Artist Zora J Murff began forming her creative practice as a social worker serving incarcerated youth. While enrolled at the University of Iowa to study photography, he worked with juvenile probationers as a tracker for a Detention and Diversion Services office in Cedar Rapid, guiding them through a therapy and community service aimed at providing an alternative to incarceration. Reflecting on the overwhelming social and structural forces that push many of the children he works with into the juvenile and criminal justice systems, he began to reconsider his role, using the camera as a tool for introspection.
From 2013 to 2015, he photographed the portraits of the children he had worked with, ultimately resulting in Fixesa visual examination of the tensions he was dealing with.
“Those were the very first beginnings of my understanding of how I express my ideas,” says Zora, explaining that he quickly began to see photography itself as a function of larger systems, especially in photography. how it influences and complicates our way of thinking. race and darkness. “Photography oscillates between this tool which can be used for evil, but which can also be used for good,” he says, referring to a range of manifestations – from prison surveillance to electronic snapshots, images of the open casket of Emmett Till who exposed the horrors of racial violence in America to the general white public. “Sometimes the harmful image, if we put it in a different context and give it a different reading, we can actually see something that serves our liberation.”
This investigation – exploring contexts outside the frame that inform what we see there – led Zora to the MFA studio art program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Combining photography, archival research and ready-made sculptures, he retains the most generative aspects of the training he absorbed in social services. “These jobs were all about learning how to decenter to help others. That kind of attitude and mindset is something that has always been important to me,” he says. historic effects of redlining in a historically black neighborhood of Omaha, Nebraska inspired Zora to immerse herself in the community, connecting with residents who shared snapshots of their experiences as they sat for portrait sessions.
For him, capturing their stories was a way to bear witness to the murders of Will Brown, who was lynched in North Omaha in 1919, and Vivian Strong, who was killed by a police officer there in 1969. connect,” he says, thinking back to his time there. “The guideline being that the government approved the destruction of a black neighborhood through a policy that degraded that place over time. In my mind, doing a portrait and being present with them, they are just two black people in a common and active life. To me, that says a lot about our survival. It’s this way of seeing yourself and being able to carve out a place for yourself in a world where we don’t have many.
After embarking on teaching the photography program at the University of Arkansas — after publishing the two Fixes and Omaha – Zora continued to dive deeper into socio-visual investigations of black life and anti-black violence, from At no time in between in 2019 at his last shows, American mother, American father and Bold as brass. His last monograph, True Colors (or, Affirmations in a Crisis)is its most comprehensive offering to date.
In it, Zora revisits the theme of survival and “the challenges of finding belonging in places that aren’t for me – of creating affirmation in a time of crisis as I learn to remake myself in my own picture”. Featuring photographs from previous exhibitions, as well as archival footage, video stills, essays, conversations and selections of works by other artists, true colors is also his most personal work to date.
“These past works, I’m pretty hidden,” Zora shares looking back. “In more recent works, I am more present. I do this work to understand my position in all this, situate myself in it and reflect on my intentions. [True Colors] am I breaking this down for myself and presenting it to a wider audience. Questioning his role in a larger ecosystem, this time that of image-making, he considered every detail of the book with deep intent.
“On the front there is a blind relief of the graph from Laquan McDonald’s autopsy report, showing the entry wounds on the front, the exit wounds on the back.” Reflecting his own inner hesitation between visibility and invisibility, he reveals “you don’t see the outline of the body. These are just the marks and numbers. Even the materials serve a distinct purpose, he says, revealing that “with leatherette, as you hold the book and look at it over time, it picks up your fingerprints.” As he seeks to find himself in his work, he makes sure that we also see each other: “It impacts the reader in the viewing process. In fact, you leave a physical mark.
True Colors (or, Affirmation in a Crisis) will be officially released by Aperture on March 22.
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Zora J Murff Photography