentary category at CPoY for the portfolio Hunters Point, ‘We Out Here’.

Welsh is the anonymous photographer.

The final photograph of Welsh’s winning portfolio is of an SFPD officer administering CPR to Norris Bennett’s body, with the added tragic caption that Norris was the second brother of the same family to be murdered.

I must say I was well aware of Welsh’s work at the time of its win. I posted it on my auxiliary blog Photography Prison, linked to Dvafoto’s respect and noted Welsh’s interview with NPPA … but I never put the pieces together.

That was until this week when I read The SF Weekly’s S.F. State student who invoked Shield Law reveals murder scene photo in national contest by Peter Jamison:

Alex Welsh, lowered the shield some time ago. His name was not revealed by police, the judge, or even the San Francisco Chronicle in its coverage of the case, but he did choose to announce it himself — in the country’s foremost student photojournalism contest.

Legally, this is a very interesting story and ethically it is quite troublesome. Obviously, we don’t know the exact nature of Welsh’s digital files from Friday April 17th. We don’t know if his images held information pertinent to the case. Whether he did or not is of no consequence if you look at this case from only a legal argument position.

NORRIS BENNETT

If one searches Norris Bennett’s name on the internet, the returns are hundreds of articles about the shield law case, none about him, his murder or the investigation since. I don’t know if his murderers have been identified or how his family has coped in the aftermath.

To discuss this case without a curiosity for news on how his community and family fares would not be right. So while we may mull and judge the behaviour of Welsh, the SFPD and San Francisco’s Superior Court we should also think about the behaviour of mainstream media to forsake the emotional and familial stories following Norris Bennett’s murder.

Bennett was young. Welsh wanted to document the “strength, perseverance and hope of youth”. You can decide through Welsh’s images if he does them – and Bennett – justice.

kkkprison

Jacob Holdt presenting at the New York Photo Festival, 2009. Screen shot from WTJ? Video.

In 2008 it was Ballen. In 2009 it was Jacob Holdt; The highlight of the New York Photo Festival.

I have been a fan of Holdt’s work for a couple of years now. Longer than some and not a fraction as long as others. Holdt has lived across the globe as an activist against racism and a harbinger of love for nearly four decades.

In 2008, Jacob Holdt was nominated for the Deutsche Borse Prize eventually losing out to Esko Männikkö. It was a shrewd shortlisting by a notoriously urbane committee at Deutsche. Holdt’s life and productive trajectory is his own, and much like Ballen does not conform to any norms of expected photographic career paths.

Any nomination – any praise – is purely a recognition of Holdt’s philosophy, his “vagabond days”,  his trust in fellow humans and his rejection of stereotypes, fear and pride. Holdt does not revere photography as others may,  “Photography never interested me. Photography was for me only a tool for social change.”

© Jacob Holdt

© Jacob Holdt

I watched Holdt’s presentation without expectation. I was, in truth, very surprised by the number of times he referred to his subjects – his friends – spending time in prison. It seemed only death trumped incarceration in terms of frequency amongst his circle of friends.

Through a “mysterious mistake” I got locked up in this California prison with my camera and had plenty of time to follow the daily life of my co-inmates. Food was served in their cells where the only table was their toilet. © Jacob Holdt

Prison Meal on Toilet © Jacob Holdt. Through a “mysterious mistake” I got locked up in this California prison with my camera and had plenty of time to follow the daily life of my co-inmates. Food was served in their cells where the only table was their toilet.

Slide after slide: “I can’t remember the number of times I have helped him get out of prison” and, “He’s in prison, now” or “He’s doing well now. He was in prison, but now he is out, has a family, and is doing well.”

Holdt described his method of finding community. Upon arrival in a new place, he would visit the police station and ask where the highest homicide rate was. He’d go to the answer.

Violence was tied up with poverty, was tied up with drugs, was tied up with deprivation, was tied up with hurt, was tied up with punishment and was tied up with prison – usually long sentencing.

Holdt’s series straddles the massive prison expansion experiment of America that began in the 1980s. Also enveloped are the crack epidemics, the racial fragmentation of urban populations and the relocation of middle classes to the suburbs. Holdt’s photographs are the mirror to racial economic inequalities.

Dad in Prison © Jacob Holdt. Alphonso has often entertained my college students about how he and the other criminals in Baltimore planned to mug me when they first saw me in their ghetto. However, we became good friends, but some time later he got a 6 year prison term. Here are the daughters Alfrida and Joann seen when they told me about it at my return. Today Alphonso has found God with the help of these two daughters who are now both ministers.

