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What Can Photographs Tell Us About the History of Redlining in the US?

Zora J Murff reflects on the intertwined legacies of segregation and violence in Black communities.

By M. Neelika Jayawardane

Zora Murff, Color photograph

Zora Murff, Jerrod (talking about hoods), 2019
Courtesy the artist

Zora J Murff’s new photobook, At No Point In Between, traces the history of redlining in US cities—systematic discrimination that has been implemented over decades as a result of decisions made by individuals, businesses, communities, and local governments to refuse services to Black, low-income, and otherwise marginalized communities. Although Murff reflects on the spectacle of sudden violence—as well as the legacy of segregation and slow violence—that redlining was designed to engineer, his work allows audiences to read images against a background of social conditions and individual lives. Crucially, he shows the myriad ways in which invisible policies continue to operate and impact Black communities. (Murff’s other, concurrent project, which informs his work for At No Point In Between, explores the intersections between historical structures of violence that targeted Black individuals and communities in the US, and how that structural violence is perpetuated today through the juvenile correction system.) Murff acknowledges that his foundational education in counseling and psychology contributed to how he conceptualized his book, likening it to what effective therapy can do. “When you go to see a therapist, they already know what’s wrong with you,” he noted recently, via email. “But they understand that if you find the answer yourself, you can take ownership over it, learn from it, and grow from it.”

Zora Murff, Bound, 2019

Zora Murff, Bound, 2019
Courtesy the artist

M. Neelika Jayawardane: How did you begin to think about redlining? How do you go about photographing something that is not really tangible, a system that is purposefully and systematically designed to not be visible? How does one “picture” something that businesses and policy-makers work hard (perhaps unconsciously) to bury under the rhetoric of security and safety?

Zora J Murff: A little under a year after being deeply impacted by seeing violent video footage of Laquan McDonald shot and killed by a police officer, I visited North Omaha. It was the first time since moving to Nebraska that I entered a new environment as a stranger, and I found that everyone else looked like me. I was also in an environment, for the first time in my life, where that Black majority had existed for a substantial period of time. I was fascinated by that feeling; this was a place where my mere existence was positively acknowledged and affirmed without question. As I passed through, I also noticed many vacant lots that stood as gaps in the landscape; more deeply, they were gaps in time. To me, these vacant lots laid bare truncations in memory within the community. I had a desire to know more, to fumble around in the dark spaces, those amputations in memory.

What I found was that amputations in memory exist so that we “forget” the actors in repetitive acts of racialized terror—but not the terror itself. I came first to the story of Will Brown, who in 1919 was lynched by a white mob for being accused of raping a white woman. Through Will Brown, I found Vivian Strong, the fourteen-year-old girl whose life was stolen by a police officer in 1969 for running away from him.

Next came the articles on the implications of the term “race riots” and how those events critically shaped communities. Then the publications on redlining (John McKnight in the 1960s) and the legal disenfranchisement of communities through the denial of access to wealth-building tools (primarily through homeownership). That led me to reflect on slow violence—insidious legislation, done on behalf of the federal government, which would prove to be an effective (and less identifiable) implement of harm, just as effective as bullets or nooses.

Last came the dissection of lynching photography. I saw photography’s resolute function as a mirroring device: how the image collapses onto itself, all at once reinforcing hatred and buttressing proof of injustice. In that dark space, I ran my finger along the edge of that dichotomy, and what I felt was akin to a Möbius strip, an edge that begins, ends, and brings you back to the beginning. I wanted the path through my work to feel the same way, with the complicated connections between images, histories, and contexts being my key to use photography as an implement to “plot and give figurative shape to formless threats whose fatal repercussions are dispersed across space and time,” as Rob Nixon states in Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor.

