“Why is it that the sites of labor massacres across the country are little known and obscure?” asks Andrew Lichtenstein. “These are choices that we make: to make the Liberty Bell and the signing of the Declaration of Independence these giant tourist attractions. What we choose to remember and why we choose to remember it is what makes us who are.” In his study of Landscapes of American History, Lichtenstein presents a view on history that goes against the grain of the narratives that we hear in election years (and increasingly, that we hear all of the time), that America and Americans want or should want the same things or believe the same things, and that America’s destiny as a country has followed a clear or necessary trajectory. This project has value because Lichtenstein recognises that how past events are memorialised is at least as important as decisions about what is memorialised.

© Andrew Lichtenstein/ Facing Change
Cross Keys, Virginia. There is no marker or monument at Cabin Pond, a small swamp in rural Southampton County, Virginia, where the slave Nat Turner first received a vision that it was his assigned task to free America’s slaves with a rebellion. Cabin Pond is also where Turner planned the rebellion in the summer of 1831 and where he fled to hide after its failure several weeks later. He was captured about a mile away. Turner’s rebellion so terrified slave owners in the region that they attempted to erase it from history, as well as enacting new laws that made it illegal to teach slaves to read or write. Andrew Lichtenstein/ Facing Change

Lichtenstein explores the histories of conflict in America and the suppression of the rights of groups of people, telling of their struggles. His photographs range across the USA and contemplate histories on the cusp of being forgotten – of the struggles for labour and civil rights, and of native Americans – as well as more recent contests such as gay rights and the legacies of deindustrialisation. (A few weeks ago MSNBC’s PhotoBlog ran a four-part series showcasing the project, which can also be seen in a somewhat different presentation on the Facing Change: Documenting America site (here, here and here). Neither presentation represents the entire body of work.)

© Andrew Lichtenstein/ Facing Change
Montgomery, Alabama. At the exact bus stop where Rosa Parks boarded a city bus for her famous trip to fight segregation in 1955, participants in a Sons of Confederate Veterans “Confederate Heritage Rally” wait to march up Dexter Avenue in downtown Montgomery, Ala., to recreate the 1861 inauguration of Jefferson Davis. Strongly denying that the Civil War had anything to do with the issue of slavery, speakers at the rally celebrated Jeff Davis as “the last president of a truly free Republic.” Andrew Lichtenstein/ Facing Change

Landscapes of American History is important in that it makes claims on behalf of histories that stand to be forgotten. Injustices that led to later social transformations were no less injustices; these are moments that cast doubt on the idea of American exceptionalism. The project is driven by his desire to locate subjects that address histories that stand to be ignored: The Black Hills of South Dakota, where Indian sovereignty and a gold rush intersected at the massacre at Wounded Knee, and a farmer in Nebraska, on former Sioux land, who has lost his son in combat in Iraq; the Everett Mill in Lawrence, Massachusetts where working conditions led to the Bread and Roses Strike of 1912 and where factories lay now in rubble, demolished for uncompleted urban renewal projects; Civil War re-enactors and the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

Lichtenstein photographs in memorialised locations: slave cabins in Destrehan, Louisiana, the Lorraine Motel in Memphis where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, the barely recognised former site of a Mississippi slave market, and the memorial at the site in Ludlow, Colorado where the Colorado National Guard attacked striking miners and their camps, resulting in the deaths of 11 children. He also takes note of the grassy knoll in Dallas where John F. Kennedy was killed, the Stonewall Inn where the American gay rights movement was born, and the fields outside of Lake Placid called Timbuctoo, near John Brown’s home, where in the 1840s abolitionist Gerrit Smith made 120,000 acres of land available to African-American men so that they could have the right to vote.

© Andrew Lichtenstein/ Facing Change
Memphis, Tennessee. The Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., where Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, is now the National Civil Rights Museum. The museum recreated King’s last room, with cigarettes in the ashtray and the bed sheet pulled down. Mahalia Jackson’s song “Oh Precious Lord,” King’s favorite song, plays over a set of speakers, and visitors from around the world still come to pay their respect, to both the man and the dream. Andrew Lichtenstein/ Facing Change

Some of the pictures are invested with a kind of psycho-geographic charge: take, for example, Lichtenstein’s picture of Cabin Pond, the swamp near Cross Keys, Virginia, where Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion ended. Others indicate that some past experience continues to inform the consciousness of the living: in 2011 Lichtenstein photographed the relatives of some of the 146 victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, some of whose remains, buried in a mass grave, have only recently been identified with DNA analysis.

© Andrew Lichtenstein/ Facing Change
Deer Island, Massachusetts, March 2, 2011. During the cold winter of 1676, at the height of King Phillip’s War, Christian Indians were rounded up from their separate villages across New England and left on the exposed island, without food or blankets. Several hundred Indians who had embraced the colonists’ way of life froze or starved to death. Andrew Lichtenstein/ Facing Change

Avoiding too studied a stance, Lichtenstein creates the opportunity for connections between three moments: the moment at which something happened, the moment in which the photographer made the picture, and the moment in which the audience encounters the project. The pictures are made in such a way that a connection between audience and historical subject that will extend beyond the experience of these pictures is encouraged, even as there is no attempt to disclaim the photographer’s subjectivity; this is an overtly activist documentary photography, aiming to provoke consciousness and to build counter-discourses. It’s Lichtenstein’s attempt to draw attention to events of which there is little visual record, but it’s also a record of his own journey to acknowledge these histories.

The Landscapes of American History project is a kind of “anti-photojournalism”, drawing attention to the constraints of photojournalism as it is practiced professionally, industrially. Photojournalists invest a great deal of energy in being in the right place at the right time. We praise them for this while at the same time we question whether pictures taken in the midst of the action tell us the whole story, or enough of the story, or if these pictures reduce the story to the action, allowing the publishing industry to determine which moments will be preserved in our memory. The project responds to those limitations by taking a longer view, and organised around a measure of time and distance.

Addressing the relationship between past and present, these pictures are not about being there at the right instant, although many of them do establish a powerful sense of moment. That is, they are not telling because they have condensed time and visible relationships, but because they provide room to imagine the expansion of time, and a connection to the past through looking at contemporary photographs. As Lichtenstein reminds us, the way in which you look at the past shapes how you look at the present.

© Andrew Lichtenstein/ Facing Change
On July 7th, just outside of Blair, West Virginia, James Weekly, the last resident of Pigeon Holler, is visited by a friend. James, a former coal miner, refuses to sell his land to mining companies which are seeking to strip mine the mountain he lives on to remove billions of dollars worth of coal. Blair Mountain is a historic site because of a 1921 battle between union coal miners and hired company guns. The state of West Virginia, under pressure from coal companies, has refused to list the mountain as an historic site to be preserved and plans to continue mining the area are moving forward. Andrew Lichtenstein/ Facing Change

History is full of loose ends that are selectively ignored and purposefully forgotten in order to tell the clear, streamlined stories that politicians need to tell in order to create confidence among their supporters. One of these loose ends is James Weekly, a former West Virginia coal miner who refuses to sell his land to mining companies, another kind of invisible man made visible by this project. Lichtenstein observes that while these loose ends are frayed, that they would be easily forgotten or ignored, they speak to the movements and struggles that have defined if not the fact, then at least the possibility, of liberty and justice for all.

Leo Hsu