Deana Lawson: Things Not Seen
Vision & Justice (ed. Sarah Lewis)
Aperture, 2016

When President Barack Obama delivered the eulogy in the wake of Reverend Clementa Pinckney’s assassination in June 2015, I couldn’t help but feel that his voice was echoing, as if coming to me from some other time. In his remarks for the assassinated Democratic state senator and senior pastor at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Obama was careful to narrate the church’s history, from slavery to freedom and the long journey between, as a hush harbor, praise house, rest stop, and community center. In Obama’s sermon, he didn’t hesitate to put the church shooting in unequivocally biblical terms: “The Bible calls us to hope,” he began, “to persevere, and have faith in things not seen.”

Photographer Deana Lawson, in a recent portfolio for Time magazine, captures the paradoxical power of things not seen in her pictures of the family members of those who lost their lives during the mass shooting at Mother Emanuel, as this historic church is known, on June 17, 2015: the Emanuel 9. In addition to Pinckney, those killed include Sharonda Coleman Singleton, Cynthia Graham Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, DePayne Middleton Doctor, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons, and Myra Thompson. Taken five months after the tragedy, Lawson’s portraits convey the sitters’ sense of grace through their upright posture and forthright gazes, giving a fuller life to the narratives of forgiveness that the victims’ families displayed in various news outlets in the shooting’s immediate aftermath.

Known for other series of photographs that couple her subjects’ physicality with an uncanny familiarity, Lawson carefully frames her compositions in ways that take cues from vernacular photography, or depicts her subjects undressed, looking directly at the camera. Many are strangers she meets traveling throughout the American South, the Caribbean, and other depots along the black diaspora. For this body of work, Lawson brings her sense of intimacy forged from strangeness to an immediate history of violence, focusing her camera not on the ravages of the massacre, but rather on signs of physical affection among those who observe their loved ones every day. They hold hands, clutch bodies, and remind us that despite loss, the power of touch remains.

People are not the only witnesses in these images. Within the domestic scenes that enfold the tragic events, we see inanimate objects give meaning to personal lives: people in framed family portraits look right back at us; landscapes with tires and crosses emphatically mark nature as a space for staking claim to a sense of home. Lawson reckons with the force of place, capturing the annex that led to the room where the shooting occurred. These portraits, still lifes, and landscapes emphasize the history of daily refuge that connects this site of an antebellum shelter to an ongoing need for prayer after emancipation.

Lawson’s portrait of a community in mourning is preceded by a history of photojournalists who have depicted the South as a site for the negotiation of national exclusion using images that depict rites of familial belonging. Take, for example, Gordon Parks’s 1956 portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Albert Thornton of Mobile, Alabama, for his Segregation Story featured in Life. The Thorntons sit facing forward, toward the viewer, in front of them a table of flowers and photographs, above them a family portrait that similarly portrays a man beside his wife. Parks made portraits of black families in which the sitters claim their bonds. Similarly, in Lawson’s image of Gracie Broome, Reverend Pinckney’s maternal grandmother, Broome sits in a rocking chair in her home in Mullins, South Carolina. In one hand, she holds a framed school portrait of her grandson who has been taken from her, brightly smiling in his marching-band uniform, while with the other she holds her head up and looks straight ahead. A grandson can be with you even if he is not physically present; protection of one’s self and loved ones can be forged from faith in sights that remain unseen in the flesh. Photography, like forgiveness, can work in mysterious ways.