Activist community

New photos from Charlottesville in 2017 tell the story of a community that fought back

For a decade now, Ézé Amos has been traveling the city with his camera, capturing slices of Charlottesville life – friends having a drink on the terrace of the Miller, children dancing to the tune of a busker . He knows everyone, and everyone knows him.

Amos was there, with his camera and with his community, during the Unite the Right rally weekend in August 2017, documenting the horrors and dodging the beatings of a neo-Nazi wearing a Hitler T-shirt.

He has never ceased to recount the extraordinary suffering endured by the community since. He also documented the goodness of the support and comfort that people offered to each other.

Photographer in Charlottesville Ézé Amos Credit: Charlotte Rene Woods Charlottesville Tomorrow

This week, Amos launches “The Story of Us,” a series of 36 never-before-seen large-scale photographs taken during Unite the Right and after. He has shared many of these photos with local, national and international news outlets, but he has kept these 36 to himself – until now.

The photos, which do not depict the violence, are printed on weather-resistant material and hung in the trees along the Downtown Mall, where they will remain until the end of September. Each is accompanied by a recording in which the subjects of the photo tell their own stories, in their own voices.

Amos was surprised by what he learned throughout “The Story of Us” interview process. Here he describes in his own words where he was when he took some of the footage, why he clicked the shutter when he did, and what it was like to hear about those moments from the years later.

August 12, 2017, 2:16 p.m.

In the very center of the photo is a woman with long hair and a fabric headband.  She is kneeling on the asphalt and talking to two people sitting on the ground in front of her, with their backs to the camera.  Behind the woman is an orange sign for medical transport, along with a chaotic jumble of emergency medicine vehicles, stretchers and workers.
Minutes after James Alex Fields drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters on Fourth Street SE, local therapist Shell Stern speaks to survivors of the attack just yards from where she stood produced. Courtesy of Ézé Amos

Her name is Shell, Shell Stern. She’s a good friend of mine, a therapist here in town.

The car had just hit the crowd.

I was busy photographing David Duke [a Ku Klux Klan leader] at McIntire Park when we received the message that the accident…. So I drove downtown, parked somewhere — I can’t remember where — and then I ran to Water Street. There was just confusion everywhere. It was one of the first things I saw, and I saw from afar. This photo, it tells me so much about what happened. And she was just like, trying to check in with them and see how they were doing and stuff. And, it was so…this photo did so much for me in helping me capture that moment and what was happening, without showing any violence. Without showing the scene.

I so needed to hear his story, and that’s what drove this whole project. I contacted her, she said yes, and her reaction is what really pushed me to do this project. When I told her about it and showed her the photo, she cried and she said to me, “I want to tell you about this day. And then I realized that people wanted to talk. People want to share that.

I was thinking of doing something around August 11 and 12. I wasn’t sure what it was going to be. I fell into the same trap of wanting to show photos of protesters, signs and all that. Then I started thinking, why would I want to do the same thing, showing pictures in anger? Yeah, we resisted, we did all that, but still, pictures of anger? Why do I want to do this?

Then I saw this picture, and I kept looking at it.

I decided that I didn’t want to show pictures of protesters, I didn’t want to show pictures of activists. Not that they’re irrelevant – they’re very, very relevant and very important to the movement. But, I want to put a human face on Charlottesville. If I’m going to try to salvage the Charlottesville narrative, I don’t want to show pictures of the same activists marching with signs. People have seen these photos.

Let’s talk about us instead. Let’s talk about the people, the ordinary, average people, of Charlottesville, what they went through that day. Let’s talk about that. Or let them talk about it. And that’s how this project was born.

August 13, 2017, around 6 p.m.

On August 13, 2017, the day after the Unite the Right rally, a five-year-old girl sat on her father’s shoulders during a vigil that took place at the site of the drive-by attack on Fourth Street SE. Courtesy of Ézé Amos

This photo was obvious. A dad with his daughter around his neck in the middle of thousands of people, on Fourth Street, at the vigil? And she was just there, like, “What’s going on here? What are these people doing?” There was no way I was dropping that.

The craziest part of this project? I had to find these people. I had to find them, then interview them. I interviewed the father for “The Story of Us”. His daughter, she was five then, so she’s 10 now.

