Murder. Victim. Scene. Spirit. Photograph. The unrelenting specter of violence is turned into ethereal art via a distinctive vision by photographer Deborah Luster.
Her exhibit, “Tooth for an Eye: A Chorography of Violence in Orleans Parish,” is a compass that pinpoints place, but evokes peace where immeasurable pain and horror once occurred.
Luster’s black-and-white photos don’t display bodies covered by sheets or wretched gore. There aren’t any mourners or investigators in the frame, just a site where a person or people died. They are simple, yet filled with unspoken complexity.
Each silver gelatin print is accompanied by a basic text outline with victims’ names and ages, murder date, crime and location details.
“(The work) is an intersection of my personal life because my mother was murdered in 1988 in Arizona. This is the other shoe,” Luster said. She focused on sites because she believes that where a soul departs, the spirit remains.
Luster has had an unusual arc in her photography career, which began with her taking formal portraits of inmates in various prisons throughout Louisiana. She logged more than 25,000 images of prisoners over a period of several years and sees the juxtaposition of the number of inmates and the high rate of violent crime.
The “Tooth for an Eye” photos have a haunting quality. The effect was created by using a “slow” film (ASA 6) paired with slow shutter speed and a large-format Deardorff camera mounted on a tripod, Luster said.
She wanted a circular image and used an undersized focal-length lens. Luster said she worked fast, shooting constantly for about two weeks, stopping only to process film.
“I went through thousands of (newspaper) archives to get information (on homicides), plot out the location on a Google map, number it, and go out to that area and just drive around,” Luster said. “It’s not just about loss of life, it’s about the crumbling of the city after Katrina.”
She was dismayed to visit many areas to find that buildings were gone, replaced by empty lots. Luster said she was painfully aware of the loss of community.
“It’s not just the disappearance of a population, but also loss of material culture and the transformation of a city,” she said.
The exhibit has been shown at Agnes Scott College in Atlanta, the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York and Prospect 1 in New Orleans.
A number of the photos were destroyed when the New York show ended and Shainman’s basement storage took on water in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy.
Luster was undeterred and promptly reprinted; she was determined to show the exhibit again in New Orleans.
“Kids were seeing where they (once) lived for the first time after Katrina,” she said, recalling the Prospect 1 showing. “I had pictures at big viewing tables because I really like people to touch (the photos), and to read the material with these images. And without fail, people would say ‘my husband was murdered, my sister was murdered, my friend was murdered,’ and I feel like a lot of people relate.”
Reports of murders are shared through media outlets “day after day after day, but to gather it all together is powerful,” Luster said.
Her personal interaction with violent death also fuels the photography.
Luster said that it took eight years for her mother’s killer to be apprehended and two more years before the trial was held.
“Even though the victim has no power in this process, it was so cathartic for me to be able to stand up and give a victim impact statement, it was completely transformative,” she said. “People can bear witness to their loss.”
Karen Celestan is a writer, administrator and educator living in New Orleans. Her email address is Karen@mosaicliterary.com.