Dawoud Bey, Maxine Adams and Amelia Maxwell (from The Birmingham Project), 2012. Two pigmented inkjet prints mounted on dibond, 40 × 32 in. (101.6 × 81.3 cm) each. Edition no. 1/6. Collection of the artist; courtesy Rena Bransten Gallery, San Francisco
NARRATOR: These portraits by Dawoud Bey are part of a series titled The Birmingham Project. They refer to the racially motivated bombing of a Birmingham church in 1963. Four young girls died in the church, and two boys were shot later that day. The events marked a turning point in the Civil Rights movement.
DAWOUDBEY: So I started with this idea of history, trying to figure out how to engage with and visualize something that happened almost fifty years ago.
NARRATOR: Dawoud Bey.
DAWOUDBEY: How do you in some kind of way, through one’s work, collapse the past and the present? I wanted to figure out how to bring the experience of those girls, bring them in some kind of way physically and evocative into the present moment.
I thought that if I could photograph African American girls in Birmingham who were the ages of those four girls, that would make the idea of an eleven- or fourteen-year-old girl being tragically killed that kind of way much more evocative.
And then as a way of alluding to both the fifty years that had passed from that moment to the present, as well as alluding to the lives that those four girls never got to live, I sought out African American women in Birmingham who are the ages that they would have been.
It was a deeply moving and sometimes difficult experience making the work, because each time for example a young girl would come in to be photographed, my heart would catch. Because you look at this little eleven-year-old girl and imagine her going to church on a Sunday morning and being killed in a blast of dynamite. And my heart would catch, because for me they could have been, and at that that moment they were, in fact, the girls who were in that church.