September 23, 2015
Behind the Statistics: A Lens On Lost Lives
It’s become a morbid Monday morning ritual: you log onto the news, or open your newspaper and find bold headlines with D.C.’s weekend homicide count. The crime coverage can often feel like a statistical race to the bottom with percent changes, year-over-year comparisons, and snapshots of how other cities’ murder rates compare.
But behind those grim numbers are men, women and children whose violent deaths – too often forgotten once you click the next headline – impact communities for years to come. In in our region however, a small group of artists and activists are going behind the lens to keep victims’ lives and memories alive. Using the power of film and the arts, they’re also teaching young people to express their grief, their daily challenges and their dreams by going behind the camera themselves.
Among the bravest chroniclers of D.C.’s streets is community activist Curtis Mozie, a longtime resident of Shaw who has documented the lives –and deaths – of friends and neighbors since 1981. Known by his street name, “C-Webb,” Mozie first used his camera to film daily life in his neighborhood – kids hanging out, talking, rapping and playing basketball. But as D.C.’s homicide rate surged in the early 1990s, Mozie soon realized that many of those captured on his home videos were dying in gang and drug violence. His work turned into a mission to memorialize the lives of those lost and to share the lessons of their loss with the community.
“My job is to put a face on that name and number,” says Mozie. “Behind that number I show who that person really was. And some people who see these videos end up turning their lives around.”
Today, Mozie’s collection of more than 100 “Tale of the Tape” videos serves as both a memorial and a tool to illustrate the real-life repercussions of violence. His raw, gritty films show victims in their prime, their violent ends and the fallout for their families. Mozie has joined forces with community groups like No Murders DC to take his films to churches, prisons and community centers, and he’s shared his work in a book, “Beyond the Yellow Tape: Life and Death on the Streets of DC.”
“These are real-life stories. Kids can see their peers who look like them and see their stories,” Mozie says. “There’s no doubt that my work has played a part in bringing down this kind of violence.”
For veteran photographer Lloyd Wolf, using a shutter – rather than a video recorder – is his way to connect to lives lost in D.C.’s violence. Since 2003, Wolf has photographed the street memorials that emerge hours after a crime scene subsides. From simple bouquets to elaborate displays of toys, liquor bottles, photos and candles, Wolf says each shrine has a special poignancy.
“You’re looking at some individual community that has left their pain for you to see in a very clear way, and I want to commit that care and effort to continue that memory. I try to use every visual technique I know to transmit that,” Wolf says.
Wolf’s blog reads both as a crime blotter and a colorful, yet bittersweet tribute to lives cut short. Oftentimes friends and loved ones of victims will pour out their grief in the comments section for each photo. Mothers leave messages for slain children, friends say hello, and former boyfriends or girlfriends express their pain. Wolf estimates he’s captured more than 700 shrines over the years, and he’s realized that each bear, bunny and bouquet carries strong meaning.
“It’s important to pay attention to them. They’re a message from a community to a community saying ‘Someone I value is gone and I hurt and I want to make good to this person.’ That’s the core meaning.”
Using film to express loss — and hope — is one of the tools at work at Dreams Work, a non-traditional arts organization founded in 2010. Cofounded by Daniel Bradley and Anwan “Big G” Glover, an actor known for his recurring role on “The Wire,” Dreams Work creates a space for kids to talk about what’s on their mind. The program works in schools and communities around the city to get kids’ creative juices flowing.
“We don’t audition kids — it’s about the art of life. We take a kid who has no idea what their talent is and chase the success for that talent,” Bradley says.
From a homegrown feature film about bullying to a public-service-style video decrying drug use, Dreams Work’s projects and programs emphasize community awareness and involvement to change the negative narrative kids often encounter on the streets. Bradley says he hopes that inspiring younger generations to get involved will yield real results down the road.
“You don’t end violence with the current group of people who are involved in it — you’ll end it by working with the generation coming up.” Bradley says. “If I can inspire them in first and second grades then … they won’t check out and stop trying. That will make the difference in the long term.”
Tune into The Kojo Nnamdi Show Wednesday, Sep. 23, at 12 p.m. EST for a broader conversation on community response to violence.