Zora J Murff


I was not present when Trayvon Martin was killed by George Zimmerman in February of 2012. According to my calendar, I was balancing my checkbook. I was not present when Michael Brown was killed by Darren Wilson in Ferguson Missouri on August 9th, 2014. I do remember digging my fingernails into my hands as my supervisor made a, "hands up, don't shoot," joke during a training the following Thursday. I was also not present when Laquan McDonald was killed by a Chicago police officer on October 20th, 2014. On that day, I was attending art history and graphic design classes. His loss of life was the inception of my becoming present. The mention of presence does not mean the physical. Presence here means the psychological, my own realization that my body is at stake purely because of its appearance. 

I grew up seeing images of slavery, images of lynchings, images of exploited Black bodies destroyed by white hands. Maybe it was the chasm between past and present – societal customs seemingly so far removed by time – that kept my own presence at bay. Consuming this information now, whether through a television screen or via web browser, pries open a space inside of me. I cannot un-see this continual loop of the destruction of bodies similar to mine; my anxieties and fears cannot be unfelt. 

In his book Black People Are Cropped, artist William Pope L. writes about race, about Blackness:

...a mark divides the world into this and that. To say that blackness is anything at all is to mark it off from the world as this thing rather than be raced by another is a choice that can ossify choice. To race oneself is a choice that can liquefy choice. To be black today is a choice that has to be made and re-made like a cake or a bed or a contract or a promise or a solar system. [1]

Because of their race, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Laquan McDonald, and so many others were given marks. I too, am marked as they were. These tragedies have been recorded and will continue to be recorded through images, and they have served as an awakening of sorts – shifting how I see my own Black body in a society built to benefit whiteness. Now that I am present, I can begin to understand the difference between looking and seeing, an opening that allows action instead of numbness. In my research and creative work, I use photography to see, exploring how information processed from images is used to develop and reinforce social and cultural constructs. 

A Lineage (An Erasure) and At No Point In Between

For many African-Americans, the Great Migration from the Jim Crow South was a search for hope. However, oppression followed them in the forms of continued racially motivated violence and prejudicial housing policies. Perceptions generated from and reinforced by the false image of Blackness have always been solid and clear: the other cannot live amongst us, and must be controlled. The need for whites to control African-Americans created mounting tensions that resulted in race riots and spectacle lynchings; these power structures, which were widely perceived as “Southern phenomenon” were lying in wait for them [2]. Once again, like their ancestors following Emancipation, Black individuals found themselves in an environment of perceived freedom [3]

As overt racial violence became a point of cultural shame, it was re-presented through government policy. The passing of the National Housing Act of 1934 brought with it the practice of redlining. These policies restricted individuals from receiving home and business loans, perpetuating the socioeconomic divide along the color line through the denial of access to wealth. Photographing in the historically African-American neighborhood of North Omaha, Nebraska, my survey examines not only race, segregation and financial disenfranchisement, but also how policies predicated through systemic white supremacy are a form of violence.

We perceive violence dichotomously between fast and slow, and readily understand forms of fast violence – like lynching – because they are reinforced by our narrow perception of what it means to be at risk [4]. Forms of slow violence – like redlining – are not so easily understood because their effects only become visible after long periods of time. The slow violence of redlining pushed African-Americans into the North Omaha neighborhood and kept them there. Following the collapse of the industrial economy – the sector in which many Black individuals were employed – the community was devastated financially and fell into disrepair. 

I represent slow violence through photographs of the architecture and surrounding landscape, those who inhabit it, and by referencing the tumultuous local histories of fast violence spurred by racism. Slow violence subtly marks the landscape, and my depictions of structures and scenes are poetic reflections on how space has been shaped. The portraits are points of confrontation with those who are affected by slow violence, and emphasize a push and pull between intimacy and distance. Together, these silent images weave a complex narrative about person, place, presence, and absence. The historical documents from periods of civil unrest in North Omaha are used a corollary. Through cropping, enlargement, and other manipulations, I re-contextualize their meanings in today’s society. The medium of photography is unique in its capacity to evince temporal layers, revealing our past to help us better understand the contemporary moment.

My reflections on past injustices are a contemplation on Black identity as something other than a body held in contempt. Through photography, we can see the mark that has already been made. If we look and continue to ignore, the false image of Blackness will remain the fixed image. It is not our burden to attempt to erase this mark, but rather see it, extend it, and bring it back upon itself; a way to reinterpret it, and make it a different mark entirely. 

Notes and Bibliography

[1] William Pope L., Black People Are Cropped: Skin Set Drawings, 1997-2001, JRP|Ringer, 2012.

[2] According to the NAACP, from 1882-1968, 4,743 lynchings occurred in the United States. Of those lynched, 3,446 were Black, and 95 of those lynchings took place in states where segregation was illegal. 

[3] Following Emancipation, many Black individuals joined federal militias, many turned to indentured servitude, and many were unemployed. Due to large numbers of African-Americans relocating from plantations to southern towns where work was not available, brutal policing policies and "separate-but-equal" laws were put into place.

[4] Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011.