Zora Murff, Stripped, 2019

Zora Murff, Stripped, 2019
Courtesy the artist

Jayawardane: You use two appropriated images from a violent crime scene—stills from a phone video of a police killing—as “bookends.” The first image in the book (a tiny, five- or six-square-centimeter color insert positioned at the lower spine of the book) serves as an opening salvo. It shows a grainy image of a man in a turquoise shirt and black trousers running through an open, grassy area. It is Walter Scott, who was chased, shot, and killed by Michael Slager, a white police officer, following a daytime traffic stop for a nonfunctioning brake light. The last image in the book is another postage stamp-size still—that of Slager aiming his gun. The inclusion of these images is sort of an intervention into the traditional format of glossy photobooks. Although one might miss these images if one were carelessly flipping through the book, the power and impact of the narrative they carry—the moment one recognizes them—is unmistakable. Why use these two appropriated video stills to bookend your work?

Murff: My interest in using found or archival footage began as a result of the police killing I mentioned earlier—that of Laquan McDonald, who was shot by Jason Van Dyke, a white police officer; it was recorded by a dashcam. I became preoccupied with the McDonald case once the footage was released to the public. I decided to watch it; this was my first time watching any such footage, and it opened up a type of fear that I hadn’t felt before. I thought about my mom (for various reasons), but one primary reason was because I learned fear through her. The fundamental difference between those two types of fear is the fact that the fear I learned from my mom is based in love: a fear Black parents often instill in their children, because it is necessary for us to have the ability to recognize danger. The fear I felt from the footage was different. It had such depth that it seemed bottomless. With the acknowledgement of his name, Laquan McDonald, I acknowledged those names that were already written and those that would come after. It was in this moment that I was defining myself as an artist. Meanwhile, photography was clearly showing me that white supremacy is at the core of how the technology has been (and still is) used, and an essential part of many US institutions—including those that supported photography itself.

In my book, I chose to use a still from the video of Walter Scott, who was also killed by a white policeman, even as Scott was attempting to run away. I decided to split the still, because it’s the moment before Slager begins shooting. When I speak of layers of history, I think a better term to use might be distention, a statement that Terence Washington makes in his text in At No Point in Between: “the most radical thing is to choose time and its distention.”

The first half of the image establishes photography’s many potentials (specifically as evidence, as archive unto itself, as an object in service to an archive). Hopefully, that gesture carries forward, influencing how everything to come is seen. The second half of the image, of course, reinforces that idea, but brings with it a sort of weight or snap (a connecting of dots, perhaps). I found it crucial to lead the viewer back to the beginning, to recognize that with splitting the image, a fissure is opened, and they can begin to see all of those things that exist underneath images, moments, decisions. I’m asking, “What is the difference between a spectacle lynching, between a murder committed by police, between redlining?” If we retrace our steps back in time, all of those things (to me) become one and the same, stones in the foundation that set the trajectory of the larger, violent structure.

Zora Murff, Color photograph

Zora Murff, A Point (3), 2019
Courtesy the artist

Jayawardane: Can you speak more about your interest in creating an archive? 

Murff: When I began entertaining using this specific still in the book, I was thinking about how time and context shift the understanding of images, as well as the concept of archive building. When we look at images or archives, the intent of the maker, I believe, can never fully be erased. I would further posit that time is also always present: both the archive and the image are understood both in and out of time. For these reasons, I always saw this work as my creation of an archive: part archive of a specific place at a specific time, and part my interpretation of things happening in the American sociopolitical landscape between 2015 and 2018.

My motivation for including these images was to try and work through and present pathways to theorizing memory and time, and the gaps I found in both when Black communities have been subjected, long term, to racialized terror.

Recounting the day on which Scott was shot by Slager, Feidin Santana (the citizen who recorded the footage) stated that he “recorded the video so that maybe he [Scott] can feel that someone is there. . . . There were just the three of us in that moment. I couldn’t tell what was going to happen, so I just wanted him to know that he’s not by himself.” Santana made himself a witness, and with the dispersion of the video, made those of us who watched it witnesses too. He was also gathering evidence (thankfully) that would contradict the official story, and possibly lead to Slager’s conviction. The images will always hold that value.

