Photo essay by Jennifer Newsom
I focus excessively and dramatically on that which was never really hidden, but rarely is noticed. My
motivations are analogous in the sense that they are small—they only enlarge under the scrutiny of hindsight, which is usually a distortion.
—Philip Lorca diCorcia1
What does it mean to be a witness?
We operate with the belief that images have power—they help us to recollect the past. Yet with each remembering, we contend with our moving version of the truth. Images help induce oscillations between events and the narratives we make, the thousand words they tell. In the context of the images that are a part of this photo essay in particular, it is this vibration that gives me pause. These images are not stable. They are operating on many levels of witness, invalidating some narratives and authenticating others. They refer to certain places and times and weather and sounds and emotional states, but they don’t stay fixed in my mind, tied as they are by the tenuous cords of memory. They dredge things up from the bottom of the well each time I look at them.
On the one hand, they are telling the story of what was in the manner of photographic vérité. Put simply, they document people, places, and things, with light registers on a screen and date stamps in the metadata. They are instantiations, frozen moments where action is held in suspension.2 Images can catch history as it happens. “We were just walking around our neighborhood,” capturing the scene as it unfolded.
The images also participate in the how of photography and broader trajectories of image-making. There is a consideration of balance and weight and composition and form. We want to make images of some quality. We approach with an artistic eye, searching for the frames with the visual impact to draw us in.
Metaphorically, and perhaps most importantly, the images, too, are a visual reminder of the tension of that time—the fear, crisis, inescapable rage, and deep mourning that many of us felt. A man lost his life for lack of twenty dollars. That is a tragedy. The images tell of how we processed and are still processing those events.
I worry that images can fall into the trap where “culture simply sublimates desires for political and social change into visible, but ultimately ineffectual, forms.”3 What, really, can a photograph do? Who is it for? In a simplistic view, taking a picture is a voyeuristic act then processed for later consumption. It transmits for the purpose of viewing later, removed from the visceral event, at a distance from the real.
But perhaps that time gap is an important part of images’ currency. As Stan Douglas notes, when there is a transformation of society, “there’s a choice to be made as to what the future is going to look like. And by looking at those moments, we can see that the world we live in is not necessarily the only world we could have realized for ourselves.”4 They collapse the past with the present, pressing us to realize “that what we have now is not the only reality that is possible.” Images help us project into a different future.
Each of the photographs that follow implicates the viewer. As a witness of these images, you have become a new interpreter and co-conspirator in this story. How might these pixels get newly read or miscast? I, as the director, may have lost control; the actors may have gone astray. You bring your own histories to this work, too. I am curious what these images provoke in new improvisations. The camera was my choice of weapon in the moment, but what will the afterimage cause you to do?
In the footnotes included with each photo is a short text that contextualizes the image from our fragmentary perspectives. I have tried to lend some insight into what is happening in the picture, where you are in the city, and what the image might catalyze for someone who was there. At the end of the day, though, these are just snapshots of the life of the street, taken with a cellular phone. The truth of the matter is that we couldn’t look away.
The images in this photo essay were taken by Dream The Combine in the days immediately following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, MN on May 25, 2020.
A pawn shop on Lake Street burned down, about a 10-minute walk from our home. The building’s alarm had been ringing the entire day. No one stopped anyone doing anything. Maybe most said, “good riddance.”
On the right is the public library. In the next couple of days, its windows were covered with plywood and volunteers moved all the books within the front thirty feet of the building to the rear, hoping to save them from anticipated destruction. People wrote notes on the plywood. Some were prayers for how the building is a cherished part of the neighborhood.
Part of me is seduced by the aesthetics of this image, in no small part because it was caught on an iPhone in a split second of compositional awareness. It almost feels staged, the lighting mapped, the cropping just so. A woman and child, caught in a moment of effort, navigating the city as it fell in pieces around them.
They still need to get from A to B. Perhaps they waited for a bus that never came. Maybe they were there to take in the scene. My focus goes to the kid and the way he is tugging on his mother. She walks forward, pulling him along as she operates her phone. That insistent tug is so familiar to me as a parent. They are just walking, carrying on with the ordinary act of living.
