Images, especially photographic ones, carry the burden of representation. Their creation and use transmit messages with cultural, political, and social implications. Zora Murff is acutely aware of this phenomenon, and understands the role that photography has historically performed in the systematic oppression of Black individuals and communities in America.
With his new series, At No Point In Between, Murff focuses on the multiple sites of violence that have been inflicted on the Black community in Omaha, Nebraska’s Near North Side neighborhood. More deeply, the work unpacks how expressions of white supremacy over Black communities have evolved over time–from the immediately violent acts of lynching and police brutality, to more subtle forms of violence, such as redlining and economic oppression. Overall, the work engages with the complex role that photography plays in the documentation of this tyrannical reality.
In this interview for LensCulture, Murff speaks to Lodoe-Laura Haines-Wangda about the motivations behind his new work, the research that went into the series, and what is at stake when he makes photographs.
Lodoe-Laura Haines-Wangda: Your last series, Corrections, draws attention to the stigma surrounding the identities of individuals in the juvenile justice system. One of the things I find so compelling about that work is knowing that, because they were minors, you weren’t able to photograph your subjects’ faces. And yet, when looking at the portraits, I can’t help noticing how personal they feel. In your new work, At No Point in Between, the intimacy of your portraiture is even more poignant. How do you achieve this closeness with your subjects?
Zora Murff: I started taking At No Point In Between seriously during my second year of grad school, but I shot the majority of the portraits the summer before my final year. I was having a really hard time making portraits, and was receiving a lot of rejection from potential subjects. Grad school fucks you up in a way, because the expectation to produce a lot of work creates a high-pressure situation, and it’s easy to become blind to patience. I was frustrated over the rejection I was receiving, and was venting to my partner. Looking at me indignantly, she said, “Nobody owes you anything. They’re giving you a gift.” Of course I knew that, but I needed the reminder. I took a hard look at my process, and let go of expectations.
LLHW: How did you re-approach the work after that revelation?
ZM: For a while, I decided to focus solely on the landscape. I had a lot of conversations with people, but didn’t ask to take their photographs. There were a lot of great portraits that I didn’t make, but it was imperative for me to go through that process. Once I decided I was ready to start making portraits again, I never began the interaction by asking someone if I could take their picture—I would simply have a conversation with them. The presence of the camera implied that I would eventually ask. Those conversations covered a wide range of topics, from the subjects’ own life experiences to what I was photographing and why. While talking, I would pay attention to the nuances in their gesture. When we were both ready to make the portrait, I avoided directing them too much. I might set the scene for a good composition or recreate a movement they made—a slight tilt of the head, or a hand covering a brow.
LLHW: This series required a lot of research on your part. What writing and other works were you looking at and thinking about when making At No Point In Between?
ZM: While I was researching mugshots for Corrections, I came across Brian Wallis’ article Black Bodies, White Science: Louis Aggasiz’s Slave Daguerreotypes. In it, he discusses how daguerreotypes made by J.T. Zealy were used to support Aggasiz’s view of polygenesis, and how that falsehood was used to justify the enslavement of African and African-American people. Conventions of portraiture at the time typically show people in relationship to objects—domestic furniture, various backdrops, etc. In the Zealy daguerreotypes, the only visual information available in the frame is that of the Black body. The body—the individual—becomes an object for consumption. Personhood is erased.
A couple of years ago, Sarah Sentilles published the article, How We Should Respond to Photographs of Suffering in The New Yorker. She picks apart the same daguerreotypes through the lens of Ariella Azoulay’s The Civil Contract of Photography, discussing how extraneous information enters into a photograph. Because of that, photographs are never objectively true; they are always open to interpretation, and can always be re-contextualized outside of the maker’s original intention. The daguerreotypes were meant to present slaves as sub-human, but they also outline the sub-humanity of the slavers and pseudo-scientists who sought to use the constructs of race and white supremacy to oppress.
LLHW: How did this knowledge about the role that photography has historically performed in the systematic oppression of Black communities influence the images, and specifically the portraits, that you made?
ZM: Portraiture is fascinating to me because there is so much at stake in creating a representation of another person—a power dynamic between the sitter, the photographer, the camera, and the viewer. The role the history of representation plays is also related to this notion. As makers, I feel that this is something we should be negotiating and contending with rather than shying away from or ignoring. On a personal level, I’m constantly considering the representations of people of color throughout history. My aim is to create positive ones. I know a number of artists of color who specifically remember the first time they saw a work of art that depicted someone who looked like them in a positive light.
