Andrew Lichtenstein, 4:00 p.m. Sept. 24, School of Education 1120
History || Memory || Trauma
As part of our inaugural lecture series, Brooklyn-based photographer Andrew Lichtenstein discussed his new project titled “American Memory.” In this project, Lichtenstein traveled across the United States to document places where important events in the nation’s past occurred. These historical landscapes, he argued, include marked and unmarked sites of tragedy that deserve to be commemorated.
Though he acknowledged that “every site is historical to some degree,” Lichtenstein explained that this project came from the desire to photograph sites unknown or ignored by the general public. “I wanted to go to sites that are not memorialized for one reason or another,” he emphasized, “to explore what happened there and to try to find an image that conveyed how I felt about it.”
As a result, the collection contains images of deceptively simple spaces with complex histories. A shot of an army college building that served as a boarding school for assimilating American Indian children. Another of tumbledown structures that were built to house slaves on an abandoned plantation. Yet another of a patch of desert that was once the site of a Japanese internment camp.
Each image speaks to lost histories, including those that have been intentionally forgotten. An empty traffic circle in Mystic, Connecticut, once held the statue of a British captain. The captain, Lichtenstein explained, oversaw the execution of over five-hundred Pequot women and children in 1637. The statue, which stood for over a hundred years, speaks key questions that motivate Lichtenstein’s work: “What gets marked, what doesn’t get marked, and why?”
During his lecture, Lichtenstein emphasized that there is a fine line between memory and memorialization. He stressed that adding a historical marker to a place doesn’t mean that the memories of the people who lived, suffered, and died there will be faithfully preserved. Instead, he emphasized that the burden of commemorating the past falls to individuals operating in the present.
Landscape photographs blend with images of individuals engaged in acts of remembrance. Women hold hands on a beach in Queens to “pray for people’s ancestors who died in the Middle passage.” Citizens in Galveston, Texas, listen to a public reading of the Emancipation Proclamation that has taken place since the city was liberated in 1865. Rally organizers in Montgomery, Alabama, celebrate the 150th anniversary of the inauguration of Jefferson Davis just feet away from the bench where Rosa Parks boarded the bus in 1955.
“So sometimes I find history overlapping on history,” Lichtenstein explained, “and history overlapping on history again.”
In closing, Lichtenstein presented his final photograph. It was a black and white shot of candles, flowers, and stuffed animals placed near the spot where Michael Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson, Missouri, in August of 2014. Lichtenstein explained that he tried not to include any pictures of modern events in the series. But he noted that this particular photograph, whether it remains in the series or not, raises two important questions for historians and documentary photographers to consider: “How do you know what is history?” and “When does history become history?”
This lecture was sponsored by the College of Arts & Sciences, the Center for Documentary Research and Practice/IU Media School, African Studies, American Studies, Geography, and the Center for Research on Race, Ethnicity & Society.