It still seems odd to me that there are only two people captured in this photograph. What is somehow not shown are the roiling crowds just outside the frame: the cacophony of protest, the heat of that day, the tension in the air. Instead, the setting seems very calm.
The pair are crossing the expanse of parking in front of what was the AutoZone Auto Parts store on the corner of Minnehaha Avenue and Lake Street, catercorner to the 3rd Precinct police station. Later, video circulated online of a white man hitting the store windows behind these two figures with a hammer, while people around him pleaded for him to stop. He wrote the message “free shit for everyone zone,” encouraging the looting that would soon erupt in this part of the city. He is believed to be a white supremacist member of the Hells Angels and Aryan Cowboys.
A TCF Bank is adorned with pseudo-Doric columns and an entablature over brick veneer. A kind of Greek shrug fronted by a parking lot. The flag is hung at half-ish mast.
An extension of the property’s nonchalance is the way it is precisely and efficiently boarded up to stave off trespassers breaching the halls of capitalism. Truly, they know they will be fine.
The police are given a polite middle finger.
Protesters are throwing tear gas canisters back to the National Guard assembled in front of the 3rd Precinct police station.
I don’t really have much to add to this one, although it is a question with a lengthy back story. I could write about Inhabit. Global and the anarchist sentiments that were there, but I don’t really want to clutter the clarity of the question.
Informal infrastructures of care sprang up all over Minneapolis during the protests. There were free supermarkets full of donated food. Mutual aid sites with clothing, baby formula, diapers, toilet paper, and hand sanitizer. There were tables set out with water to help with the summer heat.
Often, roving medics would walk through the crowds. I remember them as though they were dressed in army fatigues but of course the photo tells otherwise. The tent wasn’t something official from the Red Cross, but some red duct tape plastered to a simple tent.
They were just ordinary people. People stepped up in the ways they felt they could, with the skillsets they had.
Memorial services for George Floyd happened in multiple cities, including Minneapolis, MN, Raeford, NC, and Houston, TX. During the Minneapolis service, a sound stage was set up at Floyd’s memorial at 38th Street and Chicago Avenue and the ceremony was broadcast outward to the assembled crowd.
Our son brought flowers, lush peonies from our garden, to lay at the site where Floyd died. Our daughter made blueberry muffins to distribute to the workers standing vigil and protecting this space of mourning. We listened to Al Sharpton deliver his eulogy. There were prayers and tears and a simple message to carry forward:
From love all things can flow and find their right direction. There is much work to be done, but really it is that simple.
1. Philip-Lorca diCorcia, “Reflections on Streetwork 1993–1997,” American Suburb X/ASX Magazine, August 1, 2015, accessed January 1, 2021, https://americansuburbx.com/2015/08/philip-lorca-dicorcia-reflections-on-streetwork-1993-1997.html.↵
3. Leah Sandals, “Stan Douglas on Why Still Photography Still Matters,” Canadian Art, April 30, 2014, https://canadianart.ca/features/stan-douglas-ryerson-image-centre/.↵
Jennifer Newsom is a registered architect, artist, and cofounder of Dream The Combine with Tom Carruthers. She is Assistant Professor at Cornell University College of Architecture, Art, and Planning. Dream The Combine’s work consists of large-scale, public art installations exploring metaphor, perceptual uncertainties, and the boundary between real and illusory space. They have exhibited in Seattle, Vancouver, Minneapolis, St. Paul, East Haddam, CT, Columbus, IN, and at MoMA and MoMA PS1 in New York as the winners of the 2018 Young Architects Program. They are recipients of the 2020-2021 J. Irwin and Xenia S. Miller Prize, the 2021 McKnight Fellowship for Visual Artists, the 2018 Art Omi Architecture Residency, and the 2017 FSP/Jerome Foundation Fellowship. Their work has been published widely, including The New York Times, Metropolis Magazine, Architect, Architectural Record, Log, The Architect’s Newspaper, and Dezeen.
www.dreamthecombine.com | @dreamthecombine