It was late June, and Ézé Amos had to hurry. This photographer needed City Council’s permission, as the fifth anniversary of August 12, 2017, was fast approaching, to deliver his art to the citizens: a series of personal portraits taken that day, to be put in an open-air exhibition.
“I was under the illusion that it was going to be easy to put it up on the Downtown Mall,” he says now, laughing. “Little did I know.”
Just as the term “both sides” has become a catchphrase used to denigrate the president from that era, City Council operates in world in which favoritism to any side is seen as an abridgment of free speech. But Amos found a way to honor the day when Charlottesville’s best and worst sides were shown to the world.
“So I sold it to the city as a gift,” says Amos. “And it was a way to commemorate what happened.”
Hoisting larger-than-life color photographs into the trees of the Downtown Mall isn’t cheap, but Amos says that he didn’t feel that he could fundraise before getting that approval, which came at the June 21 City Council meeting.
With a GoFundMe and personal entreaties to larger players such as the University of Virginia and the Charlottesville Community Foundation, he says that he and project manager Natalie Batman raised about $80,000 in less than one month. Along the way, Amos interviewed over three dozen survivors from August 12, when hundreds of white nationalists marched in the streets, and one of them killed anti-racism activist Heather Heyer and injured many others.
The result is “The Story of Us,” an interactive exhibition that hung in the Mall’s treetops from August 11 through September 29.
Anyone strolling the Mall could not only gaze up at images captured by Amos that fateful weekend, but they could hear each person in their own voice, after scanning a QR code, speak their personal history.
One of them is April Muñiz, shown sobbing by the street after the horrific injuries and death from the car attack.
“We are lucky to have Ézé in our community,” says Muñiz. “He’s a true street photographer who always has camera around his neck so he can bear witness to the life and lives around him.”
Muñiz says she met Amos over six years ago when he shot a dramatically happier image of her and her dog in an owner-pet lookalike contest.
“Whatever the circumstance,” says Muñiz, “Ézé’s portrayal of it captures the moment with true sincerity.”
Amos came from his native Nigeria in 2008 to Charlottesville where his now ex-wife wanted to live. An early interest in hydrology got pushed aside after he realized his ability with photography. And storytelling.
“The dream has always been the storytelling,” says Amos, who grew up in a regional capital called Ibadan.
“Everything in my culture is based on storytelling,” he says. “When my dad wanted to teach a lesson, he’d tell us a story.”
Amos says that Charlottesville’s day of infamy had not only marked the city in the eyes of the world but told an incomplete story. This city where he works and where he raises his daughter became known for Nazi flags and a lethal car attack.
“That’s all they know about Charlottesville,” says Amos. “Every time I go out of Charlottesville — even in Italy — people say, ‘Oh, you live there?’”
Amos wanted to capture not the views of politicians and policy-makers but the experience of “random, average people.”
He says he captured thousands of photographs that weekend. But after sending out some of them to news organizations in those first few days, he kept the rest hidden away from everyone’s eyes — even his own — for five years.
“I thought it was too fresh a story to tell,” he says. “It was too close to home. I felt we needed time to take a breather.”
Earlier this year, he began looking through the images when the idea of an exhibition occurred to him. Now, he wonders if they could be collected into a book.
In recent years, Amos has become a frequent contributor to the New York Times, Getty Images, and other news outlets. And yet he managed to track down the subjects of his 36 chosen images and to conduct all those audio interviews in the precious few weeks between Council’s approval and the outdoor exhibition’s opening.
“I’m under no illusions that I could tell the complete story,” he says, “but I felt it was important to try.”
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