Henry's portraits capture the pain, sadness, and strength in the eyes of his subjects who, although haven't actually lost their sons to systemic racism, live with a constant fear of police violence.
New York City-based photographer Jon Henry started working on his photography series Stranger Fruit back in 2014 in response to the police murders of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice. The powerful series, which depicts Black mothers from across the United States cradling their sons on street corners, in parking lots, or in front of government buildings, continues to be relevant all these years later. Especially since Black individuals like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor are still being senselessly murdered on the streets and in their own homes. Henry's portraits capture the pain, sadness, and strength in the eyes of his subjects who, although haven't actually lost their sons to systemic racism, live with a constant fear of police violence.
Speaking to Bored Panda, Henry — who recently won the Arnold Newman Prize for New Directions in Photographic Portraiture for this series — revealed that he has visited a lot of places for the series, including a rural area in North Minneapolis to a street corner in Jersey City. "I chose these locations because I could find subjects there," he explained. "The locations are where the families live and work. I'm looking for areas that describe the city and/or state from a geographical and architectural point of view." In some of his portraits, Henry showcases women alone in bedrooms and other quiet, empty spaces, contemplating loss and endurance.
In an interview with Jon Feinstein for HAFNY, Henry addressed the religious iconography in his work. "I used to work in a church, so I was always glued to religious iconography, stained glass windows, and renaissance painting. It all had an impact on me when thinking how I wanted the images to look and feel. Dr. Driskell, along with Renee Cox and many other artists influenced the work. His influence was powerful because of his piece 'Behold Thy Son' which he painted one year after the murder of Emmett Till. He was so impacted by that story that he had to create this pieta in response to Emmett's murder. So, there were parallels in how he was affected by Till's murder and me affected by Sean Bell's murder."
Explaining why the unidentified women in his photographs invoke a personal sense of sadness and pain in the viewer, Henry said that "it speaks to the fact that these tragedies could happen to any one of them. They have not lost their sons, but they understand the reality that this could happen, as it continues to happen routinely across this country. Their names aren't important, but speaking to the larger issue at hand is."
As for his decision to photograph the young men in his photos without their shirts, the photographer explained: "I’m just thinking of vulnerability and protection. Aesthetically it helps the workflow together, but my focus is on the fragility of the body and how it can be harmed." Henry said that the continued racist murders of Black people by law enforcement still takes a heavy mental toll on him despite having built the series around the matter for six years. "It’s still stressful and overwhelming that in 2020, in the middle of a global pandemic, we are still having these conversations. It’s a bit like enduring the trauma all over again with every new story," he said.
Here are a few more heartbreaking photographs from the Stranger Fruit series: