How do you right a wrong? Saying sorry helps, but if you didn’t cause the problem, it probably wouldn’t help much.
Saying sorry will feel even less helpful when you’re speaking to a person convicted of a horrible crime and given a life sentence for a murder he didn’t commit. And you may not even know where to begin a conversation with a man accused of a similar crime, but whose conviction came with a death sentence, depositing him on death row until someone else confessed to both murders years later.
Most people wouldn’t know how to start that conversation, myself included. That didn’t stop Isabelle Armand.
As a documentary photographer, she could offer more. Armand interviewed the two men and their families, making compassionate portraits of Mississippians who for generations have lived, as her photos show, on the wrong side of the tracks.
Armand started her project after reading about the men’s cases in 2012. By then, the murders and trials were 2 decades old, but the details hadn’t lost any shock value.
Twenty-two years earlier, Levon Brooks was arrested and accused of sexually assaulting a 3-year-old girl, biting her body numerous times, murdering her and leaving her body in a pond. He was convicted in 1992 and sentenced to life in prison.
Eighteen months after that 1990 murder, Kennedy Brewer was charged with committing an eerily similar murder of another 3-year-old girl killed in much the same way. He was convicted in 1995 and sentenced to die by lethal injection.
In 2001 DNA tests proved neither Brewer nor Brooks committed the crimes. Still, they remained imprisoned until another man confessed. They weren’t exonerated until 2008.
Misapplied justice is an established genre of crime reporting. The first season of the popular podcast “Serial” is the most recent example, but in visual reporting, it is best known in documentary films. Think of “The Thin Blue Line” or “West of Memphis,” which explore a crime, its investigation and prosecution, and through elegant logic uncover leads the police missed and disprove conclusions the prosecutors relied on for convictions.
A still photographer doesn’t have all the tools of a filmmaker, so Armand approached their stories differently. She photographed the men and the women, brothers and aunts, cousins and nieces whose lives were rocked by Brooks’ and Brewer’s convictions.
She let them pose in spots important to them. Usually, that’s at their homes, whether it’s a modest house or trailer. Sometimes they stand outdoors, in the open shade cast by a tall tree, or in front of a car or a couple’s new restaurant. Relying on soft, natural light and black-and-white prints from medium-format negatives, Armand seems to say that the families have dealt with enough harsh glare and now deserve to move on.
Her interviews point us in that direction too. Nearly every photo has a quotation from Armand’s subject, and portraits with two or more people are accompanied by multiple quotations. What’s interesting is what the men and their families have to say. It turns out they, too, are moving on.
You won’t find anger in their words or wishes for vengeance. Instead, you read about how faith in God helped the families through that awful time, and how happy they were when Brooks and Brewer were finally released. From the exonerated men, you find that they are looking to the future, aiming to make the years they have left enjoyable, an aim Brooks met when he married in 2016.
There are messages simmering below the feelings of relief, though, and these will make you realize, if you didn’t already know, that racist attitudes among whites in the rural South did not dramatically fade after Brown v. Board of Education or the civil rights movement or Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches or the first black presidency or Black Lives Matter.
Armand doesn’t address those topics because she doesn’t need to. The Brooks and Brewer families tell you in weary words about living as black people in the South.
“There’s still prejudice here, and I am scared to drive by myself at night,” says Martha, one of Brewer’s sisters. “I am scared of the police stopping me and me not knowing why.”
One of Brooks’ nieces, Laquandra, laments about the poor schools and how difficult it is to become friends with whites. “I had a couple of white girlfriends, but their families didn’t agree with it. We had to hang out in places like the carwash and hide, and they were too scared to come to my neighborhood.”
Brewer’s niece, Kayla, expresses a desire to move away, which many young parents repeat in the book, to “Somewhere bigger with more opportunities.” She continues, referring to her son, “And if I don’t, I hope Blake will move one day and have a better life.”
If it sounds grim, just take a look at the town centers around the families’ homes. Armand describes them as “rural communities vulnerable to silence and oblivion.”
At first, you’ll think they’re just a string of abandoned shops, like an Old West ghost town, just on the other side of the Mississippi River. But when you realize from Armand’s photograph of Crawford, Mississippi, that the deli is across from a building crumbling in slow motion, and that the unkempt structure in the village of Artesia next to the frame of what looks like a burned-out store is actually a social club, you realize that kids and young people really have next to nothing to do outside the house.
As loving as the Brooks and Brewer families are, you can see how easy it would be to turn to something is unrewarding as crime or drugs or spurts of violence.
Think of that another way, though. If you’re white, like me, and what you see in poor black communities is an excuse for violent crime, you’re also going to find it much easier to believe a white prosecutor who tells you that a black man from one of those towns should be convicted for killing a little girl.
That’s the problem Armand documents behind the problem of a racist wrongful conviction. Now, how can we change it? Learn the stories of Levon and Kennedy, and you may think it’s a wrong that can’t be righted.
‘Levon and Kennedy:
Mississippi Innocence Project’
Photographs by Isabelle Armand
PowerHouse, 2018, $40