when the dust clears

Words about and images of matters political, social, and military

Archive for the ‘Portrait’ Category

God Sees All

leave a comment »

Evergreen Cemetery, Richmond, VA, April 23, 2014

Evergreen Cemetery, Richmond, VA, April 23, 2014

Charles Byrd drove his front-end loader to the end of the gravel road. He cut the engine, hopped out of the cab, and nodded at me. “That’s Maggie Walker’s grave,” Mr. Byrd said. I had just photographed the curved headstone without noticing who it honored, Maggie Lena Walker: savings bank founder, newspaper publisher, civic leader, Jim Crow battler, daughter of an enslaved woman.

Under my feet.

Mr. Byrd, a contractor, said he was heading to the mausoleum that Mr. Harris, who was working in another part of Evergreen Cemetery, had told him about. He took a narrow, grass footpath that looked promising into the trees.

Charles Byrd, Contractor, Evergreen Cemetery, Richmond, VA, April 23, 2014

Charles Byrd, Contractor, Evergreen Cemetery, Richmond, VA, April 23, 2014

Mr. Byrd shouted for me in barely a minute.

As you approach from the side, the crypt looks more stately than spooky. The part of the building that isn’t obscured by leaves and branches appears solid. Tendrils of ivy creep down the walls from its roof. But as you swing around to the front, down a slight hill, you see tragedy head on—a huge, ragged hole has been punched through the cinderblock façade. I gather that the ugly gray bricks had been laid to cover an earlier desecration of the original door. The name carved into the stone at the top of the structure is “Braxton.”

We stared into the hole at the exposed coffins.

“Why would somebody do something like this,” Mr. Byrd said, not asking me, just saying.

I feel this whenever I document human ugliness: a surge of adrenalin and my news reporter’s predatory hunger mashed up with disgust and anger. Sadness, too.

Rust had destroyed the finish of the casket directly in front of us. The fixtures were busted. The lid had been wrenched off. The two caskets to the right had been dragged off their shelves as far as they would come. The floor was heaped with shattered headstones, trash, a woman’s wig. It seemed that the people who did this had plenty of time to destroy and despoil. We didn’t know how awful the story was—the dead had been pulled from their caskets—until afterward, when we Googled our way to video a by KIDA Productions. (Scroll down to “Evergreen Cemetery: History in Ruins.”)

Evergreen Cemetery is enormous. It’s part of a patchwork of African American graveyards that covers acres of Richmond’s east side, East End Cemetery among them. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of graves have been absorbed by the forest. They are invisible beneath the green and brown tangle. Volunteers from the Virginia Roots Cemetery Restoration Project, local colleges, professional landscapers, even the army’s Fort Lee do regular cleanup operations. A local chapter of black fraternity Omega Psi Phi minds the plot where Walker and John Mitchell, Jr., editor of the Richmond Planet, are buried. But nature is very aggressive here, hard to fight with limited resources; the cemetery’s owners made no provision for perpetual care, which led to its current state. And then there are the vandals. (Volunteer wrangler John Shuck tells us that “an issue” with the owners of Evergreen has ended cleanup efforts there. Volunteers are now working at East End. Here’s a link to their Work Calendar for folks who want to pitch in.)

In red marker, someone has written on the center coffin, “God Sees All”; and at the rim of the hole, “Smile. Your [sic] On Camera.” Perhaps a deterrent to further outrages. Perhaps not.

 

His hammer had five strings… Pete Seeger dies at 94

with 2 comments

Pete Seeger before rehearsal for Barack Obama’s inaugural concert at the Lincoln Memorial, January 2009

Expected news that’s still devastating … Nelson Mandela dies.

leave a comment »

RIP_Crop_2_Temp_Mandela_19930701_Image-004

A man, not a saint, who made war against apartheid; endured the inevitable, brutal reaction; and then emerged from prison to teach South Africa and the world about peace and compassion.

