EMILY BAXTER: IN FOCUS: INJUSTICE IN AMERICA
Reception: Friday, January 17, 5–8 p.m.
Through Sunday, Feb. 16
Emily Baxter never set out to be a photographer.
Baxter, who now lives in Durham and runs the North Carolina Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, was a Minnesota public defender for years before she grew frustrated with the narratives around incarceration and “fell out of love with the law.” She began taking photographs of topics related to incarceration, in hopes that they might drive home statistics that can be hard to process abstractly.
In Focus: Injustice in America, an exhibit of six of Baxter’s photo series at Arcana, humanizes those statistics and paints a distressing portrait of mass incarceration in the United States. The exhibit, the first in which all of Baxter’s work has appeared together, has a reception on January 17 and runs through February 16.
Several of the photo series are narrative. The most unusual and longest-running project draws on Baxter’s experience as a legal professional. “We Are All Criminals” (WAAC) is a documentary policy project in which people—most of them white, and many of them doctors, lawyers, or professors; positions they never would have been able to achieve with a criminal conviction—hold up a written response to the prompt, “What have you had the luxury to forget?” (“Weed and Ivy League Privilege,” says one sign; “Drugs in Purse Now” reads another.)
When she initially put out the call for interviews on listservs in 2012, Baxter was flooded with responses. Soon, with the help of a two-year Bush Foundation Fellowship, she began driving across the state; the project turned into a non-profit and later, a book.
Many people can agree that we have an overwhelmingly punitive and racist criminal-justice system. The war on drugs, stop-and-frisk policies, three-strike laws, and prosecutorial overreach have all driven up incarceration rates since the 1970s, resulting in the highest incarceration rate in the world. According to a 2018 U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics report, African-American adults are five times as likely to be convicted of a crime as white adults.
Rather than focusing on the impact of incarceration, though, Baxter’s series flips the script and focuses on those who have been able to get away with crimes—which, according to her, is all of us. “One in four people have been convicted of a crime,” she estimates, “But four out of four people have committed a crime.”
Although “We Are All Criminals” is provocatively named, the point is less that we’re all terrible people than that a criminal record tells us very little about a person’s static characteristics. Some people Baxter spoke with had a particular misdemeanor weighing on them—a wild night out, a dorm-room drug deal—while others had to carefully interrogate their history before events rose to the surface: possession of a false ID, buying alcohol for a minor, drinking out of an open container, trespassing, jaywalking, shoplifting. Any of these offenses can fade into the background if you are white and making choices in a system designed to give you second chances.
Or, these events can result in an outsized conviction and ruin your life.
Two of Baxter’s other series look at the ripple effects of incarceration and conviction. “At All Costs” explores the North Carolina ACLU’s efforts to address escalating court fines and fees. “On the Row in Prison and at Home” examines the effects of capital punishment, focusing on the story of Henry McCollum, an intellectually disabled North Carolina man who was sentenced to death row in 1984 at the age of nineteen for a crime he did not commit.
When McCollum was exonerated in 2014, he was the state’s longest-serving death row prisoner; his story made national news when scammers preyed on his $1 million compensation, pushing him into debt. Baxter has a striking eye, and her photos of McCollum tell a wrenching story about life after incarceration. Although North Carolina has not executed anyone since 2006—causing many people in the state, as Baxter points out, to forget about the death penalty—capital punishment has a devastating effect on anyone who has come close to it.
“As long as death is on the table,” Baxter says, “anything becomes palatable.”
The three other projects on display at Arcana offer a more historical lens on injustice. “Roots of Braggtown” documents Durham’s Braggtown neighborhood—just minutes away from Arcana—and the descendants of people enslaved at Stagville Plantation, while “Grace Goes Home: The Lost Ones” is a personal look at a generation of Indigenous children forced into boarding schools in Alaska. “SEEN” features work from the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop.
These are all worthy if expansive subjects to absorb in the murky glow of the basement setting. The number of projects included favors breadth at the expense of depth; hopefully, these stories can get more room to breathe in subsequent exhibits. Make sure to pick up one of the detailed information packets and the cards that feature action items for each series—a fundraiser, a link to more reading material—to follow through on these photographs’ galvanizing energy.
Contact deputy arts & culture editor Sarah Edwards at email@example.com.
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