At the Hands of Persons Unknown investigates how trees have been silent witnesses to the lynching of women in the United States. Through long exposure and movement of the camera, the trees in this series are rendered abstract almost ghostlike.
Lynching has been an odious aspect of mob violence in the US since the 19th century. Slavery was formally abolished in 1865, but soon after lynching emerged as a tool of racial control to suppress black civil rights and maintain white supremacy. The majority of lynching victims were black men but a sizeable minority were from other races (including whites) and were women. 4,000 African Americans were lynched across 20 states between 1877 and 1950, most of them in the American South (cf. Equal Justice Initiative).
There are at least 159 recorded cases of women who were lynched. In most cases women were lynched along with their husbands, sons, or brothers, simply because they were associated with the accused, and most importantly, they were present when the man was seized.
This project is important as it reveals a hidden aspect of US history. Given the renewed public interest in how women are oppressed by contemporary power structures, exploring the forgotten history of female lynching is timely and important.
Additionally, I bring my perspective as a German-American woman who is married to an African American man to the project, which has motivated me to do this work. My husband and I would not have been able to have a relationship until too long ago as mixed-race marriage was not allowed. If detected, one of us or both may have been lynched. In fact, the Loving vs. Virginia rule ended a ban on mixed-race marriage in the U.S. only in 1967.
This project also includes a video and an installation.