As he headed to the St. Louis neighborhood of Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, to photograph people protesting the police shooting of Michael Brown, Benjamin Rasmussen was reading about the Supreme Court’s decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford, the 1857 case that established that “Negro” descendants of enslaved people could not be American citizens. Rasmussen learned that the petitioner in the case, Dred Scott, was buried in St. Louis, farther down but on the same street where the protestors were demonstrating. This coincidence moved the photographer to consider what he calls “the shortness of American history, where you have ripple effects, but the ripple effects are in a really small pond.”
When people on the left call for reparations for slavery, or for commemoration of the government’s decision to put Japanese Americans in internment camps during World War II, a go-to reaction from the right is “You need to stop living in the past.” It’s a part of white privilege to feel that it’s possible to exist as a unique individual, totally free of the weight of history. Rasmussen’s project shows how the history of American legal decisions on the matter of citizenship and belonging, which is permanent in its effects even as laws are amended year to year, makes that dream of “living beyond the past” impossible for marginalized groups.
This work is a series of evocative juxtapositions. Rasmussen places the language of Supreme Court decisions that have determined the nature of American citizenship side by side with images of historical documents and artifacts, complementing these with contemporary portraits of people whose lives have been affected by the court’s decisions. The project isn’t meant to be a definitive accounting of American history, rather suggestive and essayistic, prompting viewers to make their own connections between word, image, and document.
Rasmussen likes to source the historical artifacts he photographs on eBay. “It’s this thing that’s so specifically American,” he says of the marketplace’s “monetizing” of history. On eBay, Rasmussen finds plenty of material to support his sense of the compressed timescale of American history. He points to one example: Roger Taney, the Supreme Court Justice—Chief Justice at the time—who wrote the Dred Scott decision, was memorialized on revenue stamps as late as the middle of the twentieth century. (“This whole idea of [Dred Scott] being a decision we disagreed with as a culture as soon as it was made is complete revisionist history,” Rasmussen says. “This is a man who was still being celebrated as a legal scholar well into the 1950s.”) Via the invisible hand of eBay, a sheet of stamps with Taney’s face on them, perhaps found in somebody’s deceased grandfather’s study, can arrive at your doorstep in a matter of days—a tangible reminder of how close we are to 1950, and how close that was to 1850.
The contemporary portraits of people affected by this history, often taken in the course of assignments for magazines and newspapers, convey a searing sense of immediacy and presence. In some cases, Rasmussen spoke with the subjects about the history this project explores. When he photographed the material on the Sand Creek Massacre, he was traveling with a writer whose ancestor had participated in the killing of defenseless Cheyenne and Arapaho people in what was then the Colorado Territory in 1864. In photographing the descendants of a survivor of that day, conversations about the persistent weight of that history felt natural. In other cases, he says, he spoke more about the present day, working to make sure that those he photographed felt that the portraits he took represented them.
In part of the work, Rasmussen offers an assembly of artifacts that show how the history of whiteness might fit into this story. “I’m still trying to figure out a way to include white supremacist ideas without giving a white viewer an easy way out,” he says. So far, the answer seems to be to evoke times that white supremacy has been mainstreamed. To that end, he includes documents from the presidential campaigns of George Wallace, an image of shrouded Confederate monuments, and a portrait of President Trump’s broad, suited back.
Perhaps because of Rasmussen’s own heritage—he grew up in the Philippines, the son of a Danish father and a white American mother—it’s in this section that the images of historical artifacts seem most personal. A Wallace campaign poster on a rust-stained wall, evoking a dark vision of decay, was staged and photographed in Rasmussen’s studio. An eBay-purchased coin, produced as late as 1940 by a former Kansas state senator to promote the slogan “America for Americans,” sits in a white palm—Rasmussen’s—a subtle reminder of the photographer’s presence, and his race. The past is never past, even for those with the privilege of forgetting.
— Rebecca Onion