WHEN HE WAS A YOUNG BOY, a book of photographs forever changed Dawoud Bey‘s perspective in terms of his vulnerability as a black child. His parents purchased the book in 1964 after hearing James Baldwin speak at their church in Queens, N.Y. The event was part of a tour organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). At the conclusion of Baldwin’s talk, “The Movement: Documentary of a Struggle for Equality,” a volume about the Civil Rights Movement with text written by Lorraine Hansberry was sold to raise money for SNCC.
Among the images in the book was a photograph of Sarah Jean Collins, 12. Her sister, Addie Mae Collins, 14, was one of the four girls killed in the bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., on Sept. 15, 1963, 55 years ago today. The congregation’s children were planning for an annual Youth Day program when a bomb set by the Ku Klux Klan went off in the stairwell of the church. Among the 17 injured, Sarah survived the blast, but lost her right eye. The photograph is a tight shot of her lying in the hospital, nestled under bed covers with burns on her face, her lips swollen, and gauze bandages covering her eyes.
“There were a number of horrific photographs in that book. There were lynching photographs in that book and other photographs that I think visualized all of the things up until that moment that my parents had tried to protect me from,” Bey said.
“When I saw this photograph [of Sarah Jean Collins], this photograph seared itself, seared its way into my pysche. I don’t know if I entirely intuited at that moment that I was pretty much the same age as the girl that I was looking at. The visceral response may very well have been related to that, but I never forgot this photograph, and I very often describe my life as my life before this photograph and my life after this photograph. It was that dramatic and traumatic an experience, seeing this photograph.”
“When I saw this photograph [of Sarah Jean Collins], this photograph… seared its way into my pysche. …I never forgot this photograph, and I very often describe my life as my life before this photograph and my life after this photograph.” — Dawoud Bey
DAWOUD BEY, “Don Sledge and Moses Austin,” 2012 (inkjet prints mounted to dibond, overall: 101.6 x 162.56 cm (40 x 64 inches). | National Gallery of Art, Washington, Purchased as a Gift of Peter and Rose Edwards and the Alfred H. Moses and Fern M. Schad Fund
BEY RECOUNTED THIS DEFINING EXPERIENCE earlier this week at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., where an exhibition of his Birmingham photos is now on view. The Chicago-based photographer spoke about “The Birmingham Project” at a press opening and described visiting Birmingham for the first time in 2005, 41 years after seeing the jarring photograph of Sarah.
Birmingham was a hot bed of the Civil Rights Movement and the church bombing wasn’t the first time the black community experienced a terroristic dynamite blast. The Klan and the White Citizens’ Council were determined to kill, sow fear, and tamp down by any means necessary their marches, boycotts, and other activities seeking voting rights, civil rights, and equal opportunity.
Bey sought to “get a sense of the place.” During an initial weekend visit to Birmingham, the photographer attended a Sunday service at the 16th Street Baptist Church. Over time, he visited the neighborhood where the four girls lived and delved into the archives of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.
There, he discovered that the same day the girls were killed at the church, two teenage boys also lost their lives in Birmingham. In two separate incidents, Virgil Ware, 13, and Johnny Robinson, 16, and were killed in the violent aftermath that consumed the city. According to Time magazine, Robinson was shot by a police officer.
Bey also read through the papers of Fred Shuttlesworth (1922-2011) at the archives. The pastor of Bethel Baptist Church was a major civil rights leader who co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and fought for justice alongside Martin Luther King Jr. “He was an activist minister,” Bey said. “I guess you could say he was the living embodiment and the beating heart of the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham, Alabama.” Bethel, where SCLC organized its activities, was bombed by the Klan, too.
Bey said he “wasn’t sure what kind of visual response I could craft in relation to that dramatic history,” but after many periodic visits to the city over seven years, he eventually developed a concept for “The Birmingham Project.” He decided it was imperative to recognize the girls as well as the two boys, whose story was little known.
He wanted to collapse the past and the present. Explaining how he eventually envisioned “The Birmingham Project,” Bey said, “I began to think about this idea of how does one visualize the past in the contemporary moment, how does one make the past resonant in the present moment.”
