The Travelers – Elizabeth Heyert

Charles Cowling

 

See the full photo essay (16 photographs) here

Over the course of one year (2003-2004) Elizabeth Heyert photographed the deceased members of a Baptist community in Harlem. Heyert took her photos at the funeral parlour of Isaiah Owens, one of the few places where the old tradition of festively dressing up the dead lives on.

All of The Travelers photographs are accompanied by the name of the person in the portrait, as well as their date and place of birth and death. Significantly, the individual stories of each photographed person are absent from the work, in spite of their value to Elizabeth. I asked Elizabeth why she didn’t make them part of the project. Elizabeth explains that it was mainly an issue of privacy. Although the stories were important for her to be able to establish intimacy with the subjects, they were not really meant for public consumption. They form the narrative of a community that Elizabeth is not a member of. She wanted to be careful not to be presumptuous and act like she belongs to this community. Therefore she did not claim the stories as part of her project.

Moreover, she found that including the date and place of birth and death was already very effective in triggering the imagination. These simple facts indicate that the majority of the 31 portrait-sitters grew up in the south of the United States and moved north. This information alone calls upon a whole history. Elizabeth identifies it as the story of the 20th century, when black people took the journey from the south of the US to Harlem, in search of a better life. It was the only way for them to escape from poverty, even though the situation in Harlem wasn’t perfect either. It was a way they could take control of their lives.

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james showers
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Indeed. A master of preparation, Mr Owens; I don’t exactly know how he achieves the sublime look (using botox-type injection), but whatever he does, it makes for a characterful and beautiful result. I love the little touches: the hands, the money spilling from a pocket, the tie askance.

Kathryn Edwards
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Kathryn Edwards

Waaaaa! Beautiful, fascinating work.

Thank you for an introduction to a wonderful artist.