Imagine your son or daughter is dead. Imagine your spouse, suddenly taken from you. Not because of illness, not because of accident, but by murder in Camden, New Jersey.
Since 2008, I have been teaching photography in Camden at Rowan University. When I tell people I teach in one of the most dangerous cities in America, I often hear gasps. Most of my students have experienced murder in their families, and everyone seems to know at least one person who has been killed. Countless times a student will say in conversation, "When my brother was killed..." or "When my cousin was shot..." The people of Camden live in an American war zone.
About a year and a half ago, I noticed a sea of crosses at the side of a road near my school. I asked my class if anyone knew anything about them. They told me that the crosses stood for all of the people who were murdered in Camden that year, and that there was another collection in front of city hall.
When I drove to city hall, it brought me to tears. All of the shrines were individually painted and decorated by family members. I first thought I would photograph the shrines to add to another series I was working on, but as I looked at this sea of murder, I decided this story needed its own platform. These families were crying out for change in their city. I had to meet them.
I learned that every time a new murder was committed, the family members would "plant" a painted cross in front of city hall. Family, friends, and citizens would gather as they said goodbye to their loved ones. I will never forget my first cross planting experience in 2012. It was for murder victim #67, 25-year old Rasheeda "Piggy" Pegues. I watched her family hammer the cross into the ground as Piggy's sister collapsed to the ground in despair. I wanted to photograph families who were grieving, but this was not how I would do it.
I didn't know if the families would be receptive to being photographed, but my requests were met with eager reception. They were not just grieving. They were furious. They were tired of burying their children, their friends and relatives. They wanted their grief and anger heard, and they welcomed my camera into their efforts.
I started photographing families holding their crosses at city hall. It seemed appropriate to show one family standing out amongst the masses. This would send a message through repetition -- one family of many. City hall soon demanded that the crosses be taken down. The families would no longer have the space to both pay tribute to their loved ones, and protest the violence in their city. The people in city hall didn't want to look at this massive graveyard anymore.
I learned that many of the families also had shrines where their loved ones were murdered, and some had created such spaces at their homes. I started to photograph them. Each of the families had something in common: strength. They look into the camera knowing the power of a photograph. The families and I made a connection, hoping that we can put faces to all of those shrines outside of city hall. These are the faces, the families and the spirits who have been individually crushed by each murder. It is one thing to hear that many people have been killed, but it is another to look into their family's eyes, to see what this has done to them.
Alma Brito's mother has her front porch dedicated to her daughter with a huge blanket that gets hung every morning, and brought in every night. Qua'Nyrah Houston's mother preserves her daughter's entire bedroom as a shrine. Kevin Miller's family has a glass display case with his ashes and most prized possessions. Anjanea Williams' family planted a metal cross at the scene of her murder. The list of victims and their stories goes on and on. These are just four of the three hundred twenty-four murders that have occurred in Camden in the last seven years.
By photographing these families and retelling their stories, I hope to bring awareness to a city that could be anyone's home. Why do some people get to grow up in a safe environment while others have to dodge bullets? The violence in Camden, New Jersey is a symptom of a larger and scarier issue going on in America. We are one of the wealthiest nations in the world yet we turn our backs on our nation's poor. We have all the resources in the world, yet we don't control the guns that are killing our children. Not everyone has the privilege of growing up in an area that feels safe. Where we are born and raised often isn't up to us. The people of Camden are crying out for change, in their city and in this country. Will we listen?
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