The geography of hate is a litany of tragedy and place names like Bosnia, Cambodia, Rwanda. But hate has no borders. Photographer Lynn Johnson spent five years documenting the wreckage of hate’s corrosive force in America.
Her project, Hate Kills, evolved from a master’s thesis and has been exhibited in her hometown of Pittsburgh and other venues around the country. Johnson, whose prize-winning work often appears in National Geographic, has no patience for the idea of photography as an amalgam of form, color, and composition. Photography needs—no, demands—a mission. (Related: Boston Bombing and Muslim Bashing)
“I think we’re supposed to improve the world,” she says. Hate Kills attempts to do just that. Editor-at-large Cathy Newman interviewed Johnson about the project.
Your photographs of hate crime scenes look so calm, so quiet. Then you discover that the sun-flecked path on the Appalachian Trail is where two gay women had their throats cut; the tree-lined road in Jasper, Texas, is where a black man, James Byrd, was dragged to his death, and the round imprints are evidence circles marking where bits of his flesh, his keys, his dentures were found. These places of horror seem so ordinary, so everyday.
Hate is an everyday thing. We use the word so casually. “Oh, I hate that girl … I hate the way he does that.” I carried a little book while I was doing this project and asked people to write the word down; most wrote it in a contained, deliberate way, as if they were afraid of the word. That these places are so everyday reflects how we use that word.
Too easily. Too next-door. Too casually.
Other photographs are stunning in their intimacy. For example, the image of the drag queen, Thomas. He’s dressing for a show, in transition between male and female. He looks so vulnerable. How do you gain someone’s trust enough to make that kind of photograph?
By being yourself. The more authentic you are, the more authentic you can be with others. It has to come from an intention not to manipulate.
The picture of James Byrd’s sisters holding hands over the grave of their murdered brother invites the idea of forgiveness. But how does a parent forgive the loss of a child? A wife the loss of a husband? A sister the loss of a brother?
I don’t know. I don’t think you ever recover.
Yet, you show how it could be different. There is the photograph of the white woman and black woman on a swing in Jasper, Texas, laughing.
Yes, they are friends. So you can teach your children the way of the Klan, or you can teach them a different way—the way of discussing and being in community.
Tolerance is the antidote…
I don’t like the word tolerance. I think it’s a negative. No, we shouldn’t work for tolerance. We should work for the seamless embracing of others based on the quality of that individual. Tolerance is too shallow. You are just putting up with somebody. It’s the language of arm’s length. You can sit beside me, but not too close.
Hate is a neighborhood issue, a question of inclusion and exclusion. Who lives next-door? What color, race, religion are they? Let’s talk about where you live.
When I was married I lived in an old steel mill area with my husband. When I was divorced, the first place I moved was Squirrel Hill, a middle-class neighborhood where I grew up. One night at 3 a.m., I heard the alarm go off in the house across the street. No lights came on. No one came out. I refused to live this way. At the time I was involved with someone who was all about living in a diverse environment, so I moved here [to the North Side of Pittsburgh] where people are out on their stoop and everybody knows the name of everyone as well as their cats, dogs, rabbits. People watch out for each other. There is connection. There are street parties to which black, white, gay, straight, ethnic come.
You’ve said as journalists we slip in and out so easily out of people’s lives. This project made you sit still. For the first time in years, you weren’t always running to catch a plane. What changed?
I never understood how destructive it was to come and go out of people’s lives. All my energy was going toward trying to become a thoughtful photographer, believing in the power of photography. We so easily walk away. I think it takes its toll. Are you going to be connected to people and pay that price? Or are you going to become master of the disconnect?
As if you had quick-release crampons attached to your emotions?
Where does that come from—the decision to slip out of a situation? Does that come from being given up at birth for adoption, as I was? A woman who ran my office helped me understand. She said, “You are never still. You travel all the time. You always seem restless, dissatisfied. I think you need to find your birth mother. It will calm you down; you will understand so many things.” I just dismissed that.
I started to look for my birth mother, but pulled back. There was too much going on—professionally and personally. Too many things were all in the air.
The deck of cards is airborne; how will they all come down?
It was tumultuous and exciting. I was redefining every part of my life and identity. Now I understand this hate project is all about identity—every area of conflict and potential is. It’s the basic question: Who are you?
Are you black, white, a Jew, gay, Hispanic…
And how much do you control that, and how much is it random? Of course I don’t think anything is random.
Control and random are interesting words to hear from a photographer. Aren’t you trying to control how things arrange themselves in the lens?
