Erasure, identity and representation: these were the three ideas that Raymond Thompson Jr. described as impacting his work when he began his Studio Art guest artist lecture. “I’m specifically focusing on the stories of the Black diaspora that have actively and passively been forgotten — forbidden from the cultural memory,” Thompson, assistant professor of photojournalism at the University of Texas at Austin, said.
To take attendees through these stories in his work, he walked through his own story of his artistic practice up to the present day. He began his presentation by detailing how he deviated from photojournalism “rules” in his project Justice Undone, which documents the impacts of incarceration on African American communities.
Defying photojournalistic practice, he created double exposures. One image he shared during the lecture superimposed an image of Red Onion State Prison in Appalachian Virginia over that of a woman looking out of the window, lips pressed firmly together.
“At the time I was also dealing with this idea of will these pictures make the difference that I think they’re going to make? What’s happening in this space?” Thompson explained. “And questioning myself and my current photojournalism practice about ‘was I making any difference, or was I just adding to the pain and sorrow in making more pictures of brown bodies near or adjacent to prisons?’” After Justice Undone, he moved away from photojournalism and into the art space.
Even with his change in trajectory, Thompson would continue to seek out the forgotten or ignored, with research further ingraining itself within his practice. His later project, Appalachian Ghosts, pulls back into the light the improper drilling techniques that caused the release of pure silica dust during the diversion of the New River near Fayetteville, West Virginia. The techniques exposed workers, up to two-thirds of them African American, to this silica dust, killing approximately 757 men. When visiting the site of this tragedy, Thompson was troubled by the lack of visible signage and information telling the story.
“It’s like the whole state has forgotten, and doesn’t want to remember these things,” Thompson said. Seeing the opportunity for his art to intervene, he began to research, delving into archives. “I realized how much the collection in the archive of the [West Virginia] Capitol Building was all about documenting the commercial practice [of construction]. It was never about the people in the images,” he said. Working to reconstruct the men who were marginalized or ignored completely in the archives, he turned to newspapers and letters — any resource that might give him insight into the workers’ lives as they constructed the tunnel. He was also deeply influenced by Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead, which he described as “journalism poetry.” As he discussed his process, he gave attendees glimpses of the four parts of the project that emerged from it.