From the BXP photo archive: David Duke, white supremacist/GOP office holder, July 4, 1991

leave a comment »

Man holding Nazi-era sign at rally for David Duke. Translation is "The Jew: War Agitator. War Perpetuater." New Orleans, LA, July 4, 1991

Man holding Nazi-era sign at rally for David Duke. Translation is “The Jew: War Agitator. War Perpetuater.” New Orleans, LA, July 4, 1991

I’d already been thinking a lot about the Ku Klux Klan when the publication of Anthony Karen’s new photo book, White Pride, was announced. When slavery and the Civil War ended, the Klan swept in to preserve the South’s social, political, and economic order by terrorizing the newly freed, who might have been tempted to exercise their new rights. Karen’s gentle comments to an interviewer about the “pro-America” folks who flock to the group and its white supremacist brother/sister organizations struck—actually hammered—a nerve.

I remember photographing “Dukefest” in 1991, on the Fourth of July no less, in New Orleans. Louisiana state legislator David Duke—also founder of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and the National Association for White People—was firing up a campaign for governor. The shape-shifting Duke was as slick as goose excrement, playing up his equal-rights-for-downtrodden-whites rhetoric and downplaying his Nazi uniform-wearing and Klan-klothed days. Some of Duke’s adherents, however, didn’t get the play-nice-for-the-camera memo. They did what they could to jostle the out-of-town reporters, spill beer on us. Thankfully, the cops knew the drill and prevented anything untoward from happening. They made it safe enough for Danny Schecter, me, and other non-Aryans to document the scene: a crowd of white folks barbecuing and gamboling at the center of City Park in one of the blackest (as in African Americanest) cities in the U.S.

David Duke at a campaign event during his run for Louisiana governor. New Orleans, LA, July 4, 1991

David Duke at a campaign event during his run for Louisiana governor. New Orleans, LA, July 4, 1991

Duke was a manipulator, if not the most masterful one. He wasn’t urbane (or smart) enough to sanitize himself so he could slide into the mainstream of the Republican party. (There’s only so much scrubbing you can do to get rid of the stink of fascism.)

Duke appealed to a swath of disaffected, poor white folks who believed that affirmative action and other programs designed (sometimes poorly) to mitigate discriminatory practices and policies were the stake in the heart of their dreams.

But it would be condescending, one might say racist, to assume that Duke’s stalwart supporters didn’t know of his fascist roots. There were (and still are) plenty of conservative groups that don’t wave the flag of racism and anti-semitism. So one might assume that a fair portion of Duke’s followers were attracted to these very things in his barely concealed past.

I’m looking forward to seeing Karen’s book. I want to know if the photographer sees and works both compassionately and critically. I have no doubt that his subjects’ individuality and the circumstances of their lives may be interesting, even compelling. But a book focused on members of America’s oldest terrorist organization must also explore its subjects’ relationship to the Klan’s legacy of hate, brutality, and murder—a legacy they have chosen to embrace. Otherwise, it’s simply environmental portraiture—or propaganda.

From the BXP photo archives: Harlem, 2004; Taiwan, 1987

with 5 comments

Development and Finishing Institute students learn dining etiquette at the Plaza Hotel, New York City, 2004

Development and Finishing Institute students learn dining etiquette at the Plaza Hotel, New York City, 2004

Rose Murdock started Harlem’s Development and Finishing Institute in 2002 to teach African American girls and Latinas (and later boys) etiquette and comportment. Bourgeois? Bien sûr! But Ms. Rose had no time or patience to indulge in debate. Her philosophy: Girls of color need every arrow in their quiver to succeed professionally and financially, from working a salad fork to speaking on the phone with a college recruiter or potential employer. Period. I respected that, though I did find the focus on the salad-fork side of things a bit much. Of course, Emily Post would have cringed watching me tuck into lunch.

The school is still up and running.

School boy in an alley, Taipei, Taiwan, 1987

School boy in an alley, Taipei, Taiwan, 1987

As I did years later in China—and everywhere else I have visited—I strayed from the main streets to learn and photograph. The boy had been tossing a rubber ball in the air but stopped when I approached. He faced me and posed. I made an exposure. I waved. He waved, and scooted off.

My ability to walk backward and speak passable Mandarin landed me a job as a legal proofreader in Taiwan, fresh our of college, in 1986. I had spent the summer of my junior year giving campus tours. My only takers on one dreary day in Providence, RI, were a family of three. Dad was a senior partner in a Taipei law firm; I was graduating with a degree in East Asian Studies. We chatted. He gave me his business card, told me to get in touch. I began pushing a pencil for him just a few months later.

