America’s racial tensions run deep and within events of both our past and present is endless evidence of racism’s poison on our society. It’s why 2015 bears an eerie resemblance to the era of Jim Crow. So when a piece of art can grip the tapestry of emotions that racism embeds in our hearts, our history and our experiences, of course it’s going to cause a stir. And while viewing that type of art is uncomfortable, it sends a message.
Tyler Shields is the brilliant photographer behind the above photo, entitled “Lynching.” It’s one of many powerful images in his Historical Fiction series, which contains several reimagined versions of history. The photos offer a glimpse at people’s reactions to the deaths of icons like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., President John F. Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe and more.
“Historical Fiction, as a whole, is really something I’m very proud of. It’s an accomplishment for me. I’ve had a lot of crazy concepts, but technically, this is the best series that I’ve ever done,” Shields tells HelloBeautiful exclusively.
Even though his work is based on history and obviously captures a depth that literally shakes you up, Shields is not tapped in to what’s going on in the world. He says, “I don’t really take a lot of influence from what’s happening in the world, I take influence with what is only happening with me.” He doesn’t read or watch the news and he only knows what’s going on in the world when his friends tell him. Only a true artist could be so disconnected from the world and appropriate the complexities of racism and turn them on their head.
“This is not only one of the most intense photos, but also one of the more important photos that I’ve ever taken,” Tyler proudly admits. “My friends were afraid of what the KKK would do to me.”
Reminiscing on shooting “Lynching” Tyler says, “I have this moment where I’m looking through the camera—I’m looking at it from a technical standpoint, trying to make sure I’ve got everything right and I’m about to take the picture and I’m like, ‘holy shit, this is very, very special.'”
“Lynching” stops you cold. The eye is immediately drawn to the hanging KKK member and then you’re stunned at the naked Black man hanging him. The curious reversal of roles; the potent message. It’s a heavy photograph and Shields knew that.”The idea behind the photo “Lynching” was to see the reverse side of what it would look like if a Black man was hanging a KKK member,” Shields explains. “It solicited a really powerful response from people. Some people absolutely love it and some hate it. I never thought about why people would have such an issue with it.”
People always want to know if the image is real, or if Shields photoshopped the man hanging from the noose. “That’s funny to me because I don’t eve know how you would photoshop that. That would be crazy. You certainly could, but it wouldn’t look like that.”
Shields hires actors who are brave enough not only to capture the sentiment, but the also sometimes-impossible shots, like hanging from a noose. Ricky Whittle is the actor who plays the Black man hanging the KKK member. And Shields remembers asking him to be a part of the project. He told Whittle that he wanted to do something crazy in their shoot.
He later explained to Whittle that it was beyond anything he’d ever done.”I didn’t want to tell him, so I showed him. I showed him a test shot and he stared at it for a good minute without saying a word. And I said, ‘If this is too much for you or you don’t want to do it, I’ll find someone else and you don’t have to do it.’ He looked at me and said, ‘Fuck it, it’s art.'”
Real people. Real photo. Real feels.
“What’s really interesting is that when we’re doing the photo, you don’t have a lot of time to do it. You get up there, you do it, bring them down, up, down, up…when he got in the freezing cold water and he’s naked and he’s got this rope, within 5-10 seconds of that, you’re in it. He starts channeling whatever he’s experienced or been through in his life. His body is letting it all out right there,” Shields recalls of shooting “Lynching”
“I think that ‘Lynching’ asks a question and some people are afraid of the answer. And I love that.”
“Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”
-“Strange Fruit” Billie Holiday
Check out this video of Tyler Shields explaining the images in Historical Fiction: