As an eleven year old growing up in Queens, Dawoud Bey came upon a copy of a book published by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee called “The Movement”. With text by Lorraine Hansberry accompanied by photographs from numerous artists, the book captured the pain, political vitriol, emotion and hatred that swirled around Civil Rights workers in the early 1960s. One photo of a church bombing victim left an indelible mark on young Bey. Sarah Collins was one of the survivors of the deadly 1963 bombing at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama that killed her sister and three other girls the morning before Sunday school. A black and white photo of Collins in a hospital bed, face swollen with both eyes covered in bandages, is a picture of pure trauma. The disturbing image stayed with Dawoud Bey and when the specter of the image continued to haunt him decades later, the artist/photographer decided to address the memory head-on through his work.
The result of 7 years of research, numerous interviews and immersion into Birmingham’s community led to the 2013 Birmingham Project, a series of current day photographs of young subjects the same age as the girls who died in 1963 (11,14) shown next to images of women at the ages the victims would have been today had their lives been spared in 1963. The diptychs symbolically bring the past into the present shown through the lens of history.
During Bey’s travels and research in Birmingham the artist learned more about the political climate and the social constructs behind Birmingham circa 1963 which gave him a unique perspective on the social psyche of the city at the time. This process revealed untold stories left out of the historical record, and it uncovered a passivity and silence and that unwittingly enabled and fueled hostility toward Civil Rights workers.
As the artist noted in his observations on the series in a blog post, “history as it is lived is usually messier and certainly more nuanced than the mythic history afforded by historical hindsight.”
Bey’s project was shaped by the little known stories of two black boys who were also murdered in Birmingham the same day of the September 1963 bombing, one by a gang of white men who shot him while he was riding on a bike and the other was shot by a police officer who thought the child was throwing rocks in protest. The invisibility and omission of these two tragic deaths in historical record can lead us to many conclusions about invisibility, power and perception, but Bey’s inclusion of their stories through this project is an important step toward processing and understanding events today. By confronting our history in the present, he is not only giving new life to the memory, he also exposes how the seemingly benign behaviors and choices we make today will assuredly impact our future. I strongly suggest reading his thoughts on his creative process just prior to his completion of the Birmingham Project on the artist’s blog called What’s Going On.