PROVO, Utah – Tintype photography dates back before the Civil War and today a student at Brigham Young University has found new relevancy for it in a project that highlights ongoing societal struggles with racism.
Maddie Casagranda’s Black Stories Project, currently on display at BYU’s Harold B. Lee Library, seeks to amplify the voices and experiences of Black Utahns.
“Basically the last time the tintype process was used to photograph Black people was photographing slaves and people who were involved in the Civil War time and so it’s very jarring,” Casagranda said. “I just don’t feel like we can address racism unless we address the history behind it because the racism in our country is so, so rooted in the last 200, 300 years and even before that.”
Tintype photography dates back before the Civil War. Today, a student at BYU is using it to highlight ongoing struggles with racism across the country and here in Utah…https://t.co/6z4BwubszJ@KSL5TV #KSLTV #Utah
Photojournalist: Tanner Siegworth pic.twitter.com/mv2Nposmno
— Andrew Adams (@AndrewAdamsKSL) March 18, 2021
As protests over social injustice and racial inequality took shape across the country last year, Casagranda began her project to capture individual stories from the local community.
“With George Floyd and all of that, when that started happening I kind of sat back and realized I wasn’t getting that exposure that I had in other places I had lived,” Casagranda said. “I admit, I got pretty upset about a lot of things and I sort of felt a sense of anger for the people I was photographing and almost like a sense of protection over them. I would go home just feeling angry and sad and just wished I could just fix everything.”
She photographed and interviewed 76 members of Utah’s Black community from Utah County and Salt Lake County and learned of countless heartbreaking experiences.
Jalyn Briggs recalled a time growing up in Provo when a woman told her “it’s people like you that are the problem with our church.”
Alex Stewart-Johnson, who moved to Utah in 2018, said his eyes were suddenly opened after an encounter in Arkansas.
“I went to a school in Conway, Arkansas, and having police officers pull guns on me, right, in a very chill conversation environment,” he said. “I remember calling my dad after, crying, and asking, like, ‘What is this? What’s going on?’ and him saying, ‘I honestly had hoped stuff like this wouldn’t happen to you guys and the reality is there is nothing I can tell you that will make it better, but it is what it is.’”
Dumdi Baribe, a Nigerian-American studying at Utah Valley University said this state can be a very difficult place to have conversations regarding race.
“The solution is we need to recognize that there is diversity and it’s beautiful and we can learn from each other,” Baribe said.
The photographer acknowledged she might face scrutiny for taking on the project as a white person photographing Black people, but those she photographed didn’t see it that way.
“In this world we live in, she could have caught a lot of backlash for putting herself out to do that,” Stewart-Johnson said. “We all have our own mediums and spaces where we can effectuate change and this was hers.”
“The way Maddie has done this has allowed more people to meet the moment and to take it past the moment, take it past the trend,” Baribe said.
Briggs acknowledged change isn’t always fast.
“I do feel like we have quite a ways to go,” Briggs said. “My hope in this is that people will take the time to stop and just listen to our stories. We don’t say this because we have a vendetta or we want people to feel bad. We say it because we actually want things to get better and we want people to recognize there are a lot of struggles within our community. There are a lot of things you might not see as part of a majority, and if you just take a moment to listen to anyone’s story who is a part of this project, then maybe it will open your eyes to change one aspect of your life.”
Casagranda was hopeful the Black Stories Project would make a difference and help people to see and recognize racism where it exists today.
“My experience is not the only experience and my lens is not the only way to see things,” Casagranda said. “It’s important to confront uncomfortable truths.”
The exhibit is in place on level five of the Harold B. Lee Library through March 26.
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