Reimagining a Tragedy, 50 Years Later

Dawoud Bey during his photo shoot at the Bethel Baptist Church. Location photograph by Truman Grayson via Dawoud Bey.

LENS: Photography, Video and Visual Journalism

Reimagining a Tragedy, 50 Years Later

By Maurice Berger

September 13, 2013

“As a youngster living in Queens, the photographer Dawoud Bey was traumatized by a picture he encountered in a civil rights photography book. In the stark black-and-white image, a 12-year-old African-American girl, Sarah Jean Collins, lies severely wounded in a hospital bed, her eyes covered by bandages. Blinded in one eye, Ms. Collins was one of the survivors of the deadly bombing by white supremacists of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., on Sept. 15, 1963.”

Mathes Manafee and Cassandra Griffin, 2012. Courtesy of Dawoud Bey.

The photograph has gripped Mr. Bey for the nearly five decades since he first saw it. It has taken him that long to create a response to it. With ‘The Birmingham Project,’ an exhibition of large-scale diptychs and a video at the Birmingham Museum of Art, his response has found its form, in time to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the bombing on Sunday.”

“Six children died on that day, including four girls in the blast, which occurred as they prepared for Sunday school. Mr. Bey’s diptychs pair a present-day youngster the same age as one of the murdered children with men and women the ages the boys and girls would be if they were alive today. ‘I wanted to give tangible and palpable physical presence to the young people martyred that day,” he said. “While the horror of the day is clear, the actual identities of the young people have become abstracted in a fuzzy and mythic kind of way.'”

Mary Parker and Chaela Cowa. Courtesy of Dawoud Bey.

“The five-month process of finding his subjects was arduous. They not only had to be the right age but also live in Birmingham. ‘The specificity of the ages made it that much more difficult,’ he said. ‘The outreach continued even while I was making the photographs.'”

“The unrelated sitters, paired only after all of the portraits were completed, share uncannily similar expressions and body language. ‘The decisions about which individual photographs to place together,’ Mr. Bey said, ‘had to do with how they related in a number of different ways, whether gestural or expressive, through disposition or some other personal aspect that would make each resonate more forcefully in relation to the other.'”

“This resonance intensifies the poignancy and emotional impact of the diptychs. Despite the half-century that separates them, the paired subjects speak to intermingled histories and shared destinies: adults who helped forge a path of acceptance and stability for African-Americans; the young beneficiaries of their bravery and largess who may well do the same for future generations.”

Timothy Huffman and Ira Sims, 2012. Courtesy of Dawoud Bey.

“This is but one of the legacies lost to the children who died, and one of the heartbreaking implications of the tragedy that Mr. Bey helps us grasp. His imagery transcends the limitations of social history, which usually ignores the human dimension of its nonfamous victims. ‘The Birmingham Project’ aims to restore their humanity and to underscore what has been lost.”

Trentin Williams and Willie Robinson, 2012. Courtesy of Dawoud Bey.

“Mr. Bey’s video, ‘9.15.63,’ further humanizes this story. Filmed in Birmingham, it evokes a quiet Sunday morning. In split screen, it juxtaposes a slow-motion pan of trees, the tops of buildings, lampposts and electrical poles, shot from below and framed by blue sky, with the interior details of businesses, like hair dryer hoods, a row of razors and clippers, or stools.”

Video still from “The Burmingham Project”. Courtesy of Dawoud Bey.

“By transforming an epochal story into a flesh and blood reality, ‘The Birmingham Project’ invites us to reflect on the consequences of a historic crime, and, through images of contemporary Americans who are no different from us, to examine our personal relationship to it. Identifying with the surrogates of six martyrs — young and old — we better comprehend, and feel, the magnitude of their loss: innocent childhoods obliterated in a violent flash, a half-century of wisdom learned and milestones achieved that would never be.”

Tyrone Webb and Matthew Lundy, 2012. Courtesy of Dawoud Bey.

“The Birmingham Project” will be on view at the Birmingham Museum of Art in Birmingham, Ala., through Dec. 2. To see the full project, visit Dawoud Bey’s official webpage.
To read the full article, visit “Reimaging a Tragedy, 50 Years Later

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