The following article was written for Musée Magazine Issue 12- Controversy
Andrea Blanch: How long did the Erased Lynching series take you?
Ken Gonzales-Day: I’ve been doing research on the subject of lynching since about 2000. I was researching the history of Latinos in California and looking at portrait photography for the period between 1850 and 1900. I kept coming across images of Latino men who ended up being hanged. That was what started the investigation. It’s the history before the history of lynching that we all know. I discovered 354 cases in the state of California that revealed Latinos, Native Americans, and Chinese, when combined, were the largest group. I started the Erased Lynchings in 2002 or 2003 because nobody had ever heard of this history and I was trying to find a way to talk about historical erasure. On one level, it was a metaphor but on another level, I was trying to provoke people to talk about these missing histories.
AB: Why do you think the Latino community was singled out?
KGD: Most of the cases date from when California first became a state in the 1850s. There was antagonism and a fair amount of border crossing from renegade bandits. There was anxiety about the US-Mexico border, not unlike today. That was another reason I started the project, to talk about current tensions between the US and Mexico. I started the project during the Bush administration when we were talking about building a wall and other such measures.
AB: What was your research process like? Did you encounter any difficulties?
KGD: All of the books published don’t record this history or when they do, they often diminish the impact of Latinos. I started by reading Wild West adventure novels and historical books from the period and then later I had to actually go and fact-check, so I read the newspapers for Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento and the Steamer editions from 1850-1877.
AB: How do you think this body of work brings in the history of photography?
KGD: A number of different ways. For “Searching for California Hang Trees,” I took the Deardorff camera, which was used by Weston and Berenice Abbott and others, and used the master’s tool to rethink the California landscape. We are used to thinking of it as an empty space that is ready to be explored, conquered, exploited, farmed, mined, or whatever. I was trying to get at the idea that there was a history before history, invisible in the landscape, of people that were here before. I tried to create images that spoke to that without doing any triggering. I wanted to create a photographic meditation on this idea of the history.
AB: Why do you think lynching still occurred when there were formalized methods of law enforcement in place and even when lynching was explicitly outlawed?
KGD: Sometimes it was because the legal system had been taking too long. Sometimes it would be the accusation was something dramatic, like a villainous crime against a woman or a child. Sometimes it was just being in the wrong place at the wrong time: they might go into the sheriff’s office to get a particular bad guy, and just take everyone else as well. Some of the early cases are from the 1850’s and 60’s, when the legal system was still developing. There was a 16 or 17 year old Latino who got lynched in downtown Los Angeles because he was accused of killing a German woman who ran a grocery store. They catch this kid in the street and stab him, and then they take him to the corner and hang him. The thing is, we don’t know if they got the right kid, or if there was guilt of a crime. Everyone deserves the legal process. There are also cases where they didn’t like the legal process. Say somebody got a life sentence rather than a death sentence, they might break in and actually execute them there. I came across the coroner’s report which had details for a specific lynching in the 1920’s. In this particular case, it seems the police were involved because there had been a shootout and a detective was shot. A group of these men were arrested and lynched from the prison. It happened within 12 minutes from the time they were broken out of the jail cell. It was not a mob in the way people imagine how a mob works; it was a planned event. In terms of contemporary events, I wanted to talk about the police violence that we’ve all been engaging in recently and put that in a larger context.
AB: What is the symbolism behind these absences and empty spaces in your images?
KGD: The absences are for the histories that are not represented, for all the social and cultural dynamics we can’t name, all the things that escaped naming. The current project is about collective violence versus collective resistance, and pairing contemporary events with the historic. When you look at the Ferguson images, you see burned down buildings and the empty streets. Is that a result of mob violence or collective resistance? The only way we can interpret that information is if we have the historical information. The photograph itself is unable to give you the editorial; it can record but it’s not necessarily truthful. The absences allow the viewer to think about their relationship to the image, not just my relationship with the image. We are all responsible for how these images function and how these histories manifest themselves.
AB: In your opinion, how has race related violence evolved and changed in America throughout the course of history and what is the difference, if any?
KGD: Initially, the idea was to use the vigilance committee, the mob, as a way to bring justice to the Wild West. By 1920, the vigilance committee was used as a way to mask an intentional, targeted killing. If you look at the statistics, one sees that often a person of color will have to do less to receive capital punishment than an Anglo person. We see that from the very beginning. I have, in the book, a parallel record of legal executions which is roughly 20-25% people of color, which is disproportionate for the population at the time. Today, we are aware that there are histories of racial violence and oppression but we also imagine ourselves to be beyond racism.. The invisibility and the nuance of difference are harder to talk about. We can talk about education, prison populations, and the distribution of food. It’s still a factor, but now we would say it is an economic, biological, cultural, or social factor.