Dad in Prison © Jacob Holdt. Alphonso has often entertained my college students about how he and the other criminals in Baltimore planned to mug me when they first saw me in their ghetto. However, we became good friends, but some time later he got a 6 year prison term. Here are the daughters Alfrida and Joann seen when they told me about it at my return. Today Alphonso has found God with the help of these two daughters who are now both ministers.

Holdt doesn’t play the blame game. Just as institutions and corporations walked all over many African Americans in Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York, and states across the South, so too did people step on each other, “This is a photo of a man the night after he shot his own brother in the head.” The next night, he was out stealing again and soon after  was convicted for another crime and served 16 years in prison.

Holdt only makes excuses for the failings of his friends insomuch as their mistakes are more likely – almost inevitable – set in the context of their life experience. He doesn’t jump in, drive-by, photo some ghetto-shots nor cadge some poverty-porn. Holdt involves himself directly and tries to open other avenues.

He and his team has lectured across the globe running anti-racism workshops. Holdt had ex-cons sell his anti-racism book on the streets when they were released from prisons without opportunity. He offered pushers the chance to sell his books instead of dope. Sometimes he saw the money and sometimes not, “But, it was never about the money” Holdt adds.

Prisoner cleaning up on Palm Beach. © Jacob Holdt

Prisoner cleaning up on Palm Beach. © Jacob Holdt

One of the most sobering facts of the talk was a double mention of Lowell Correctional Institution in Florida. It was the only facility referred to by name and twice Holdt named friends who’d spent time inside. Lowell is a women’s facility. The female prison population of America has quadrupled in the past 25 years. It is still expanding at a far faster rate than the male prison population. Women’s super-prisons are singularly an American phenomenon. Holdt dropped as an aside, “I have three friends with grandmothers in prisons.”

If he could help, he would. Holdt described a struggling young lady who he desperately wanted to get on staff of American Pictures, but in 1986 she was too strung out on crack. In 1994 he visited her in prison. In 2004 she was released. In 2007 she was still out and Holdt photographed her with her son.

He photographed mothers, lovers, father and sons behind bars. In one case, when the father was convicted the son turned to crime to keep enough money coming in to support the family. He soon joined his dad in prison.

 I was visiting the friend of this inmate when his wife suddenly came on a visit. © Jacob Holdt

Prison Kiss © Jacob Holdt. I was visiting the friend of this inmate when his wife suddenly came on a visit.

But when it would be expected that Holdt may be too deep inside the experience of the poor Black experience, he took the chance to live amid the poor White experience.

Poor whites at a Klan gathering in Alabama. © Jacob Holdt

Poor whites at a Klan gathering in Alabama. © Jacob Holdt

In 2002, Holdt had the opportunity to live with the Ku Klux Klan. He became pals with the Grand Dragon and his family.

“I have spent my life photographing hurt people.” The KKK members were no different. The leader had been abused as a child, subject to incest and beatings. Holdt presumed this but it was confirmed around the time the leader was sent to prison for 130 years for murder.

Holdt moved in with Pamela, the leaders wife, to support her in her husbands absence. Also in his absence he brought the unlikeliest of people together.

Pamela with whit friend. © Jacob Holdt

Pamela with white friend (Jacob Holdt). © Jacob Holdt

Pamela with black friend. © Jacob Holdt

Pamela with black friend. © Jacob Holdt

During this time and only through informal discussion did Holdt learn that the man was innocent – he had voluntarily gone to prison to spare his son, the real culprit, from conviction for a hate crime.

Holdt petitioned and won his release. The former Grand Dragon was unemployed upon release and went on to sell Holdt’s anti-racism book on the streets … just as the dope-dealers of Philly had 15 years earlier.

Holdt’s presentation confirmed to me that the prison is inextricably linked with the social history of America. But this should not be surprising in a society so violent. Holdt paints a portrait of America from the 70s through to today in which the poorest people (both Black and White) held the monopoly on violence, disease, depression, addiction and struggle.

When Holdt was in Africa he showed people there his images of African-Americans suffering. Africans thought the Black communities of America would fare better in Africa, “Why don’t they come back here?”

Two unemployed Vietnam veterans at wall on 3rd St. © Jacob Holdt

Two unemployed Vietnam veterans at wall on 3rd St. © Jacob Holdt

Given the situations he walked into, some may think Holdt is fortunate to still be alive but having armed himself with love he made his own luck … and friends.

Check out more on Jacob Holdt here and here. Here is an article in support of his hitch-hiking activity.

Holdt’s incredible 20,000 image archive American Pictures.

WTJ? 70 minute video of his NYPF presentation.

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