Moral Compass: Artists Respond to Crises
Temple Judea Museum exhibition January – March 2021
Washington’s Other Monuments
For the past seventeen years, I have been intensively documenting the numerous homemade shrines to victims of murder and violence that appear throughout the Washington DC area. I am deeply compelled by their heartbreaking vibrancy, their sadness, and their all-too-common presence on the city’s streets. Often they are the only visible manifestation left to mark the life of a loved one.
I have photographed many hundreds of shrines over the years. Most are in the District’s risky impoverished neighborhoods, but I have found them at numerous sites in Virginia and Maryland also. They all share a basic characteristic: someone who we care about died here, and we are showing our respect and our pain by creating this public sculpture in their, and our, honor.
They are tears and prayers made visible.
I first became aware and interested in street shrines when the young formerly-homeless photographer I mentored, Dion Johnson, lost four of his relatives to murder in the space of one year. I saw the toll it took on him, the anguish it caused. I learned to see the markers that were erected in the city’s neighborhoods as representing the powerful emotions of people – real people, distraught and grieving – who lost a son, brother, father, aunt, neighbor, lover, or friend to violence. The shrines; cascades of plush toys, balloons, handwritten prayers and reminiscences, flowers, T-shirts, liquor bottles, photographs, food, candles, and other paraphernalia – seemed to me to vividly manifest the wounded heart of our community.
As a nation, we rightly mourn for those who have been killed overseas defending our communities. It is also sad though, that we have become numb to the ongoing slaughter in our own area, indifferent to the many thousands who lose their lives to violence right here at home, and the untold thousands more who suffer in the wake of each death. We are so used to it that we rarely notice anymore – murder of ordinary people often doesn’t show up prominently in our mass media nowadays.
The shrines call to me, to us, to notice, to remember, to be aware – and hopefully, to act.
The shrines depicted in this exhibition have all been photographed in the months since the COVD-19 pandemic began. Unfortunately, there has been a significant spike in the homicide rate, with its resulting suffering, during this time of worry, division, and privation.
I have taken to engaging a visual approach that heightens the emotional and structural aspects of the shrines. I strive to bring forth the often electric colors, and balance the chaotic arrangements of objects, the admixture of the deeply personal with mass culture references, the holy laced with ‘gangsta’ iconography, and to relate the physical relationships of the shrines to their environment. I have taken this strategy for each individual image, applying it also to the entire body of work. As a photographer, I find them endlessly fascinating, a rich but troubling lode to examine and share. The shrines are an unsettling array of folk sculpture, ranging from the pathetic and the lurid to the sacred, a sculptural collage expressing pain, loss, and hope. The camera helps give these spontaneous ephemeral creations some permanence, and some unity of purpose. To remember. To remember.
This work has been my ongoing process of paying attention to what really matters; my action of pointing to our community’s wounds, and hopefully, towards a path of healing.