More broadly, photographers are constantly working with visual literacy, as the photographs we make exist under the specific contexts that we provide. We are naturally well-versed in visual literacy because that is our bread and butter, but I think we should be calling on the viewer to become more visually literate as well. What can portraits tell us? What does it mean that I’m a Black photographer photographing other Black people in an historically Black neighborhood? What does it mean that Black individuals are allowing me to photograph them? How do those things inform what exists inside the frame?
LLHW: These are complex and critical questions to be asking when photographing a marginalized community that you belong to. Tell me more about At No Point in Between.
ZM: At No Point In Between, on a surface level, focuses on flash-points of anti-Black violence, including the lynching of Will Brown and the police killings of Vivian Strong and Laquan McDonald. These events are then compared to the systematic segregation—known as redlining—employed by the US Government. Redlining was carried out across the nation, but my particular focus is on the Near North Side neighborhood (referred to as North Omaha) in Omaha, Nebraska. More deeply, the series explores how the oppression of Black individuals has evolved over time, and the antinomy that exists in recordings of such violence.
LLHW: Walk me through how you came across these stories. What did you focus on when you started this project and how did that evolve into this historical network?
ZM: My research started with the lynching of Will Brown in Omaha, Nebraska in 1919. He was a Black man accused of raping a white woman. While in jail, a white lynch-mob amassed outside of the Douglas County courthouse and demanded Brown’s release so they could kill him. At one point, they even captured the mayor who came to quell the crowd, and they threatened to lynch him instead. Sheriffs eventually released Brown, and he was brutally murdered. There is a resulting photograph of a white crowd standing over Brown’s body as it burns.
These lynchings and photographs were common during this time period. Like the Zealy daguerreotypes, contending information is available, and they had different uses. Lynching photographs were published in newspapers, and were also sold by the photographers taking them. They were used as an implement to reinforce white supremacy, showcasing that white individuals could murder Black individuals in public spaces, document the act, and go unpunished. Meant to shame Black communities, they served as a reminder of the power reserved for white people in America. Anti-lynching organizations began to use the same photographs inversely. In their publications, they would ask the viewer not to look at the body of the victim, and instead focus on the crowds of people in the photograph who committed and witnessed the act. This relationship served as a foundation for the project, and in continuing to dig through the history of North Omaha, I came across the police killing of Vivian Strong in 1969. She was a Black teenager who was running from a police officer, James Loder, who shot her in the back of the head as she ran away. Of course, this killing relates to the murders of Walter Scott and Laquan McDonald, and I use the resulting recorded footage in the same way.
LLHW: In the text accompanying this series, you write about the number of videos you’ve seen of police officers killing Black people in America, referring to it as a “fast violence.” But this project discusses something else as well: a slow violence.
ZM: In learning more about these histories, and the history of the neighborhood, I came across the concept of redlining: segregation promoted by the financial disenfranchisement of people of color. In the simplest terms (and I feel that I must emphasize simplest), redlining functions by discouraging investment in communities of color. Over time, those neighborhoods become financially depressed, and experience economic decline. Those communities then continue to be neglected by local governments, and later become targets for gentrification.
By interweaving past and present, body and the landscape, my aim is to investigate how institutional and racial violence manifests and persists, and what role photography has played throughout.
In his book, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, sociologist Rob Nixon posits that violence exists dichotomously between fast and slow. ‘Fast violence’ is the violence that we understand easily, because the perception of risk or harm is immediate. ‘Slow violence’ is violence that we can’t see because there is a chasm between cause and effect. In the work, I retell these narratives: lynching, historic and contemporary police murders, and redlining. By interweaving past and present, body and the landscape, my aim is to investigate how institutional and racial violence manifests and persists, and what role photography has played throughout.
LC: In At No Point in Between, you combine archival material, found footage, text and your own photography to tell this story. Tell me about this choice to move beyond the photograph, and to instead combine mediums.