The best photographs are the ones you have no control over; you simply respond. It’s better to sit and wait for something to change. Either it will align and you are ready, or it will not and you move on to the next challenge, frame, or thought.
One could say that about one’s life too…
I think it is sometimes better to shoot when you are not thinking at all.
Zen and the art of photography?
Like meditation. A mind always ready. You go in knowing your story; then you are respectful of what and who is present, guarding against having an agenda and bias.
But you had an agenda with this project?
Yes, this is different. At this point I have given myself permission to step over that line that as journalists we don’t feel is appropriate to step over.
What happened to the classic ideal of the dispassionate observer?
Which I don’t believe anymore. We are totally passionate about what we do. How could you constantly leave home, abandon your family, destroy your relationships, have a fractured home base, friendships you can’t maintain, zip in and out of other people’s lives, cultures, languages and not believe in the power of what you do? How do you separate that kind of passion from the passion for the subject? You can’t.
Particularly when there’s a subject you care about, like this one.
Photography is the engine of change. People have to be reflected if they are going to change. It’s mirrored on both sides. Even as I invite others to look, I am standing there with them. I have to face my life choices and how they were destructive to others. My life has been a laboratory for this project. I don’t want to be hurtful about my birth mother, but I see how judgmental she is, whereas I was raised by my adoptive parents with a sense of being loved and embraced.
So you found your birth mother?
My mother and father were supportive. Once I found [my birth mother], my mom and I went to see her for the first time. We went to Seattle. We bought flowers. We went up to the door. I have seen a lot of the world, but I don’t think I’ve ever been as nervous as when I knocked on that door.
You wondered if you would be rejected again?
I never thought about that; I had absolute love from the mom who raised me, the one I was holding onto. We knock, this woman opens the door—and I’m shaped just like her. I give her a hug. Then my mom gives her a hug and thanks her for the gift of me. I forget when I realized this project was the mirror of my two moms, but that’s what it’s about. It is personal, but also everybody’s story. Who do you trust? Who are you? There is only one story in the world and it’s “who are you, and how are you going to work out from that place, and what is your gift to the world?”
The writer Eudora Welty talks about the internal lens of a photographer: To discover the world is to discover oneself as well.
Photography enables discovery. You understand the world in relation to your own motivation. You can talk about saving the world all you want. I think we all work from our own insecurities and inadequacies; to shore ourselves up.
We are loved for our vulnerabilities, not our strengths…
Why are you drawn to that image of Thomas? It’s the vulnerability.
You once said: “Every so often you have to review your intention as a photographer. It has to be right. It has to be true.”
I do so with every story. I love complex stories that force you to address your own issues as well.
The hate project allowed you to do that?
Sure. It’s about relationships. Love, hate, trust, acceptance. It comes back to identity. We decide who to trust based on what a person looks like. You walk down the street. You decide whether you are going to trust the person you pass or standing next to you in the subway.
Some people insulate themselves against making those decisions.
Sure. You can live in the gated community if you like, if you have the money. But sooner or later you have to come out.
Have you ever been the object of someone’s hate?
I was called a dyke once. I definitely have been on the other side of unfairness.
How do we explain, [or] even comprehend, that people hate enough to kill?
People who hate others probably also hate themselves. People turn self-loathing outward; it’s too toxic to absorb. They don’t have the tools to process it. The more they hate themselves, the more they strike out against others. There’s the fear that you are the thing you hate. It is not uncommon for gay-bashing to be done by a guy who is gay. “I’m not one of them—look, I’ll prove it.” Ronald Gay, who shot seven people in a gay bar in Roanoke, was teased about being gay. Whether he was or not, it was part of the identity he was trying to wash away. The dysfunction joins with a societal message, especially now by the Christian right, that it’s okay to hate gays. You have to wonder which side you would be on. Would you prevent a hate crime? As a rule we do not stand beside those under attack. And I mean everything from being bullied to crime on the street.
So, it’s back to living in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood and hearing the alarm go off and no one responds?
It’s all about community. How do you build community that’s engaged, that’s inclusive?
How do you imagine this project can help create that kind of community?
It will create conversation. You may not have resolution. But at least you can have conversation.
Was there an image or set of images taken for this project that was particularly difficult for you?
Roanoke was difficult. I wanted the story of the shootings in the gay bar to be a collaboration with the people I photographed. I promised it would be used for education. I tried to be true to that. There won’t be any profit in this. I won’t make profit off people’s pain.
You’ve been trying to get your project published as a book, without success so far. Is this because the images are so difficult, so tough to look at?
It’s hard to find a publisher for this because there’s no profit in it … except for improving society.