Documenting Oakland Gun Violence Without Photographing Any Guns Or Any Violence

Brandon Tauszik thinks America is in the middle of a collective re-examination of its criminal justice policy, gun culture and post-racial credo.

“Why has the ecology of the American inner city long enabled it’s own self-destruction?” asks Tauszik in his artist statement for . “Is it possible to shift our tired narrative of another young black man memorialized with white wax?

White Wax is a lo-fi visual survey of shrines made by loved ones in honor of a victim to gun violence in Oakland, CA, where Tasuzik lives. In his daily life, Tauszik makes images, GIFs and film for his production house Sprinkle Lab. He works on personal projects like White Wax and the recent Tapered Throne in his own time.

In the context of the rasping documentary work, the political activism and the spewing, raw street photography of the Bay Area White Wax’s scratched-up, banged-up, gritty, realism make sense. Less obvious, though, are Tauszik’s motives, goals and choices for the year-long (2012/13) visual document of memorials to homicide victims.

This project, I suspect, is a means by which Tauszik can remain connected to the place he lives. Unfortunately, for most people, murders are pretty easy to ignore; they just have to steer clear of certain streets. Some Oaklanders don’t have that luxury though.


Why take on this project?

Oakland is a violent city, but America is a violent country — its inner cities particularly so. There is already a great deal of photography approaching this subject with a kind of coarse imagery. We’ve all seen it over and over. I asked myself, ‘How can I photograph gun violence without showing any guns? How can I create an emotional project without showing victims or mourners? How can I approach a politically charged subject, yet leave cops and politicians out of it?’

I hope that with these images I am able to communicate something beyond just melted wax on the sidewalk.

There is a bizarre media obsession about the annual homicide rate in San Francisco, as if people are waiting for it to meet or surpass the previous year’s figure. Oakland was always the depressing counterpoint to SF figures as it suffered 2 to 3 times the number of murders. Briefly, can you describe your experience of information, conversation, attitudes about murder? Surely, beyond figures there’s talk of interventions and solutions? Basically, what should Oaklanders do?

That’s a loaded question.

There is a lot of social inequality in the Bay Area and particularly here in Oakland. Having been largely de-industrialized over the past few decades, Oakland is currently in the midst of a strong wave of gentrification. Despite this new influx of higher income residents, the crime rate has barely shifted in the past decade. It’s currently the most dangerous city on the west coast and has the highest robbery rate in the whole country. People blame this on the understaffed police department, the economy, the gangs, the guns, whatever.

White Wax deals with things that are uncomfortable to address, but ultimately this isn’t about “What should Oakland do?” but instead “What should America do?”

In New York City, Memphis, Chicago, Baltimore, Los Angeles (the list goes on and on) young men of color kill and are killed more than any other demographic. We’ve ignored violence in our country because the victims don’t look like us. As one African American mother told me at a memorial, “We have been living a daily Sandy Hook and it’s time for the nation to know.”

There are some very strong local organizations such as SAVE, Khadafy Foundation and RJOY that do amazingly important work, but ultimately this is about a flawed national mindset in regards to prisons, guns and race relations.

Which photographers are working in ways that you admire and value?

When I first moved to the Bay Area, I assisted Jim Goldberg for a while. That was a pivotal time for me which pulled me away from strict photojournalism toward longer, in-depth projects. Lately though, I’ve been into Harry Griffin, Yoshi Kametani, and Viviane Sassen.

What’s the purpose of photography? What should we be trying to do?

We have ears to hear, but also eyes to see. The spoken word can only accomplish so much. You can sometimes say so much without using your mouth … a gesture, a glance. For me, photography acts as a medium to illuminate ideas and questions on all aspects life.

What is White Wax? Amemorial? A study of vernacular action? Something else?

It’s more a study in the unique and visually distinct way that my neighbors mourn the loss of their loved ones.

Was it important to commit to this for one year?

Every big city has their yearly homicide count which is obsessed over and analyzed as strictly data. I wanted to see what that data would look like in context of the shrines, which are a direct result of that count.

White Wax images are taken at night. Was this a deliberate choice?

I wanted to capture these scenes as naturalistically as possible. The majority of these murders take place under the cover of darkness, so while this makes my work more difficult and dangerous, nighttime is one of the threads I use to tie the images together.

I know you use Shine In Peace, Google Alerts and word of mouth to discover homicides. Do you fear White Wax has omitted some homicides just as the local news often misses/overlooks these murders? If you have missed some what does that mean?

I’ve definitely missed some, due to a few reasons:

1. These memorials are, by nature, ephemeral and are displayed for anywhere from one day to many weeks. Sometimes, I find a site I’ve missed where there are still traces of wax, but the shrine has been removed.

2. The given victim’s family and friends sometimes don’t erect a shrine. If the murder took place in a particular neighborhood where the victim was not welcome, that will usually apply to the victim’s family and acquaintances as well.

3. Many of these murders get little to no media exposure. For example, here is an example of a web-only murder story. I rely on Oakland’s news outlets to report on (or at least tweet on) each murder. However there is low motivation to do so due to the very limited readership on these stories.

There are usually a few murders a week here, so unfortunately it can be hard for me to keep up.

What about captions? Is there a need (from you or audience) to include information about the homicide?

I have the name/age/race/sex/location information for most of these murders. However, captions have a didactic manner of reducing a photograph down to data and information, which is what I am trying to avoid. A recent study showed that Americans assume black people feel less pain than white people. This is deeply frightening. I want the viewer to ponder these images and wonder, ‘Was this person someone who looked like me?’

You sat on this project for a long time. Why? What’s been the reaction from folks in Oakland to White Wax?

I wanted to give it time to fill in and for the thesis to take shape. The local people I’ve showed it to so far seem to think it’s strong and thoughtful. I would love to arrange an exhibition in Oakland.

Brandon Tauszik is an Oakland, Calif.-based image-maker. Follow him on Twitter, Tumblr, Vimeo and Instagram. Check Sprinkle Lab.

Originally published on Prison Photography