“I began to think about this idea of how does one visualize the past in the contemporary moment, how does one make the past resonant in the present moment.” — Dawoud Bey
Installation view of “Dawoud Bey: The Birmingham Project” at the National Gallery of Art. Shown, from left, “Michael-Anthony Allen and George Washington” (2012) and “Betty Selvage and Faith Speights” (2012). | Photo by Victoria L. Valentine
DAWOUD BEY, “Betty Selvage and Faith Speights,” 2012 (2 inkjet prints mounted to dibond, overall: 101.6 x 162.56 cm / 40 x 64 inches). | National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of the Collectors Committee
IN THE END, HE DECIDED to photograph young people and adults from Birmingham. None of the subjects were related. At the time they were photographed in 2012, his young subjects were the same ages as the children who were killed in 1963—11 and 14 for the girls and 13 and 16 for the boys. It was important to Bey to show what an 11-year-old black girl or a 14-year-old boy looks like to emphasize the tragedy of their violent deaths.
His older subjects are the age the victims would have been if their lives had not been cut short half a century earlier. Some of these adults, now in their 60s when they were photographed, knew the children who had been killed or had vivid memories of the bombing.
Bey made the portraits at Bethel Baptist Church and the Birmingham Museum of Art, which was segregated in 1963. A series of diptychs pairing the youth with their elders, “The Birmingham Project” was shown publicly for the first time at the Birmingham Museum of Art in 2013, marking the 50th anniversary of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church.
The series has been presented at a number of venues since. Bey participated in the 2014 Whitney Biennial where “The Birmingham Project” was featured. An exhibition of the series at Mary Boone Gallery was presented in conjunction with biennial. The series was also shown at the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, N.Y. (2015), and earlier this year, it was on view at Patricia & Phillip Frost Art Museum at Florida International University.
When “The Birmingham Project” was on view in the Whitney Biennial, Bey recalled the experience of photographing his young subjects: “It was a deeply moving and sometimes difficult experience making the work because each time, for example, a young girl would come in to be photographed my heart would catch because you look at this little 11-year-old girl and imagine her going to church on Sunday morning and being killed in a blast of dynamite,” he said. “My heart would catch because for me they could have been, and at that moment they were, in fact, the girls who were in that church.”
“It was a deeply moving and sometimes difficult experience making the work because each time, for example, a young girl would come in to be photographed my heart would catch because you look at this little 11-year-old girl and imagine her going to church on Sunday morning and being killed in a blast of dynamite.” — Dawoud Bey
Coinciding with the 55th anniversary of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, the exhibition at the National Gallery of Art features four diptychs and a split-screen video filmed in 2013. The video work is both beautiful and ominous. On the left-hand side, interior images of community gathering places in Birmingham are shown—a school classroom, a local diner, a beauty salon, and a barbershop. Meanwhile, on the right, the camera pans a series of trees and the rooflines of houses. Bey said he wanted the footage to feel like it is from the vantage point of a child riding in the backset of a car, looking up and out of the window, en route from home to church. CT
“Dawoud Bey: The Birmingham Project” is on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., Sept. 12, 2018 – March 24, 2019.
TOP IMAGE: DAWOUD BEY, “Mary Parker and Caela Cowan,” 2012 (inkjet prints mounted to dibond, overall: 101.6 x 162.56 cm (40 x 64 inches). | National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of the Collectors Committee and the Alfred H. Moses and Fern M. Schad Fund
Dawoud Bey shared the backstory about how he developed “The Birmingham Project” during a press briefing earlier this week at the National Gallery of Art. He also provided similar insights about how the series came together in this new video for the museum. | Video by National Gallery of Art
“Dawoud Bey: Seeing Deeply,” a 40-year retrospective of photographer Dawoud Bey’s work, will be officially published next week. Bey got his first glimpse of the impact of racial violence when he saw the photographs in “The Movement: Documentary of a Struggle for Equality.” One image in particular, of Sarah Jean Collins lying in a hospital bed in the aftermath of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, forever shifted his perspective. Last year, Sarah Collins Rudolph wrote a book about her experience, “The 5th Little Girl: Soul Survivor of the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing.”
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