A photographer’s flash illuminates a crowd gathered at night looking up at the branches of a tree. Several onlookers turn to make eye contact with the camera. One points at the branches above to draw the viewer’s gaze to the subject of the crowd’s attention. Yet, nothing is there but a dark emptiness. A notation scratched into the photograph’s emulsion marks the location as the small city of Marion, Indiana, and the date as August 7, 1930. On that day, a (warning: the original violent image will be visible if you click on the following link) notorious lynching occurred of two young African American men—Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith—who had been arrested as suspects in a robbery, murder, and rape case. After their arrest, word spread fast across Indiana that an unofficial hanging of the men was planned. A crowd of thousands, many of whom had traveled to Marion by train for the event, broke into the jail. Unwilling to await a trial, they dragged the young men out, brutally beat and killed them, hanging their bodies from a tree in the courthouse yard.
Photography and lynching
Local photographer Lawrence Beitler captured the crowd posing below the bodies of Shipp and Smith. He printed and sold thousands of copies. Lynching photographs like this one proliferated in the United States during the first decades of the twentieth century. Friends and family collected them, shared them, and even mailed them as postcards. The trend was so popular that the U.S. Postal Service had to ban their distribution via mail in 1908, though they continued to be shared in other ways. Later, they would largely be forgotten by the public until a New York exhibition of a private collection of 145 such photographs resurfaced them in 2000, resulting in subsequent publications and exhibitions.
In 2002, Ken Gonzales-Day began to research and manipulate these newly unearthed photographs of historical lynchings in the United States. Using Adobe Photoshop, he removed the victims’ bodies and the ropes from dozens of images, including Beitler’s. He then reprinted them at a similar size and on cardstock to replicate the scale and materiality of the original works, as in the example above. By removing the brutally beaten bodies like Shipp’s and Smith’s, his images prevent re-victimizing the subjects of the violence. They also avoid shocking contemporary audiences and creating feelings of helplessness . Additionally, they resist the fetishistic, sadistic spectatorship of viewing abused Black bodies. Nevertheless, the artist retains his subjects’ identities. If it is known or can be uncovered through his research, Gonzales-Day adds the victims’ names to the titles, along with the dates and locations of their deaths. In this way, his image still honors the memory of the victims. It is almost as if his photographs have respectfully taken down and properly buried the bodies, while exposing the crowds to the viewers’ gaze.
The above photograph belongs to Gonzales-Day’s Erased Lynchings series, which shifts contemporary viewers’ focus to the men, women, and children socializing underneath. Pressed closely together with some smiling, the crowds seem to enjoy the empowerment brought about by their collective action and ritual, and to invite the viewer into the celebration. In fact, the original images were celebratory assertions of a white community’s power, which was meant to extend to any willing white witness of the event or its photographic depiction.
These images also functioned as weapons of terror. They were part of a broader campaign to threaten Black communities in the post-Civil War era. These threats were directed at Black claims for political, social, or economic equality with white people, such as attempting to vote.
According to the Equal Justice Initiative,
After slavery was formally abolished, lynching emerged as a vicious tool of racial control to reestablish white supremacy and suppress Black civil rights. More than 4,000 African Americans were lynched across twenty states between 1877 and 1950. These lynchings were public acts of racial terrorism, intended to instill fear in entire Black Communities. Government officials frequently turned a blind eye or condoned the mob violence.Equal Justice Initiative
This rise of lynching photography corresponded with a general increase in lynching fatalities in the United States starting in the late nineteenth century after Reconstruction. According to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, there were 4,743 known deaths due to lynching between 1882–1968. These were extra-legal, vigilante killings of individuals whom mobs, or smaller vigilante groups, claimed had committed some transgression. Often the victims, men, women and even children, were from historically oppressed or marginalized groups, with Black Americans making up the majority. Historians today understand these attacks as spurred by rising fears among Anglo American communities that their demographic and economic power was threatened by African Americans and immigrants. In response, lynch mobs violently reasserted white authority. For their original viewers, these photographs asserted that justice had been done, and white power protected. In one of Gonzales-Day’s reproductions, we see where someone has penned on the backside to the card’s recipient “this is what he got.”
