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Making it in the business of photography is a challenge to most. What defines success is personal and often morphs over a lifetime of work. For photographer and entrepreneur Lauri Lyons, her steadfast commitment to her practice and the field of photography is always expanding. From commercial photography, work as a photo editor, photobook publishing, art education and the founding of a travel photography platform to her extensive fine art photography practice, Lyons has paved her own path and pioneered along the way. We reached out to Lyons to find about her current projects as well as past work that still resonates.
Flag: An American Story (2001) and Flag International (2008)
DUGGAL ART SCENE: In the first decade of the 2000s, before Obama’s presidency, you published two books on America, Flag: An American Story (2001) and Flag International (2008). How do you see the photographs and text in these books in the context of our current political climate? Do they carry a new resonance and relevance?
LAURI: The Flag series has a continuous life of its own. Today, the images and text are more relevant than ever. In March 2019, I gave a keynote presentation of the work for the SPE (Society for Photographic Education) conference in Cleveland. The topics people wrote about in the Flag books 10 -20 years ago seemed to be pulled straight from today's news headlines. People spoke about poverty, divisive politics, gun violence, the death penalty, racism, veterans’ affairs, immigration, LGBTQ rights, the defense budget, the prison pipeline, and health care being a human right.
When I was shopping for a publisher, editors would consistently say that the people in the book "look poor." Most of the people in the series are working class people. They weren't celebrities and they weren't in destitute; they had jobs, families, and a place to live. Today, no one comments that the subjects "look poor." I think it is because social media has reshaped our perspectives of how we view ourselves, plus the wealth gap in America has exponentially increased over the past two decades, which has greatly decreased the middle class.
Ironically, I started shooting the series in Minneapolis, where I was attending college. I lived a short distance from the area where George Floyd would later be murdered by the police. The neighborhood surrounding my school was burned down during the uprising and now has to be rebuilt. Some of the feelings people expressed in the Flag books are the same reasons why people are now protesting in the streets.
Spread from FLAG
Rest Without Honor Savannah graphic
DUGGAL ART SCENE: Fast forward to 2020, and your project Rest with Honor Savannah, a historical social justice initiative. Can you tell us about this project and what led you to launching this initiative?
LAURI: In 2017, I was invited to participate in a press trip to visit Georgia. During that trip, I had the opportunity to visit Savannah and take a walking ghost tour of the city. The tour guide mentioned that Calhoun Square, one the city's public parks, may have been an African burial ground. I was intrigued and later started researching Savannah's history to find out if the square was really an African burial ground. My historical research into Savannah's Municipal Archives and other databases has confirmed that two squares, Calhoun Square and Whitefield Square, both located on top of a 'Negro Burial Ground', were designated by the City of Savannah in 1763 - 1851 (pre-dating the Declaration of Independence). This area of land was the only place where Black people were allowed to be buried in Savannah.
In 1851, the Negro burial ground was closed and redesigned as the two public squares. The problem is that the City did not remove the bodies. The bodies are still located there today! This fact has now been confirmed by the Savannah Municipal Archives Department. There are two additional problems with the Negro burial ground. In 1851, one of the squares was named in honor of Reverend George Whitefield, an English Anglican cleric and evangelist who viewed the work of slaves as being essential for both the financial prosperity of Georgia and his Bethesda Orphanage in Savannah. Whitefield actively worked to legalize and maintain the institution of slavery in Georgia. His later efforts to help Black people were a reaction to the social results which he helped create and profited from.
The second square was named in honor of John C. Calhoun who served as Secretary of State, Secretary of War, Senator of South Carolina, and Vice President of the United States. Calhoun was a slave owner, fiercely pro-slavery, and his speeches and essays about white supremacy were the leading voice supporting terrorism and oppression against Black and indigenous people in America. History scholars consider Calhoun to be the philosophical architect of the Civil War.
As a response to this act of institutional racism, I partnered with Patt Gunn of The Center for Jubilee, Reconciliation and Healing to launch the Rest with Honor Savannah initiative to bring awareness and historical social justice to the African ancestors still dwelling in the burial ground and commemorate Black history in Savannah.
Ghana Fisherman by Lauri Lyons
DUGGAL ART SCENE: For many years, you have worked as a producer of travel photography content – as publisher of a print and online travel publication as well as a podcast. What has your journey been like as an entrepreneur in this area of photography?
LAURI: Being an entrepreneur has been a learning curve. The "arts" business can be very subjective, jargon oriented, personal and somewhat ethereal in nature. In comparison, "traditional" businesses are much more structured, pragmatic, and straightforward in language and practices. People want to know what you have to offer, how much it costs, how that will benefit their goals, and how much money they can expect to make. They want you to get to the point, quickly.
I made an effort to network outside of the photography and art industry, participate in a few business courses, and learn how to write and pitch proposals that explain my business vision, team structure, resources, and plan of action. I've also had to pivot, redefine my goals, and start again. That's business; sometimes, things don't work out or you fall out of love with your idea. If you want to be an entrepreneur, you will probably be working very hard and smarter as time goes by. All of this experience has created a stronger confidence about what I can achieve and a clearer vision of how I can achieve it.
Patti Labelle portrait by Lauri Lyons
DUGGAL ART SCENE: Lastly, you have an extensive body of work as a portrait photographer. Are there any shoots that stand out as the most memorable or significant?
LAURI: I've been fortunate to have experienced a lot of 360 moments, being hired to photograph people that I admire. I often end up photographing them in their homes, which is great. One of my favorite experiences was photographing the singer Patti LaBelle in her home. Patti is exactly the way she presents herself on stage and on television. What you see is what you get. She is very welcoming, hilariously funny, a fashion diva and a great cook. We were in her house forever, as she recounted outrageous showbiz tales, changed her clothes, gave us a tour of the house, introduced us to her family, and presented us with a table full of food. As we walked down the dark driveway to get to our car, she shouted "Lauri, are you sure you don't want to take some of this food home with you?" You can't beat that!
The Rest with Honor Savannah Initiative is organizing a coalition to petition the City of Savannah to recognize the burial ground and rename the square among other calls to action. For more information, visit: www.change.org/restwithhonorsavannah