A tribute to the 58 Rochestarians murdered in 2007 has taken up residence at the George Eastman House. Photographer Will Yurman won't be surprised if you don't recognize any of his subjects, our former neighbors. I won't be delicate - these are not the kind of people whose passing receives much media coverage. By far, the majority were minorities, and none were of a particularly high social strata. Yurman has the public audacity to ask us to question our mute acceptance of this meager exposure, and is personally seeing to the extension of it.
Upon entering the gallery space, visitors are confronted with 56 black and white portraits of the murder victims (and two place holders acknowledging names only, where families have asked for privacy in their grief). Also located at the threshold of the gallery is one of the show's two computer stations, providing the first opportunity to become acquainted with our lost neighbors. The Mac organizes Yurman's opus: slideshows featuring family photographs and Yurman's pictures of mourners, and the collected stories of the victims' lives and deaths via emotional voiceovers by the families and friends. Across from this station is a wall plaque with Yurman's artist statement, articulating the mission of his project. When attending a vigil for Ian Crawford, murdered in 2005, Yurman expressed his astonishment that "so little attention had been paid to him in the news." Crawford's sister Marlene gave him the stark answer that sparked this endeavor: "no one cares about a black man from Jamaica."
Shortly thereafter, Yurman began building an opportunity for us to prove her wrong. Per his artist statement, in "an attempt to tell the story of each victim of homicide in our community over a one-year period," he started with "the simple premise that all people - no matter where they live or how they died - deserve to be remembered for their lives, not just their deaths." He rejects the evasive rhetoric that these individuals are just statistics, typical casualties of city violence, and argues that "they are our neighbors [...] not crime stories," and hopes that giving a voice and a venue to their memory will help us to "begin to understand that when someone is killed, it is an act of violence not only against the victim, but also against [...] each one of us," our very community. We should question why it seems to be the natural impulse to be nationally curious about a white runaway bride, but profoundly unconcerned with a black person killed in our own hometown.
Dozens of Yurman's color photographs of memorial services and mourners wind around the walls of the gallery, leading us to an inner chamber in which the audience may sit and view a projection of the slideshows and voiceovers. A viewer cannot avoid taking on the heavy, solemn manner of attending an actual memorial service. The one wall of black-and-white photos of the deceased rests in stark contrast to the four walls of vibrant photos of the suffering living, reiterating that those who remain are, of course, the greater victims. Anyone who has lost a loved one knows that the subsequent span of bereavement is a test in endurance.
Yurman captured the uninhibited grief of the bereft in moments of breakdown and of numb and grief-weary goodbye. Two of the most striking images are located toward the entrance of the gallery. In one photo, a little girl stands in reluctant confrontation with the open casket of 16-year-old Shamar Patterson, her face contorted in the unmistakable panic of loss fully realized. At the services for 48-year-old William Washington, his very young son struggles to raise his chin in a beyond-his-years calm, centered between two grieving women in the rain.
When I set out to attend the show, I did not expect to find any personal link to my own life. But one of the victims was killed by her husband, a young man I knew in high school who was a classmate of my younger sister. And in one of Yurman's candlelight vigil photos stands the mother of one of my friends. I was stunned. Rochester just became smaller to me, its inhabitants unexpectedly more connected through tragedy.
But can this be called an art show? Yurman certainly knows how to frame a shot and clearly has the sharp eye to capture those fleeting, essentially human expressions. But isn't art supposed to be uplifting, able to remove us from abrasive reality? It's complicated. This show asks us to take up the burden of bearing witness, in hopes that we'll be inspired to enact change. For this endeavor, Yurman proves that he is more than a picture-snapper. In taking on the role of documenter and social motivator, he demonstrates that creating art can mean reflecting deeply upon a person's culture, and shouldering the responsibility of pointing out something of value to others.
Artists have something to communicate - why else would they bother to manifest their ideas in hopes that all the world will see? In our increasingly visual culture, the role of the artist is ever important. We see the images first, and when we recognize and relate to an urgent message, we sometimes stop to learn.
Not Forgotten: Portraits of Life and Death in Rochester
Through March 2
George Eastman House, 900 East Ave
Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Thursday 10 a.m.-8 p.m., Sunday 1-5 p.m.