The girl in the coffin

The controversy over Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till in his coffin shown in the Whitney Biennial; that it be removed or destroyed,  has opened my eyes. 54 years ago in Birmingham, Alabama, I made a photograph of a fourteen year old girl in her coffin. She had been murdered with three of her Sunday school classmates by a KKK bomb planted  in the basement of the 16th Street Baptist Church. Sneaking into the line of mourners, standing with my camera in the line of mostly young black children, friends of their dead classmate in the open coffin. I wasn’t her friend, I wasn’t a teenager, I wasn’t even from Alabama. I was a Jew, from New York City of all places, and, from a distance, I  looked white.
It’s too late to destroy all the copies I sent to SNCC, CORE, and the NAACP. I even sold reproduction rights to JET magazine for $25. Giving the check to SNCC was probably just a cover-up for my insensitive, exploitive, act. Perhaps it’s best that I just burn the negative?

Then there is my recent Whitney show where I brazenly exhibited not one but twenty exploitive, insensitive pictures of African American freedom fighters in the deep South in the early 1960’s. This only gets worse. When they dug up the bodies of Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney, the young Klan victims were so intermingled that it was impossible to separate the black man from the two whites. So all of the exploitive photographs show these bodies intermingled, almost clutching each other in their final martyrdom. What was I thinking? Black and white together, We Shall Overcome? Thank God that’s all over with.

Danny Lyon 2017

3 Responses to “The girl in the coffin”
  1. Russ duPont says:

    A great deal of respect for Danny Lyon and his work. Can’t agree that documenting horror is exploitive, though. Of course, it does depend on how the work is presented but seeing photographs of the type Lyon describes is as essential today as it was then, as it was in Vietnam, as it was at Dachau.

    • Rhonda says:

      Lyon is being coy here. He is actually saying that exploitative or not, the work he did exposed terrible truths of violence and injustice, and that we are poised to choose covering over those truths if we make decisions based on caution and on fear, rather than on bold conviction to believe in a future justice, a horizon where black people can actually be free of racial terror.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s