The gravity of the situation, and the constant appearance of Santana’s video on news shows between 2015 (when the shooting occurred) and 2017 (when Slager was convicted), solidified the resulting images as icons. They become ingrained into our collective conscious. Such iconic images have the potential to define a time period. I can almost say with certainty that thirty years from now, many of us alive today will recall this image with ease. These ways of memory-keeping resonate with the way Shawn Michelle Smith, in Photography on the Color Line, describes an archive as something that exists not only as “a record of the past,” but as an entity that “makes a claim on history . . . [as] a vehicle of memory.” 

Zora Murff, Color portrait

Zora Murff, Jhalisa (talking about self), 2019
Courtesy the artist

Jayawardane: Your work reveals the rarely documented and rarely examined slow violence that redlining brings about—creating the conditions for the spectacular violence that we see on the news. The smallness of the image of Scott highlights the smallness of his worth—his physical matter, his political power, his social value—to the state. It becomes a metaphor for the perceived smallness of Black lives—redlined into invisibility in America. 

Murff: The creation of images—specifically in colonial and American history—has been used to create the perception of an “other.” From prints with renderings of Native peoples in the 1600s to soap advertisements promoting imperialist ideology, images were meant to promote white superiority, a tool to oppress. The white privilege of deciding how nonwhite people were seen, thereby promoting white supremacy, is deeply ingrained in the practice of image-making. Photography is not exempt from that. This isn’t a fatalistic view, because we can, of course, look back and clearly see errors in thinking on both societal and personal levels.

I think about this moment in Lisa Riordan Seville’s afterword in At No Point in Between: “I ask myself what it takes to perpetrate a casual act of photography amid the smell of burning flesh. But I do not ask why I do not see myself among the faces in the crowd. I could come up with reasons other than the truth, which is that because they are white and I am white, I can convince myself our stories are not conjoined. I can write around it. I know that is a failure of sight.”

The photograph she references here is the lynching photograph of Will Brown. In that picture, the men depicted all implicate themselves by appearing in the picture, many of them seeing their presence at this “event” as a point of pride. Their hubris was, of course, met and welcomed; a few of them were tried but eventually acquitted (a narrative too common at that time). Seville’s reflection reminds us that the reading and understanding of images is not absolute, and in that, there’s always hope.

Zora Murff, black and white portrait of man holding child

Zora Murff, Jerrod and Junior (talking about fatherhood), 2019
Courtesy the artist

Jayawardane: There is no directive introduction by the photographer in your book, and no text by contributors that provides factual information that contextualizes the images. One is a poem; the other a reflection. Why these oblique texts?

Murff: When I asked Lisa and Terence to write the texts, I asked them to write around the work rather than writing about it. I didn’t want to give too much away, and both writers found really subtle ways to implicate the viewer: Terence, through masterful, staccato pacing; and Lisa, through a skillful navigation between past, present, self, and society. I felt that to honor the spirit of the work, it was important to me to see their genuine interpretations of the collection of images. They didn’t disappoint.

Zora Murff, Color portrait

Zora Murff, Young Man (talking about his future), 2019
Courtesy the artist

Jayawardane: Your photography makes me think about the labor that engages in powerful, difficult forms of memorialization—labor that resists forgetting, and rather, encourages remembering that moves us to acknowledgement, accountability, and possibly, action. What forms of negation and forgetting is your work attempting to interrupt?

Murff: The early versions of this work were very heavy-handed. I remember hosting a studio visit with a faculty member at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, and he spoke a lot about the “volume” of the work. He suggested that I had it up way too loud. He showed me Emily Jacir’s installation ex libris (2010–12) and pointed me to a review of her work written by Cynthia Cruz, who states: “Her photos document the echo of a people; they inhabit the emptiness of that echo.” Before he left my studio, the last thing this faculty member said was, “We already understand this at a high volume. The video footage is loud. The protests are loud. Why does your work also have to be loud?”

For me, the silence is nuance. Rather than tell the viewer exactly what I’m thinking, it is more important to ask them, from the outset, to approach the work with a high level of investment and critical engagement. After all, I think that’s the most that we can ask from audiences. 

M. Neelika Jayawardane is Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York-Oswego, and a Research Associate at the Visual Identities in Art and Design (VIAD), University of Johannesburg. 

Zora J Murff’s photobook At No Point In Between was published by Dais Books in July 2019.

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