Murff engages with the history of lynchings and redlinings in contemporary spaces through photography.
TU Photo Club brought photographer Zora J. Murff to campus to speak about his work on Thursday, April 11. Murff is a visiting professor of photography at the University of Arkansas and received his MFA from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. His work has been featured in numerous publications, including the New Yorker, New York Times and British Journal of Photography.
Murff introduced his photos with the term “complicated grace,” which was how his mentor used to describe some of his work. This, Murff believed, spoke to his personal desire to focus on issues that are difficult to talk about. He aims to use his photography to engage with these problems and encourage viewers to reconsider their perspectives.
Intersectionality — the junctions between different social categorizations like race, class and gender — plays an important role in Murff’s work. “We don’t exist in one particular way,” Murff told the audience. With this in mind, Murff often considers historical context when approaching specific ideas or landscapes. In his project “At No Point in Between,” Murff photographed North Omaha in the present while considering the effects of redlining that took place in the 1900s.
Redlining refers to a practice of appraising neighborhoods that led to diminishing resources of communities composed of people of color. Murff drew on an idea from Harvard English professor Robert Nixon called “slow violence” to describe the long term effects of segregating the city. There are two kinds of violence, Murff outlined. “Fast violence” is easy to recognize because it takes the shape of physical pain. “Slow violence,” on the other hand, has more space between actions and their consequences.
With this in mind, Murff started the “At No Point in Between” project by photographing the landscape. Many redlined neighborhoods are often divided by freeways. Based on this, Murff photographed aspects of neighborhoods in North Omaha like streets that became dead ends with the intrusion of the freeway. Thinking about “slow violence,” Murff noted that there was always a constant hum of the freeway that seemed to perpetually hang over the residents.
Murff also explored the history of lynchings that took place in this area. The idea of intersectionality and history weigh on the environment that has been created as a result of these factors. He discussed the role of photography in lynchings that contributed to its status as a form of entertainment. Photographers would document these acts of horrible violence and advertise them in local newspapers or even distribute postcards to commemorate them. This became a means to “consolidate white supremacy and preserve their positions of power.”
Murff used archival images of lynchings to repurpose them. Rather than evidence of entertainment, Murff cropped out the disfigured black bodies to turn the blame on to the perpetrators of this violence. By shifting the context in which viewers consume these images, Murff hoped to engage with this history as it pertains to contemporary issues.
Videos of police brutality against people of color engage with viewers in a similar way. Today, they circulate as violently emotional experiences for viewers, who are disgusted by officers’ inhumanity just as they are by lynching victims. However, Murff also identified a lack of accountability for the perpetrators. While photos of lynching victims with their violators were presented as evidence, the criminals were almost always acquitted. Similarly, dash cam videos of police murdering people like Rodney King, which Murff played in part for the audience, are not always enough to indict the officers.
Murff deals with the complicated relationships between socio-cultural constructs and the history of photography. His work depicting the landscapes of North Omaha subtly call upon the history of redlining to create meaning. His direct approach to evidence of violence dives head-on into this history; he challenges viewers to confront the role that images play in constructing truths and considering our collective past.