While many around the globe were losing loved ones as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the people of Milwaukee were burying young men due to a rise in gun violence. Residents of the city’s north side have seen a 93% increase in the rate of violent crimes over the last year. Milwaukee-based photographer Sara Stathas joined Los Angeles Times reporter Kurtis Lee for a recent assignment that took them to the city’s predominantly Black neighborhoods to interview individuals who have witnessed and been affected by this epidemic of gun violence.
Sara was contacted by the LA Times’ director of photography Mary Cooney to collaborate with writer Kurtis Lee, who was researching the changing rate of homicides since the Coronavirus outbreak. Kurtis traveled to Milwaukee several times over the summer to meet with Sara, though he had already researched, sourced, and interviewed many of the subjects prior to their collaboration. Only a few individuals were unable to connect with Kurtis beforehand and together he and Sara ventured to several areas in the community to speak with residents and business owners.
When a photographer and reporter share the same time slot with a subject it can be challenging to ensure both parties have enough to go off of. This assignment was a welcome change for Sara, who felt that Kurtis valued her perspective and ensured she had time to photograph and connect with the subjects. The two approached the assignment with compassion and professionalism, enabling them to work together to convey people’s stories authentically and respectfully.
I loved working alongside Kurtis because he respected my position as a photographer on location and gave me ample time and space to do what I needed.
Sara’s connections as a photographer in her community helped subjects like Gee — Gaulien “Gee” Smith, who owns the barbershop Gee’s Clippers — open up about the violence that occurred outside another shop earlier this year. One of Gee’s friends and former employees, Yosef Timms, was brutally murdered while leaving his own barbershop after a long day of work. The community has maintained a memorial outside the barbershop, which Sara took care to photograph from a distance, leaving space for two residents to walk by and pay their respects.
I had photographed Gee before and he’s got one of the brightest personalities and biggest grins of anyone I’ve ever met. Timms’ murder was the purpose of my visit, so this time around the mood was somber at a typically upbeat establishment.
One unique aspect of the project was when Kurtis and Sara were invited on a tour of the Milwaukee Police Department’s homicide offices, for interviews with both the homicide detective and police captain. With an inside look at their everyday world, Sara was fascinated by aspects of police work that are not depicted in modern television, like a rack of available neckties for detectives to use when making a quick court appearance.
We got to see their world, down to the old-fashioned candy machine in their “war room”. I was able to set up a light and create portraits of both the captain in his personal office and the detective in the main office space.
I found it fascinating to have access to the Milwaukee Police Department’s homicide detective office. As a photographer that experience felt once in a lifetime.
Yet with the heavy emotion that exists at the heart of this issue, Sara’s most meaningful sessions were with the victims’ families. She met with Jalisa Martin at the park where her brother’s body was found in March of 2020. Photographing Jalisa at this incredibly haunting location, Sara’s photojournalistic eye noticed remnants, like the police tape that was tied to a light pole from the night of the crime. As she captured portraits of Jalisa holding the flyer that asks for any information on the unsolved murder of her brother, Sara was deeply affected by her story and allowed herself space to process it before moving on to the next subject.
When I finished taking photos I thanked Jalisa and told her how brave she was, showing up for this photoshoot, and telling her story. I cried when I got into my car, which is not typical after a shoot, and couldn’t stop thinking about Jalisa and so many other families in this city who are going through the same thing.
Sara also connected with Tonia Liddell, whose 414 Life program supports victims’ families in the first few days after a shooting. Tonia’s presence in the community is essential in the aftermath of this violence, and Sara saw firsthand the empathy she employs when aiding those who have lost loved ones. Tonia took Sara and Kurtis to the site of her own godson’s murder in 2005, where he (Preston) was sitting in his car with his girlfriend when he was shot and killed. She introduced them to Preston’s sisters, and while they asked some questions, Sara and Kurtis stepped back and bore witness to their shared grief.
We all gathered next to the spot where Preston was killed, and held space with the women who still carry the loss of their loved one deeply. I photographed them as they talked, Kurtis asked some questions, but essentially Tonia and the sisters talked and cried.
My favorite part of any project, and this project was no exception, is getting to connect with people one on one and getting to know them on a personal level when I photograph them.
Sara’s biggest challenge was managing her emotion in the wake of the sorrow that came with each subject’s story. While she conducted herself with sensitivity around the delicate aspects of this project, Sara couldn’t help connect to the heartache felt in her own Milwaukee community.
It was a very emotionally heavy assignment, the stories of some of these subjects were heartbreaking, especially Jalisa’s. I didn’t expect to be as emotional during the shoot with her as I was.
When speaking about the assignment Sara remarks that “this project was not an uplifting story.” Milwaukee is not the only community struggling with gun violence and record-breaking homicide rates, but it’s difficult not to feel helpless when hearing the personal testimonies first-hand.
People like Tonia are working tirelessly to change things and make a real difference in the community, but it really feels like an impossible thing to change and I don’t know what I can personally do to help or what anyone could possibly do.
What guided Sara through the more emotional areas of the assignment was her ability to act as a cultural anthropologist when documenting people’s stories. Sara briefly studied anthropology while in college, and it has since informed her ability to hold space with her subjects; to listen, take in, and observe their experiences before she captures their essence on film. While she can’t stop the violence, she can bring to light the situation the residents face and share their stories to empower people to shape a better future for generations to come.
Anthropology is the study of how people who share a common cultural system organize and shape the physical and social world around them. I was reminded that photo assignments like this are equally a study in cultural anthropology and making photos.