Photographer Revisits Places Where Hate Crimes Happened

It happens on a city street, in a field, or in a historic church. Charleston is only the latest in a litany of sorrow.

The geography of hate is an atlas of tragedies and place names like Bosnia, Cambodia, Rwanda—and now, with the shootings of nine people last Wednesday night in a historic black church—Charleston. National Geographic photographer Lynn Johnson spent five years photographing the wreckage of hate’s corrosive force in America for a project that evolved from a master’s thesis. “‘Hate Kills’ is about that direct line from bigotry to bullying to deadly force,” she explains. We caught up with Johnson to talk about her work in light of the recent events.

Did the Charleston shootings surprise you?

Not at all. We have not dealt with hate and prejudice as a society. It’s still alive.

Eric Gardner. Michael Brown. Trayvon Martin. Tamir Rice. Those are just some of the police killings of unarmed black men. When will it end?

Not until there is an active, profound and ongoing conversation about fear and hatred of the other in this country.

What are your thoughts about the conversation centered around the Confederate flag?

The flag is a symbol and we work on visual cues. So the flag is a kind of cultural institution that  might give permission to kill to a mind that is an eighth of a turn different from someone else. It allows the prejudice to live.

Let’s turn to your body of work on the subject of hate. 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, 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 easily. Too next door. Too casually.

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. This hate project is all about identity—every area of conflict and potential is. It’s the basic question: Who are You?

How do we explain, 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.

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