This Breathtaking Portrait Series Uses An Iconic Religious Pose To Show The Stakes Of Police Violence

"These mothers have not lost their sons, but they understand the reality that this could happen to them, to someone in their community, to their family."

An adult son leans back and rests his head on the knee of his sitting mother
Jon Henry

I think the first time I saw Jon Henry's project Stranger Fruit was in the summer of 2020. I remember it made me feel raw in a way that was different from the way I felt about a lot of the other work that summer. His project, which has received wide recognition, features mothers and sons posed like the famous Michelangelo sculpture Pietà. Something about the juxtaposition of the sacrificial pose and the otherwise mundane settings where the portraits occurred took my breath away and made the fear that is unique to Black mothers in America be keenly felt.

This was all a personal project, right?

Yeah — I started making the images in 2014, but the concept really began in 2006, with the murder of Sean Bell, the young man who was killed the night before his wedding in Jamaica, Queens, at his bachelor party. Everything about that really hit close to home. I was a year older than Sean. I was in Jamaica all the time.

This was my community, that was like our backyard. The year after the verdict, which was 2008, that whole trauma was resurfaced. One of my good friends was getting married and at his bachelor party, in the middle of New Jersey, that's all I could think of. You know, we’re supposed to be celebrating, but all I could think of was Sean and his wife to be, and his child who he would never see grow older. And then thinking of the parents.

When these tragedies happen, it's the same events that take place. There are protests, there's all this media coverage. If there's a video, you see the video over and over and over again, and [whether] there's justice at the trial or not, it's still not gonna bring back a life that's been lost for absolutely nothing. So that's how the project began.

I used to work in a church and I used to study painting independently before I started really studying photography, so I knew the motif of the Pietà. It made perfect sense to me to focus on that mother–son relationship in art and use that as a way to keep having this conversation.

A woman sits with her young child lying in her arms
Jon Henry

Did you expect wide recognition for this project, and how has that felt?

It's overwhelming. It has been all over the place, as far as really being seen, which has been great. With getting the message out and having people reach out and share their thoughts on the work, I just take it all in stride.

It's kind of hard to not celebrate it, but we still have this issue. You know what I'm saying? We're still having to deal with this. We're still having to have these conversations. And I don't know if we've gotten any closer now than we've had from Rodney King to Sean Bell to, you know, two years ago.

I can imagine it's a pretty emotional project the whole way through — how do the people who you've photographed feel about these images that you've made, or what's their reaction to this project overall?

It's heavy for everybody. Part of the gratitude is that the story's being told, that it's being addressed. When I finish the images I send the family the image, and I send the mothers the image and a questionnaire. Their responses really solidify everything, that this is very real, because it is something that mothers have to contend with every day.

It's kind of ridiculous that we have to think about things in these terms from law enforcement, people who are paid to protect and to serve.

I know that this project centers on police violence, but in talking to the mothers, are they concerned about other forms of violence as well?

Yeah. I mean, it's all about protection, so of course those things are layered, but the work centers on this endemic of police brutality. Poverty is one thing, but I don't think people should be seeing violence from people who are supposed to be protecting them in the community.

What does your mom think of this project?

My mom, she, now, she gets it. She didn't really care about the work or understand it when I was first making it — you know, she was a mom and she's like, why are you wasting your time and money doing all this stuff? It wasn't until she saw the work at Aperture in 2017, then she understood why it was important.

A young child is held in his mother's arms on a snowy day
Jon Henry

How did you pick the cities? Did you have specific places in mind, or did you go where there were people willing to be photographed?

Both — There were areas where I was just like, OK, this project can't be completed unless I go to Omaha, or unless I go to Salt Lake City. Those are actually the last two cities that I really wanted to include. I had to go to the South, I had to go to Alabama. I found people through the network of friends and folks who I knew in a location I was trying to get to.

The first year of the project was shot in and around New York, but it's not just a New York issue. As an artist, I had these backdrops in my mind. One of them was snowcap mountains, and that was what I wanted to get for Utah. The other one was cornfields or just like the expanse of America where it's a space going on forever, and that's what I was looking for in Omaha. So really just thinking of a variety for the images.

In 2019, I finally made it to Minneapolis. I'd been wanting to go there for snow, you know, Black bodies in the snow. I was able to get two families, someone put me in connection and I went out there early in January.

Can you talk a little bit more about how religion informs how you work and what you're bringing to this project?

A lot of the work that I do, whether it's Stranger Fruit or some of my previous work, I'm usually thinking of Renaissance painting, in form and lighting, to inform my work. That's usually the foundation where it starts from, and then builds on top of that. If you look at the project Their Eyes Were Watching God, that's exactly what I was thinking of, just that dramatic light.

Any final thoughts?

One of the important underlying factors on the work is that it's performance — these mothers have not lost their sons, but they understand the reality that this could happen to them, to someone in their community, to their family.

A mother holds a young son in a field in front of a mountain range
Jon Henry

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