Gonzales-Day was originally inspired to start the series after the rise in anti-immigrant rhetoric and vigilantism along the Southern U.S. border in the early 2000s. A Los-Angeles based Mexican American, he heard echoes of the rhetoric used to justify lynching in the calls by radicalized white men for armed Americans, to patrol the Southern borders against migrants. Gonzales-Day sought to shift viewers’ attention away from the hyperbolic accusations that criminalize racial minorities to the aggression of the vigilantes. His images seek to prompt viewers to question the true threat to American communities in the past and today—racial minorities or white supremacist vigilantism?
Gonzales-Day’s project also expands awareness of the diverse of targets of lynching. The original exhibition of lynching photography in 2000 presented lynching victims as Black men, predominantly in the South. While these comprised the vast majority of cases, Gonzales-Day has increased knowledge and awareness about other types of lynchings: Black fatalities in the North, West, and mid-West (like Shipp and Smith), female victims, and victims of other races and ethnicities including Latinx, Indigenous, and Asian Americans. He conducted rigorous scholarly research and published, Lynching in the West: 1850–1935 (published by Duke University Press), which raised the number of documented lynchings in California from 50 to 350. Both through his art and his research, Gonzales-Day works to counteract the erasure of lynching victims from historical knowledge, while (paradoxically) erasing the problematic visuals of lynching’s spectacularized violence.
The 1895 photograph of a (warning: this violent image will be visible if you click on the following link) quadruple lynching in the northern California town of Yreka, for example, originally depicted four bodies, one of whom (Louis Moreno) was described at the time as a “Spaniard,” though he was actually a Mexican citizen.  The men had been arrested for murder, but a local mob did not wait for due process. After breaking into the jail, they lynched the suspects beside the courthouse.
Captions around the photograph recount the mob as having “about 300 people.” Yet, the photograph does not depict the vigilantes, but instead the white picket fence of the courthouse yard. With the four hanging victims removed, only the ghostly railing remains against the black night sky, with shadows of the erased corpses eerily cast upon it. In the twentieth century, white picket fences were iconic American symbols positively associated with the nation’s strong middle-class and its ability to own private family property. By removing the bodies from the original photograph, Gonzales–Day asks viewers to think more critically about what the fence has negatively symbolized for people of color, who have historically been denial equal access to middle-class homeownership and prosperity not only via redlining, neighborhood segregation, and the erection of gated communities that are often predominently or entirely white, but also through the imposition of vigilante lynch threats made to people of color attempting to integrate middle class neighborhoods. Gonzales–Day‘s focus on the fence may be intended to echo contemporary efforts to build a wall separating the United States from Mexico to keep out immigrants and refugees seeking greater safety and economic opportunity.
Gonzales-Day’s Erased Lynchings repurpose nefarious historical imagery. By concealing the subjects of the original works, the viewer is offered a seemingly banal record of everyday white supremacy—seemingly happy, homogenous communities protected behind fences. Nevertheless, these images reflect the true threat to American law and order as well as the nation’s highest ideals and identity.
 “Quadruple Lynch Was Done at Yreka,” San Francisco Call, Vol. 78, No. 88 (Aug. 27, 1895).
Fran Kaplan, “An Iconic Lynching in the North,” America’s Black Holocaust Museum
Equal Justice Initiative, “Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror.” Third Edition (2017)
Dora Apel and Shawn Michelle Smith, Lynching Photographs (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2007).
Ken Gonzales-Day, Lynching in the West: 1850–1935 (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2006).
John Lewis, Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America (Santa Fe, N.M.: Twin Palms Publishers, 1999).
Somini Sengupta, “Racist Hatred in America’s Past Stirs Emotions at Exhibition,” New York Times, Jan. 24, 2000.
Mary Trent and Kris Belden-Adams, eds., Diverse Voices in Photographic Albums: “These are Our Stories” (Routledge, 2022).
Amy Louise Wood, Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890-1940 (Chapel Hill, N.C.: The University of North Carolina Press, 2009).