ZM: My decision to mix media came from my mounting frustration with the limitations I was putting on myself, or the limitations I often felt through the feedback I received during critiques of the work. I was feeling a sort of pressure—whether that was imagined or actual—to make something that was visually cohesive and existed solely as photographs that I made. I was trying to photograph a concept that is invisible photographically. I could take an image of a condemned building, but I would have to explain why it existed that way.
When I was researching, I amassed a collection of visual material from the histories I was mining, so I decided to begin incorporating them—sometimes manipulating them, other times presenting them as they existed. I started noticing how complicated the work became, and how many different layers were available to navigate. Around the same time, I watched the documentary OJ Simpson: Made in America produced by ESPN. In it, they use the migration of Black individuals from the South to California, the Watts Riots of 1965, and the LA Riots of 1992 as a backdrop to preface the racial tensions that were so present during the OJ trial. In hindsight, you can see the mounting pressure and how these events stratified. More importantly, it revealed how you can’t escape history. Working as a documentarian and “historian” expanded my studio practice, and brought the project into a more well-rounded space.
LLHW: Can you speak to the process of gathering material for this work? How do you find and select this material for inclusion?
ZM: It was a matter of keeping my eyes open, and a matter of using this material to further complicate photography’s function, our collective belief in imagery, and how we garner meaning from the visual. I would not only do this while researching, but also just generally. One of the last pieces of material I collected came from a Lincoln, Nebraska newspaper I found while I was at work. It’s a photograph of a group of police officers being sworn in. To me, the information represents an institutional power structure, but also touches on resulting narratives created around police killings.
More specifically, one thing we often hear about is how hard it is to be a police officer, and how they face danger. All of these individuals are signing up for a dangerous job, but there is also the idea of perceived threat. Who or what is the threat? Historically, the knowledge of the institution has trained them to see communities like North Omaha and the people who reside there as threats. Those locales and persons are treated accordingly. There is also the matter of statistics. Out of the officers in this photograph, how many will kill someone? Will it be a person of color? For me, the punctum of the image is in their gesture—all of the raised hands. What exactly are they signing up for?
Questions such as these are running through my head as I work with these materials, and I am attempting to pose the same questions to those who will look at the work. In sequencing the visuals, whether for publication or exhibition, I try to place the image of the police officers next to an image of a condemned storefront with a traffic light on the “don’t walk” symbol. Formally, the gesture matches the hand in the signal. Digging more deeply, I was paying attention to what the signal commands: “Stop”. Related to the stories of Vivian Strong or Walter Scott or Laquan McDonald, the offending officers probably told them to stop before pulling the trigger—before they were permanently stopped. But how does a community command the larger institutions that shape and police them? How does that power dynamic play out?
LLHW: How do you see this archival material assisting in the transmission of your message to your audience? What questions are you asking your viewers to consider when they approach this work?
ZM: When I was researching the murder of Laquan McDonald, I found documents that were made public around the same time the video footage of his killing was released. In 2015, The Chicago Tribune reviewed emails from the Emanual administration that were released as a part of a federal civil rights investigation. One of the documents that stood out to me was an email referring to a peaceful demonstration to be timed with the release of the footage. The subject line reads: “Peaceful demonstration with red mortar board caps symbolizing education not violence but suggestive of Laquan McDonald photo.” In the email, they request that the mayor lead the demonstration with community leaders of “100+ African-American youth wearing red mortar boards to symbolize education as the solution while also invoking the image of Laquan McDonald in a positive manner.” The iconography of the red mortar board refers to an image the press used of Laquan McDonald at his graduation. In my own photograph collection, I have a Polaroid of a young Black man wearing a cap and gown, holding his diploma.
Coming back to the idea of layers that I was speaking about before, in the work I’m playing off of iconography present in different levels of photography, and posing questions about gaze and muddying context. There are various types of images: vernacular photographs, civilian and institutional surveillance, archival images, and my own “art” photographs. With each type, the gazes differ or align, which again calls into the question how the photograph was intended to function. Was it created as a vehicle for evidence, memory, or reverence? At the image’s inception, did it meet its intended purpose? Maybe they become stronger when seen in a different way.
Editor’s Note: In the slideshow below, you can click through images from At No Point in Between in a sequence put together by Murff specifically for this article. Additionally, At No Point In Between is set to be published by Dais Books, a new imprint founded by artist Shawn Bush, sometime in July 2019.