In June of 2007, I traveled to Jena, Louisiana to photograph and witness the beginnings of a story about the inequity of the criminal justice system. What I found was a small town, beginning to awake into a new world of bright lights, spilled ink, and global media attention.
At the time, local reporters were on the scene, but the networks hadn't picked-up the story. I made some photographs, wrote about the case, and posted photos and a few write-ups on my site, whileseated.org, and made a slideshow video for youtube.
In the months that followed, under the media's microscope, Jena became a symbol of America's racial divide, and politicians, radio talk show hosts, pundits (photographers, even) used Jena to dust-off old agendas, and make new ones. Consequently, in the fall of 2007, Jena was what America talked about when America talked about race.
Later that fall, the rising candidacy of Barack Obama eclipsed the Jena Six as America's "race story". Coupled with remembrances of the 40th anniversary of MLK Jr.'s assassination, Obama's campaign urged Americans both directly and indirectly to confront their present attitudes about race, while examining race as an integral part of America's bitter past. Where the story of the Jena Six devolved into protracted court cases, foster homes, and squabbles about fundraising, the success of Obama's candidacy offered "teachable moments" and an inspirational way forward.
While Obama's success hasn't been without its racial speedbumps (Jesse Jackson, Bill Clinton, the West Virginia primary, monkey t-shirts of Obama for sale in Georgia), in the well-lit lobbies of the online world, Americans continue to air the darkest truths of their racial prejudice. Often cloaked behind the anonymity of a username, comments and discussion threads offer a steady stream from which one can examine the beginning, middle, and future of America's story on race.
Websites like youtube offer a glimpse of what free speech truly means, when words exist outside of and beyond the speaker, as anonymous usernames allow participants to say what they might never say in public, face-to-face. As in any online discussion, there's bluster, hyperbole, and poor spelling. Taunts and braggadocio rule the day.
These comment threads, as many online discussions go, often devolve into name calling, hate speech, and rank bitterness. Yet, from time to time, a voice of reason arrives to cogently air a contrary point, a morsel of insight, before quickly being tackled, never to be heard from again.
Perhaps that which makes us uncomfortable is easy to ignore, but factually, from both a sociological and aesthetic perspective, taking a long look at these threads, both as pure data, and as a kind of skeleton key for what's really happening with the race issue in America, has been enlightening. My intent with The Jena Project is to visually map the language of these discussion threads. Creating "mash-ups" by using these comments as a kind of factual data, with photographs taken in Jena at the protest march on Sept. 20th, 2007, I'm recasting both photograph and language into an enlivened, more visible landscape.
These mash-ups (visible as both Plates and The Projection) speak to both the greatest strength (and weakness) of both words and photography -- how they can so easily dissolve into nothingness the closer you get to them, the more you zoom-in. My hope is that by getting close to both the fire of the words and the grain of the photographs, we might be able to get a sense of what is truly "out there", and correspondingly close to us, as we lurch forward in our attempts to heal and move through the sins of both the past and present.
Utilizing different techniques for mapping the language, I've attempted to create an active and engaging hybrid, an effort that mixes media in a way that hopefully sheds light on both the loud and unspoken, alike.
Like any big story that hits the papers and months later, is gone, the Jena Six served a purpose for mainstream media. Whether or not it's in the news, the story continues, not just in the lives of Jena residents, or in the lives of those directly involved, but in the story of Baron "Scooter" Pikes, or in the recent passage of House Bill 726, approved by Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, which makes intimidation by noose a crime.
Thank you for visiting, for looking at the work, and please feel free to get in touch.