After placing an inconspicuous stone beneath an assemblage of stuffed animals, birthday photos and heartfelt goodbye notes, tied around a tree, photographer Lloyd Wolf paused and said a silent mourner’s Kaddish one Monday in mid-July. Wolf had just finished photographing a makeshift shrine on Pomeroy Road in southeast Washington. It was built by family, friends and neighbors in memory of 3-year-old Xavier Lyles, who was beaten to death on June 24.
For more than a decade, Wolf, an Arlington-based professional photographer, has been photographing makeshift memorials built by friends and families of murder victims.
“Twenty-five years ago, I started seeing shrines,” he said, but they were relatively rare and were more commonly for victims of car accidents. In the past decade, as the murder rate has fluctuated up and down in the District, shrines – sometimes ad hoc collections of memorial T-shirts, liquor bottles and plush toys, even money, other times artistic assemblages – have become an abject and visual expression of the continuous losses in some of the most underserved wards.
Wolf, 62, who shoots for local and national publications and organizations, among them this publication, The Washington Post, Washingtonian and Vogue, has had a long interest in memorialization. He is also the author of two other photo essay collections: Jewish Mothers: Strength, Wisdom, Compassion (2000) and Jewish Fathers: A Legacy of Love (2004).
“I have a very strong commitment to tikkun olam,” the Jewish ideal of repairing the world, Wolf said. “The numbers of people who have been murdered in our area are enormous. In the last 20 years in the District alone it’s about 6,000. In Prince George’s County it is about 3,000. And Montgomery, Arlington, Alexandria and Fairfax are not immune. Most of the victims are young.”
“The acceptable level of murder,” he said vehemently, “is zero.”
Wolf began shooting these makeshift shrines to the District’s murdered population in 2003. He was deeply moved by the many stories that were told only in the cut-and-dry language of a police report. Missing were the stories, the information about who these murder victims were, who loved them, what they loved and who they loved and who they left behind – parents, children, brothers, sisters, friends. Many of the shrines filled in aspects of those stories with photos, memorabilia and material items, from beer bottles to T-shirts to stuffed animals, balloons and other meaningful objects. “The shrine is a stand-in for the grave,” Wolf explained. “Most of them are on the site or near the site of the murder.” Often, he added, families and loved ones don’t have the means to purchase a grave and headstone or the ability to visit the graveside. Shrines can help with communal healing and commemoration. He noted they’re often erected after a public vigil or a funeral or memorial service.
“I’m an artist. I’m really interested in the process of creation,” he said. “I think these shrines are interesting as public sculpture, public folk sculpture. They are decorative because they’re colorful. … They’re not sad and I think they’re very interesting … as the celebration of life.”
In 2008, Wolf began documenting many of these D.C. shrines on a blog.There he draws from news and police reports, publishes photos of the shrines and often ends with a condolence statement.
These blog posts become a permanent online memorial, documenting the original shrine, which in the outdoor elements deteriorate over time, Wolf explained. Often family members and friends of the deceased post comments and thanks on the blog, making it a communal forum for mourning.
He estimates that he has photographed between 500 and 600 shrines during the past decade-plus. He keeps apprised of recent homicides by following crime reports, police reports and a website called Homicide Watch. Wolf doesn’t believe he has ever seen a shrine for anyone who is Jewish in the District’s metropolitan region, although he has noted them in Israel, often built on the site of a terrorist attack.
While Wolf gets no remuneration for this work, he finds it fulfills a need for him to contribute his creative skills to the world. “I feel that we’re commanded to pay attention to the poor, to lift people up,” he said. “Those values come from Judaism; they also come from my own family. In Germany my father was middle class. When he came [to the United States], he became poor. He was lifted up by a government program, the GI Bill.”
He continued: “Violence and war are a plague on the human heart and on society. I want to do what I can to help us understand and alleviate it. I’m not a policy person, I’m a cultural worker. I’m an artist. What I can do through my work is point out where trouble has occurred and where parity needs to be applied.”
“Because most of people who are killed are poor and live in parts of town where the wealthy decision makers don’t go, there gets to be an acceptable level of murder,” Wolf pointed out. “If it gets above that people get upset…Then there’s the example about three years ago of a young woman murdered in downtown Bethesda – an area when the journalists and policymakers live and frequent. That murder attracted a huge amount of attention.”
“But,” Wolf continued, “all the cases should be such a big deal.” That’s why he will continue to use his camera to document and commemorate the lives of so many in our community. Their shrines and his photographs tell their stories.
To learn more and see photographs of Lloyd Wolf’s Shrines Project, visit: http://dcshrines.blogspot.com/2014_07_01_archive.html.