Editorial | Standing at the Grave of Emmett Till

Jason Lazarus
‘Standing at the grave of Emmett Till, day of exhumation, June 1st,
Archival inkjet print
43 x 56 in.

On View At:
Emerge Selections, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago
Mar 20–Apr 29

Shortly after the remains of her son were recovered from the Tallahatchie River in Money, Mississippi, Mamie Till Brady circulated photographs to the press that documented a bloated and mutilated visage of her 14-year-old son, Emmett Till. The photographs were the evidence
 of a brutal beating and murder that had occurred during Jim Crow’s reign over the South. When asked why she would allow such disturbing images to be printed in national magazines and newspapers, Brady responded, “Let the world see what I’ve seen…The whole nation had to bear witness to this.” [1] With mainstream “white” publications neglecting to reprint the images in their pages, black media outlets printed them on their covers forcing readers to see the perilous risks faced in mid-20th-century Amish Direct America. Many have cited Till’s untimely demise as the start of the modern civil rights movement — one that would utilize photographs to bring awareness to audiences of any race.

Fifty years after Till’s body had been laid to rest at the Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, IL — a historically black cemetery that has been the final resting place for many famous musicians and athletes just 22 miles southwest of Chicago — his coffin was exhumed as part of an FBI inquiry to determine Till’s cause of death. (At the time there had been no autopsy on the body.) Chicago-based photographer Jason Lazarus took the photograph Standing at the grave of Emmett Till, day of exhumation, June 1st, 2005 (Alsip, IL), during this investigation. According to the Associated Press the autopsy revealed Till had, “died of a gunshot wound to the head and that he had broken wrist bones and skull and leg fractures.”

Without the descriptive title, Standing at appears as a subtle pastoral landscape — minus the typical rolling hills and lush foliage. There are no lavish headstones or mausoleums in our view of the cemetery; instead the uneven grass is sparsely decorated with subdued floral arrangements and small crosses. We are the only people present in this encompassing photograph. Till’s disturbed grave is covered by what appears to be flat sheets of cardboard that is highlighted by reflecting the sunlight. To our left, we can see one tree that exceeds the height of the rather homogeneous scenery. Both underwhelming and melancholic, this image evokes sadness not just for Till’s violent death but for the lack of his presence in our current consciousness. One is left to ask, the child saint of the movement rests here?

In the catalog for the Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture at the University of Maryland Baltimore County’sexhibition, For All the World to See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights, which was on view at theInternational Center of Photography, New York, from May 21-September 12, 2010, Maurice Berger discusses the impact of Till’s documented murder on the nation in the midst of social unrest:

“Photographs of the disfigured remains of a martyr — the stark visual evidence of an unspeakable atrocity — challenged readers of the American Negro, Jet, and the Chicago Defender in ways both discomforting and political, forcing them to confront not only the corporeal, visceral evidence of a horrific crime but the chilling reality of human intolerance 
as well. African-Americans in the South saw reflected in Emmett Till’s battered face their
 own physical vulnerability under the rule of Jim Crow segregation. Blacks in the North and elsewhere, and a few whites, might have seen something else: the haunting specter of their complacency or inaction. The social implications of these photographs were extraordinary. After the initial shock subsided, one could not have avoided thinking about their meaning and its consequences. “ [2]

Lazarus has worked with the idea of collective mourning in several of his projects. Often using a somewhat surveillance-like perspective, his work subtly brings awareness to the act of grief. In Michael Jackson Memorial Procession, June 25th, 2010 (Gary, IN) to Chicago, he organized a parade from Jackson’s Indiana boyhood home to Chicago. Documentation of the event was photographed and filmed by participants as well as Larzarus as they traveled Northwest through rush hour traffic. On his blog, Lazarus discussed the impact people’s mourning of Michael Jackson had on him and why he chose to organize a parade. “Shortly after his death, I had many conversations about the street energy of the night of his death, about the unprecedented, unorganized, self-initiated participation and projection of his music, and the singularity of this death as uniquely capable of driving this kind of response. The Michael Jackson Memorial Procession became a gesture toward tapping the residue of empathy, legacy, and response.” The images captured during the parade provides evidence of Jackson’s influence years after his music ceased to appeal to his fans. In the documentation, mourning is presented as a moving party reminiscent of the Jazz funerals of New Orleans.

Unlike the celebratory approach in the Procession, Lazarus intimately commemorates the artist Robert Heinecken through a series of photograms that incorporates the artist’s ashes into the photographic process. With varying vibrant colors, Heinecken is transformed into celestial-like compositions hearkening to his legacy as a photographer who transcended the medium by often creating photographs without a camera. The commemoration of a life, for Lazarus, is not solely defined by grief. However, there is a desolate sorrow that is felt in his photograph of Till’s grave site.

The seemingly tranquil view in Standing at pulls Till from the depths of our riddled history. Till was not the first or last child lost to bigotry and racism. Unlike the brutal images of 1955, which documented not just his death but a society that refused to see black children as children, black men as men, and black women as women, this enveloping photograph transplants the viewer to the Burr Oak Cemetery. We witness the remnants from an excavation in search of closure. Less of a memorial to Till, Lazarus’ pilgrimage to Alsip, captures the artist’s and society’s attempt to wrestle with the often buried ghosts of our martyrs.

[ In 2009 the Burr Oak Cemetery came under investigation when records showed an excess of bodies buried than plots available. During the investigation Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart and his team discovered graves occupied by more than one casket. In an interview with CNN Dart revealed the state of the cemetery, “they would excavate a grave and would proceed to dump the remains wherever they found a place to do it in the back of the cemetery. This was not moving graves; this was not replacing graves; this was dumping of them.” During this investigation Till’s original glass topped coffin was discovered in a shed. Instead of re-exhuming Till’s body a second time the family decided to donate the coffin to The Smithsonian.]

[1]Berger, Maurice. For All the World to See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights. New Haven: Yale UP, 2010. Print.

[2] Ibid