AB: Do you believe, as civilians, we can improve the situation with police brutality and vigilante justice, such as with the Trayvon Martin case?
KGD: Certainly, there have to be ways to improve the procedures, whether that be through training or better education, not just of the police, but also of the community members. I photographed the protests after the grand jury verdict to not indict the police officer for the Michael Brown case. 180 people were arrested, mostly young adult activists trying to exercise their civic duties. Some of them will now have criminal records. How does one even talk about that? The theme for the show is “collective resistance vs collective violence.” Can we really tell the difference? I was thinking about the lynch mob in the 1920s case and the protest marchers of our own time, and the strange dynamic of what we consider the legal, moral, and ethical high ground. Who is the bad guy, and how does that function? Are we all a part of the mob? A mob is not how people have imagined a spontaneous collection of people. For the most part they were planned in advanced. So the question of spontaneity has been a way of masking what has really been racial violence. In the same way we can think of these police shootings as masking a bigger problem. Why is it happening all across the country and happening in such numbers? Maybe it has always been happening in such numbers, as some studies suggest, but the larger question there is what will it take to eliminate that situation? Forget blaming the victim or the police officer. What do we have to do to socially and culturally create a place where people don’t have that kind of fear, anxiety, and pressure?
AB: What have been some of the reactions to this project?
KGD: It varies, but mainly supportive. It’s still hard for people to look beyond the drama of the images at the larger questions. That’s why I wanted to revisit it in a new form. I thought the film would allow people to have a temporal experience, to engage with the history in a new way. Like in Erased Lynchings, I allowed the viewer to see the figure up until the moment he reaches the tree and then he is no longer visible. You have a feeling of an absence but you’re not exactly sure how it manifests itself. My hope was that people would see the connections to current events, and understand that they are part of a continuum dating back to the origins of our nation.
AB: Do you feel as though you’ve explored all you’ve wanted to explore with this subject?
KGD: I’m working on a public art project for the LAPD. I’m going to be doing a series of work that pools images from both scientific or ethnographic collections in museums, and looks at how race has been depicted through time. We have all read texts and we can all imagine various theories. But it is different is to read someone’s editorial versus seeing the object. For example, what did a cast of a Native American look like when it was first displayed in 1915, and then what did it look like in 1930? Which color did they paint the skin? Did they accent certain features? The Profiled book looked at the idea of artistic representations of race. I always imagined there would be another book that looked at the scientific depiction. I’ve been photographing in museums over three continents and I have about 12,000 images so far. For the most part, these objects are embarrassments for the institutions responsible for their upkeep. Their scientific value is nonexistent, but they do tell us something about how people back then were thinking about a group or community. A lot of the things are in storage spaces and are no longer encountered. Nobody has seen or has wanted to see many of them for hundreds of years. I’m bringing them out of the shadows. It’s an invisible museum, I suppose, on some level.
AB: Do you view your photography as a mode of social justice?
KGD: I think of it as a mode of social engagement, as political speech or as a speech in general. These series take such a long time because to elicit the kinds of engagement I hope for is more than one image can do. It’s more like a pathway that allows viewers to engage with different histories, different approaches, and hopefully with a beautiful aesthetic to engage them on another level as well. Some of these strange, racist plaster objects from some ancient museum are quite beautiful; there’s a melancholy to them. I am inviting people to slow down and contemplate things that are not inherently pleasurable, but there might be some pleasure in trying to piece out the jigsaw puzzle that is racial and cultural discourse.
AB: How does your identification as a Mexican-American influence your work?
KGD: It influences certainly the topics and the issues I’ve been drawn to. I’m mixed race: my mom is Anglo-American, Germanic, and my father is Mexican and Native American. I’ve always been aware of the different cultural things that might be put on me depending on the context. I do think that that has informed my interest in looking at the periphery of these discourses and not simply stating the obvious, but maybe the more nuanced part, how that legacy continues today or how that might be symptomatic of larger cultural, social, and economic issues.
AB: What advice would you give for an artist or photographer that wanted to embark on a project this large in scope?
KGD: Don’t do it! Take your vitamins and get lots of rest! I don’t think I realized exactly what it was when I started out so it’s hard to imagine. For me it was trying to plan it out visually, to create artwork that engages and that can be engaged with socially and culturally. As an artist, we can speak to those issues in ways that are different than the historian or the politician. Sometimes my students will ask, “Shouldn’t I just go write the book or make the documentary or change the world by adding information?” With a lot of cases, the information has always been there; it’s a matter of getting the information back out there to re-engage people, and provide them with a new way to experience the complexities of human interaction.
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