The job entailed sitting in a cubicle at the back of the sprawling offices of Lee & Li Attorneys at Law, Monday through Friday and half of Saturday. My neighbor there was an elderly and flatulent translator.

I knew little of international law—Lee & Li’s core practice—and during the first couple of months managed to excise perfectly fine legalese from documents written by L&L’s U.S.-educated Taiwanese lawyers.

I had time on my hands, but I was duct taped to my admittedly comfortable chair. My workload had lightened after they hired another American proofreader. Plus, most of L&L’s attorneys spoke English fluently, so I wasn’t able to work on my Mandarin very much. I got quite good at the NY Times crossword puzzle in the International Herald Tribune. I also managed to work my way through an armload of novels. (Web surfing was far in the future.) And I lived for lunchtime at the cafeteria in the basement of the Formosa Plastics Building, L&L ‘s headquarters. Every day the steam table sagged under trays of scrambled eggs and tomatoes, various seaweeds, chicken and pork chunks, crunchy stir-fried veggies.

I had committed to a two-year term, but I had realized I was not lawyer material. I left after six months for the grand tour of Asia I had mapped out between puzzling and reading—China, Mongolia, the Soviet Far East, and beyond—only to get laid low by giardia in Nepal. That’s another story.

Making the ground talk

with 2 comments

Snowden, Goochland VA, November, 2012

Snowden, Goochland VA, November 2012

The backyard of Snowden, a pre–Civil War brick plantation home in Goochland County, Virginia, is the James River Valley. The yellow-brown fields, bare except for remnants of cornhusks and stalks, dip and rise into a stand of trees where a few cows nibble whatever cows nibble in late November. The landscape is beautiful but austere. I know it’ll look very different in the spring, reassuringly green, but still I marvel that men like my great-grandfather Mathew Palmer were able to coax pounds of tobacco and bushels of corn, wheat, and oats from this folding, sloping terrain. But I’m not a farmer, like Mat, his children, and my father, when he was a very young man.

View of the valley from rear of Snowden, Photo by Erin, November 2012

View of the valley from rear of Snowden, Photo by Erin, November 2012

It’s quiet, and I’m alone for the moment. My wife, Erin, explores the grounds, tended only by a flock of mildly curious sheep. I squeeze my eyes shut and try to imagine Mat and this place as it was in 1860. He would have been just shy of 20 years old, if the scant records kept of his life are accurate. I have a tough time visualizing. Scenes from the melodramatic 1970s miniseries Roots muddy my efforts.

Snowden from the rear, Photo by Erin Hollaway Palmer, November 2012

Snowden from the rear, Photo by Erin Hollaway Palmer, November 2012

Almost a year after first standing at my great-grandfather’s grave, I have gathered only a few fragments of his life. But they are telling, a promising beginning.

Finding a single photograph of Mat took months—plus luck, and the kindness and generosity of distant relatives. They assured me a portrait of Mathew hung on the wall of their church, directly across from the pastor’s office. I asked how I might go about getting permission to see it. Permission? Just come to church on Sunday, they said.

The photo itself appears to be a copy of a copy of a copy—it’s grainy and a mushy gray—circa 1910, which would put him in his late 60s. But I see the man. Long, gaunt face. High cheekbones. I read his expression as something between grim and determined. In him I see my grandfather Lewis, of whom there are several crystal clear photos. And I see my dad just before he died last year, when the fat of relative prosperity had disappeared from his face. All of these men were extraordinary ordinary people, men who faced discrimination and poverty stoically, at least in public, bore their burdens, and moved forward.

Mat Palmer, circa 1900, Williamsburg, VA

Mat Palmer, circa 1900, Williamsburg, VA

It’s easier to visualize what life might have been like for my great-grandfather’s likely owner, who lived at Snowden. The white, slave-owning gentry, of which Alexander Maben Hobson was a member, gathered their own stories and fashioned them into “history”; their comings, goings, and doings were deemed important enough to record.