August 13, 2017

A photograph taken at ground level of a line of people sitting close together on a sidewalk, with other people standing beside and behind them.  The center of the photo is a man wearing a short-sleeved button-down shirt, shorts and jelly sandals sitting on the sidewalk, holding his cellphone.  The corners of his mouth are upturned and his forehead is furrowed.  In the street in front of him, there are messages written in chalk.  Down the street, stickers spelling out
During the August 13, 2017 vigil, people sit on the sidewalk of Fourth Street SE, where dozens of people were physically and emotionally injured, and where Heather Heyer died, in the car attack. Dee Dee, center of this photo, brought his family to the wake after learning he had played an unexpected role in it all. Courtesy of Ézé Amos

It’s the same vigil. His name is Dee Dee and he is a cook at the Haven.

I thought his face said it all. But when I asked him… I didn’t expect anything like that. When we spoke, he launched. He began: “I’ve seen it all.” They [the white supremacists] had rented his Air BnB?! He saw everything.

Of course I had to be quiet [during the interview]but I thought, imagine, how many of these stories I took. Think about the effect of that when you listen to them on the Mall.

August 13, 2017 at 7:37 p.m.

In the center of the photo is a policeman wearing a dark uniform and a hat.  He's surrounded by people, some of them with big cameras, and all of their faces are blurry.
Former Charlottesville Police Department Deputy Chief Jim Mooney attends the vigil on Aug. 13, 2017, while still a Sgt. He looks up at Fourth Street SE, at the massive crowd that has gathered at the site of the car attack. The black stripe down the center of his badge is a symbol of mourning for the two Virginia state troopers who died in a helicopter crash during the Unite the Right rally the day before. Courtesy of Ézé Amos

I took a ton of pictures of officers over the weekend, but there was something about him staring into a crowd of thousands.

For this photo, I was shooting directly into the crowd on Fourth Street during the vigil. I was photographing all these people, and I looked at Water Street, and he stood out, a cop’s head standing there, looking out into the crowd. He was the only cop there.

When I interviewed him, he told me about his experience and he said he was conflicted. He carried two hearts. He grew up in Charlottesville, so as a resident of Charlottesville, this had just happened to his community. He has his family here. And then he’s also a policeman, and the idea that they had to guard and protect the idiots who came to town, that’s the instruction we gave them.

So, there’s a lot of hate and stuff thrown at him, and while he was saying that to me, he was crying. This man was crying as he spoke his truths, as he told me his story, and I felt for him at some point. Wow, I felt for him. This project is not about which side you take. It’s about us as a community. What was he going through?

The first time I showed this to someone, they were like, “ew, cop, ugh.” I understand, but let’s stop for a second to think. This guy is also a human being. Something happened to him that day. What is his story ? Wouldn’t you like to hear that? He is part of the community. I also wanted to hear his story.

There was something about him staring into that crowd, a crowd of thousands. [In our interview,] he described what he was looking at. He said he looked at Charlottesville, and he said, even though he couldn’t express it, he was proud of what he saw, that this community is doing its thing.

The crowd that day was huge. It was more than huge.

December 11, 2018, 1:48 p.m.

The photo shows nine people gathered outside a brick building.  In the center of the photo, a woman in a wheelchair.  The woman rests her head on the chest of a woman standing next to her.  Everyone else in the photo gathers around the woman in the center, their arms around her and each other, all looking directly at the camera.
Star Peterson (center, in pink) was seriously injured when James Alex Fields drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters on August 12, 2017. The impact crushed Peterson’s pelvis, and she underwent numerous procedures surgeries since. Courtesy of Ézé Amos

I took this right after [guilty] verdict of the murder trial of James Alex Fields, just outside the courthouse. It was just before Heather Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, took to the catwalk to do a press release.

It took me a while to land on a single photo from that day. I could have gone with a picture of Susan Bro, but it was the best picture, and I think I made the right choice. Because hearing Star [Peterson, pictured center] telling his story — not to diminish other people’s stories, because they all have really, really hard stories to tell — I felt it was important to hear his voice. [Peterson was seriously injured when James Alex Fields drove his car into a crowd of counter protestors on August 12, 2017: The impact crushed her pelvis, and she has had many surgeries since.]

I didn’t even ask them to pose, they just did that. There are plenty of other photos I could have used, but there’s something about this photo, how it shows “I’m f—-g tired” and “we’re here for you”. There’s so much going on in there. I love how she’s flanked by all these people who are like “we’ve got you”.

I keep saying these aren’t pictures of violence. They are not pictures of violence when you look at them, but there is so much violence that has happened and they carry. If you look inside, oh god, there’s a ton of violence in there.

“The Story of Us” is on display at the Downtown Mall in Charlottesville until the end of September. Can’t make it to town? See the photographs and listen to the recordings on the project website.

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