Artist Jon Henry began his ongoing photographic project, “Stranger Fruit,” to respond to the systemic killing of Black people by police in America. The first photo from the series was taken in 2014—the year that Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice were killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri; Staten Island, New York; and Cleveland, Ohio, respectively. Their deaths catalyzed the Black Lives Matter movement, which is currently leading a wave of global protests and community actions following the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. Tomorrow, June 9, Henry will give a talk as part of the MPS Digital Photography i3 Photo Lecture series, discussing “Stranger Fruit” and his other work, which reflects on family, sociopolitical issues, and grief, trauma and healing within the Black community. The talk will be hosted via Zoom and is free and open to the public.
In “Stranger Fruit,” Henry turns to African American mothers across the country, staging scenes and enacting a series of haunting tableaux that evoke the ever-present possibility of loss due to police violence. He photographs the women alone and holding their sons—babies, teenagers and grown men alike—in the classical pietà pose, that of the grieving Virgin Mary cradling the dead body of Jesus. In their suspended embrace, the mothers and sons appear frozen in an inconceivable eventuality, a reflection of the tensions felt and realities faced on a daily basis. The project’s title is a reference to the protest song “Strange Fruit,” written in the 1930s and made famous by artists like Billie Holiday and Nina Simone; in Henry’s words, “Instead of black bodies hanging from the Poplar Tree, these fruits of our families, our communities, are being killed in the street.”
“I set out to photograph mothers with their sons in their environment, reenacting what it must feel like to endure this pain,” Henry writes as part of the project. “The mothers in the photographs have not lost their sons, but understand the reality, that this could happen to their family. The mother is also photographed in isolation, reflecting on the absence. When the trials are over, the protesters have gone home and the news cameras gone, it is the mother left. Left to mourn, to survive.”
Henry, originally from Flushing, Queens, is a Brooklyn-based visual artist working with photography and text. His work has been published nationally and internationally and exhibited at the Aperture Foundation, Smack Mellon and BRIC, among many other institutions. Images from “Stranger Fruit” have appeared in public places across New York, most prominently as part of 14x48′s billboard repurposing initiative, mounted on the corner of 8th Avenue and 38th Street last March.
Henry’s lecture will be held Tuesday, June 9, 7:00 – 8:30pm EST. Join here; free and open to the public. The MPS Digital Photography i3: Images, Ideas, Inspiration lecture series features leading photographers and artists, hardware and software developers and industry experts. Henry was also the subject of an Instagram takeover this weekend on The New Yorker‘’