Erin and I also happen to be staying at a marvelously appointed bed and breakfast, Clover Forest Plantation, the former home of Hobson’s in-laws, the Pembertons. The families were as close as their plantations, which are next door to each other. This morning, we breakfasted with the Pemberton family patriarch, Thomas, a Revolutionary War veteran. The captain surveys the green landscape from horseback in the portrait above the fireplace. If Pemberton, a planter with 55 enslaved people in 1810, could look down from his perch, he’d spy an interracial couple eating omelets and just-fried beignets on heirloom china in what used to be his bedroom.

Maben Hobson served during the Civil War with the 4th Virginia Cavalry. Company muster rolls, “regimental returns,” and a host of other documents I got from Richmond’s  Museum of the Confederacy show that he was absent from duty because of illness about as much as he was present. Whatever ailed him, killed him. “He lay ill for six weeks, and then died a struggling painful death without uttering one word to give us hope that he made peace with God!” his sister-in-law Annie wrote in her wartime diary.

“God grant that I may not stand again by such deathbed,” she wrote in December 1863, two months after Hobson passed. “He was raving in delirium all the time, his death throes were like a woman’s in travail, his deep sephulcral voice—articulation and modulation almost gone—sound in my ears now.”

Frame grab from Mat Palmer's Union pension application

Frame grab from Mat Palmer’s Union pension application

Mat Palmer also served during the Civil War. This is where his trail begins. Somehow—I’m trying to determine this now—he traveled from Goochland to Richmond, where he enlisted in 1865 with the United States Colored Troops, the Union Army’s 180,000-strong African American arm. After the war, he married a woman from Gloucester County named Julia, about whom we know next to nothing, because black women mattered even less than black men to those compiling records.

They settled near the banks of the York River, not far from Williamsburg, carved a farm from the swampy land, and raised 12 children, including Lewis, my grandfather. Julia died in 1910, Mat in 1927, outliving Hobson by a good 64 years. They deeded their property to their children—and a decade and a half later, the government took it away.

Using eminent domain under the Second War Powers Act, the Navy condemned and seized my family’s property—and that of hundreds of other families, black and white—to expand a training base for “Seabees,” navy construction battalions, during World War II. Compensation was meager, and for blacks, many of whom lived at the subsistence level, not nearly enough to establish themselves elsewhere. My father, Eddie, recalled the eviction vividly. “They ordered some families in Magruder to leave their homes and they gave them 60 days or so to prepare to leave, abandon their property completely because it’s going to be bulldozed,” my dad told me. “The Seabees were marching in the back of our home, our homes, before we left, before they settled with my father. My father refused to leave until he was paid his money. When he saw a check, that’s when we moved,” my dad recalled. That was Lewis Palmer—tough, dogged, unafraid—whose settlement with the government, more than $1,700, was several times what many black families received.

If he had any innocence at age 14, and I suspect he did, much of it was stomped out of him after the dislocation and relocation. He died last year still embittered about the land seizure and how it decimated his—our—family’s fortunes.

Grave of Mathew Palmer, Mouquin's/Finger Road Cemetery, Armed Forces Experimental Training Activity–Camp Peary, VA, July 2012

Grave of Mathew Palmer, Mouquin’s/Finger Road Cemetery, Armed Forces Experimental Training Activity–Camp Peary, VA, July 2012

Mat’s grave is in a cemetery within the confines of Camp Peary, a Defense Department and CIA facility. What happens on base is classified, so visitors must always be escorted. I needed permission from the base commander to visit, which was granted.

I visited his grave in early 2012. I was so overwhelmed that Erin had to do much of my thinking for me. She framed the enormity of the paradox: Mat Palmer had been property before winning the right to own property. Land was the measure of citizenship, even the circumscribed and dangerously provisional form lived by black folk.

Mat is a piece of a past I did not know I had, an unrecognized piece of me that I’m working to reclaim.

Portrait of Libyan National Congress President Mohamed Magariaf

leave a comment »

During the United Nations General Assembly last month, I got an assignment to photograph Mohamed Magariaf, the president of Libya’s National Congress.

After I shot the less-than-interesting “official” portrait, I made this frame of him sitting on the couch.

BBC has what seems to be a good bio of Magariaf, interim head of state.

Mohamed Magariaf, New York, NY, September 28, 2012