The photographer travelled across the US to make Stranger Fruit – a tribute to the Black mothers raising their sons against a backdrop of police brutality
One of the words George Floyd repeated while death was closing in on him, while Derek Chauvin pressed his knee into his neck for nine and a half minutes, was mama. “Mama, mama, mama,” he says. She is dead and yet he calls for her, knows their fates are intertwined. Knows the force of a Black mother’s love, one constantly shadowed by the threat of impending violence.
It is this simultaneous love and loss that makes Stranger Fruit, a collection of 59 photographs by visual artist Jon Henry, at times hard to bear. The photo book [published recently by Monolith, designed by Luminosity Lab], gets its title from Nina Simone’s haunting rendition of the anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit.” Henry expands this tradition of protest through art in his moving portraits of Black mothers and their sons. In some, Henry re-works the familiar image of la Pietà. In others, the mothers appear alone. There’s an eerie prescience. Grief lingers.
The concept of la Pietà derives from Henry’s childhood. “I grew up in a historic church and I was always drawn to religious iconography, especially stained windows,” Henry says. “The motif made a lot of sense in terms of the mother-son dynamic.” References for the project ranged from Michaelangelo and Titian to “more contemporary versions by Renee Cox and David Driskell.” “Kehinde Wiley was another huge reference point for the series,” says Henry.
There’s a ghostly presence to the men and boys these mothers hold and love. Their torsos and feet are bare. In certain portraits – one of a mother who holds one son leaning away from her, the other slumped towards the ground – one feels time dissolve. That same awful history repeating itself. But the sneakers and jeans remind us that this is a contemporary sight, happening in a here and now that is closer to us than we’d like. The mothers are on the steps of stately buildings and front lawns, in the Great Plains and anonymous parking lots. This is the American landscape, blighted and warmed with blood.
The images are accompanied by text from the mothers’ responses to a six-question survey Henry sent along with the final image after he returned home after collaborating with his subjects. “I asked [them] their thoughts coming into the project [and] to describe the act of holding their son for the image,” Henry explains. “It was just amazing to read their responses. The book would not be the same without those texts.”
In one of those texts, a mother writes, “I feel hurt, anguish, and emotional turmoil. I recognise that this was only for a moment in time but that’s actually a depiction of life – every second is a moment in time. That one moment can define the rest of your life.” In another, “As I hold my son in my arms there is nothing strange about him. He is indeed the fruit of my womb, the extension of his father and me, growing, stretching, reaching to the skies, there is nothing strange about him - he is heaven in my eyes.”
In the afterword, Henry uses the phrase “pirouette of death” to describe the feeling of senseless repetition experienced when one hears the news of another murder of an unarmed Black person by the police. The pirouette spins on. But mothers remember their sons as children and so here, for the moment, they are safe, protected.