An exhibition of works by Atlanta photographer Jason Francisco opens today in Budapest. PH21 Gallery will feature These are the Names, 15 images from a collection of 100. The caption for each photograph begins, "These are the names of the people murdered here." A list follows - sometimes 20 or 30 names long - of victims lost to homicide on one block or a single street corner in Philadelphia, which has the highest per-capita murder rate among major U.S. cities. On average, nearly 400 people are killed each year. Most are young; most are male; most are black or Latino. "If 'Philadelphia' were the name of a cult of human sacrifice, we would be astonished at its bloodthirstiness, which demands more than one offering per day," Francisco's exhibition statement reads. Thus an unlikely transatlantic triangle forms - Atlanta and Philadelphia, between which Francisco splits his time, and Budapest, where a former student of his runs the gallery.
The project began in 2008, when Francisco encountered a series of maps generated by the Philadelphia Inquirer showing murder locations across the city. Francisco noticed a grim trend in the brightly-colored dots. Homicides would repeat at specific sites - a single street corner, for instance - with uncanny precision. "It's not just that there are murders going on all over the city, but there are particular locations at which they cluster," Francisco said. "These are murder corridors that have existed as such for 20 or 25 years. ... I became interested in finding those particular locations where 30 murders have occurred ... That was fascinating to me - that it should work like that."
Francisco - a documentary photographer with a bent for the experimental - returned to these "murder corridors" for the next three years. "There were probably four or five different strategies for how to make the pictures look," Francisco said. In 2011 he arrived at a technique in which only a narrow, vertical band of each image is sharply focused, sandwiched between out-of-focus swaths of streetscape. "Pictures don't usually look this way," Francisco said. "It doesn't prioritize clarity and optical sharpness above the opposite. What's unclear, what's out of focus, what's irresolvable optically is as important as what is resolvable. ... To enter [the space] vicariously through the picture means to navigate a narrow path of understanding in a much larger environment of lack of understanding."
Francisco made the photographs using a view camera. Picture that bulky, accordioned contraption on a tripod, iconic to the nineteenth century - the photographer ducks under a dark cloth to peer through the camera at his subject. That was Francisco at a dozen Philly intersections and city blocks. "You call attention to yourself just by doing it," he said. "People who did not live in the neighborhood would stop their cars and get out and ask what I was doing."
Locals stopped too. "I had the names with me when I went. Sometimes people knew the names. Sometimes they would tell stories about people who were on the list," Francisco said. "In some cases there were brothers or cousins from the same family [murdered at the same site]."
He's yet to decide if he'll return to those places with the images. "I have in my mind that I should do a site specific installation of some kind. I haven't worked that out yet," he said. "I've made a lot of inquiries to show the work in Philadelphia, and no one will take them. ...They don't say why they won't, but I know why they won't. Because it's too difficult. It's too awful. ... Very few people will come to a gallery in Philadelphia to look at a set of photographs that name a problem that they can just walk outside and deal with, right? Or let's just say that cities have ways of denying reality in order to get by day by day, and having an art exhibition that puts its finger on not just a news item, but a really deep, endemic crisis ... that's a hard sell for a local gallery."
On the European continent, Francisco thinks the exhibition will satisfy a certain morbid fascination with the United States. "They, in general, see America as a very violent place. ... I'm sure it will reinforce that," he said. "I know that the same kind of project could be done in every large American city. ... I will be interested to see what those Hungarians make of it."
Francisco himself will miss today's transatlantic opening. "I don't know if it's successful or not ... and I'm not sure what successful would mean anyway in a project like this," he said. "I tend to take on subjects that complicate what it would mean to do them successfully. A lot of my work is with the Holocaust. What does it mean to do successful art about the Holocaust? I don't know. My wife jokes with me and says that my idea of success is something that you want to look at exactly once."
@ Roxanne Dimacale
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