On this Site: Landscape in Memoriam, by Joel Sternfeld

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The first time I saw a dead body I was 13 or 14.  I was coming home from school with a friend along Dulwich Village in south London when we saw that a man had collapsed on the pavement.  Several people were standing around him, not saying anything.  It was raining lightly and someone had laid an open umbrella over his head.  He must have been there for some time because a young woman with a child came the other way, from the village infants’ or junior school, and as she passed by she tutted and said, ‘is he still here?’ before hustling past, as if dying in the street was in poor taste.  My friend and I waited for a while, but as there was obviously no urgency on the part of the London Ambulance Service to come out to retrieve the corpse, we eventually carried on home.  Several decades later, only a handful of people will recall the incident, our numbers dwindling towards zero.  Yet thousands of people have since walked there without any awareness of what happened on that wet afternoon.

Many such spots exist, but usually they go unreported and ultimately sink back into anonymity, because to look at they are so ordinary.  Joel Sternfeld addressed this forgetting by taking photographs of fifty sites around the United States between 1993 and 1996 (the year the book was published).  Each was either the location of a dramatic, usually fatal, act or was connected to one.  Many of these events date from the late 1980s and early 1990s, a few occurred not long before he arrived to record where they had taken place.  Some are well known nationally or internationally, others were of local concern and never came to wider attention.  The photographs form a sombre catalogue bearing witness to a selection of the darker deeds that have scarred the US.  There are hardly any people visible because this is a book about the dead, and the emptiness reinforces their absence.

They are not all connected to specific crimes.  A derelict building in Wyoming marks an internment centre Japanese Americans were held in during the Second World War.  The Mount Rushmore National Monument is included because of the way the Sioux people were treated by the Federal government when this land was stolen from them.  The iconic carved presidential faces can be seen, but are dwarfed behind a bank of spotlights, making the point that the loss to the Sioux of their sacred land is a gain for South Dakota’s tourism industry.

Unsurprisingly the ones with most impact show where something awful happened.  A large wreath marks the balcony Martin Luther King Jr was standing on when he was assassinated, the motel now a civil rights museum.  Kitty Genovese’s murder, so often cited in social psychology textbooks on the ‘bystander effect’, is represented by the street along which she was walking one night in 1964 when she was repeatedly stabbed (looking nothing like how I had imagined it reading about the case as an undergraduate).  The shop still stands – or did in 1994 – where 14-year old Emmett Till, a Chicagoan unacquainted with the mores of the South, said ‘Bye, baby’ to a white woman in Mississippi in 1955, leading to his murder by her relatives (who were found not guilty).  There is the Stonewall bar, birthplace of the gay rights movement in 1969, the road on which Karen Silkwood crashed in mysterious circumstances in 1974, Harvey Milk’s office where he was murdered in 1978.   The car park at Kent State University where four students protesting against Richard Nixon’s policies in Vietnam and Cambodia were shot by National Guardsmen (memorialised in a different way by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young) is depicted in a view unlike those we are used to seeing from contemporary news photographs.  The street where Rodney King was beaten and other examples of police brutality demonstrate that out-of-control American law enforcement not a recent phenomenon.  Lumps of concrete indicate the remains of the Branch Davidian compound at Waco.

There are photographs showing where people, often children, were murdered, either singly or in sprees, or were abducted to be murdered later, and these images are even more important than those dedicated to the famous, because nobody else is likely to perform such an act of remembrance for them.  One such is Japanese exchange student Yoshihiro Hattori, killed in a Louisiana carport in 1992 solely because guns are so freely available.  He and his host student were going to a Hallowe’en party in costume but went to the wrong door.  The householder, alarmed to see someone in Hallowe’en costume at Hallowe’en, told him to stop.  Unfortunately Hattori was not able to understand what was said and carried on walking.  He was shot and died; the householder was acquitted of manslaughter because he thought he was defending his property.  Another that stands out in terms of senselessness is a bus shelter in which a homeless woman froze to death in November 1993.  It stands opposite the Department of Housing and Urban Development building in Washington, D.C.; one could not find a more symbolic setting in the entire country.

Sternfeld also covers crimes against the community: a river in Ohio so toxic it caught fire after molten slag was dumped in it; the area in Niagara Falls used as a chemical dumping ground for several decades, leading to birth defects after homes and a school were built on it; Hanford, Washington,  where the US army manufactured plutonium for its nuclear weapon programme from 1942, and who (this is hard to believe) poured 440 billion gallons of radioactive and chemical waste into the ground before the facility was shut down as late as 1988.  Twenty-five employees in a chicken processing plant in North Carolina died when a fire started because many of the emergency doors were locked to prevent theft and there was only one extinguisher.

The unit used to store materials for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing is a reminder that the book was published before 2001, and the towers were still standing.  Also indicating the book’s vintage, a photograph referring to a victim of Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, has ambiguous text indicating he had been caught but not convicted; another related to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing was written after Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols had been arrested but had pleaded not guilty (McVeigh was executed, Nichols received 161 consecutive life terms with no possibility of parole and is in the same block at a prison in Colorado as Kaczynski).

The most poignant photograph is of the workshop where a statue of a boy named Christopher Harris was being finished.  Nine-year old Christopher was killed in St. Louis in 1991 while being used as a human shield in a gun battle between two drug dealers (Sternfeld also includes the house outside which he was playing when he was shot).  His statue was cast from guns purchased in a buy-back scheme.  Significantly, all Sternfeld’s royalties were donated to the Children’s Defense Fund.  The book’s final image is the inside of a mosque in Los Angeles where two street gangs signed a truce in 1992: there is always hope for the future.  On this Site could have been a prurient true-crime volume, however the compassion it displays elevates it to a tribute, commemorating a few places we might otherwise walk past, unconscious of their significance.

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