Danny Harris is a DC-based photographer, DJ, and collector of stories. In September, he launched People’s District, a blog that tells a people’s history of DC by sharing the stories and images of its residents. Every day, People’s District presents a different Washingtonian sharing his or her insights on everything from Go Go music to homelessness to fashion to politics. You can read his previous columns here.
“I was born in Dayton, Ohio. My Dad was an aircraft engineer at the Wright-Paterson Air Force base. He eventually got a job on some new thing called computers and we moved around a bit before settling in the D.C. area in 1965.
“By hit or miss, I became a photographer while in college in Connecticut. When I came back to the area, my work was taking me all over the city and I started seeing these shrines to people who were killed on the streets. To me, it was like watching someone’s heart bleed in public. There is a huge amount of emotional content in them. They are homemade folk art and very specific to D.C. From my relatively small research, there have been shrines recorded back to the early Middle Ages in Europe. The instinct to build shrines varies from place to place, but they are immediately recognizable no matter where you are.
“I started documenting the shrines two years ago and have been to over 200. Many of them are very modest, just some police tape and a teddy bear, but others are huge. I have seen panties and condoms, but typically it is plush toys, balloons, and liquor bottles. I think that a lot of these items represent someone’s hope for the deceased and for the community. Maybe it is a hope for a better, safer, and heavenly place for the deceased and a call against violence in the community.
“When newspapers were strong, you could find information about every shooting in the Washington Post. Now, someone getting shot doesn’t make the paper. Three or four people have to get shot before that becomes news. I still drive around looking for the shrines and also use the area police resources to keep up with what is happening. I think that I have been to almost every shrine in the area since I started. I do not document the vigils out of respect for the families, but I take photos of the shrines to capture crime’s aftermaths and how it affects people. I am interested in documenting and sharing the healing aspects of shrines and how people try and rebuild themselves using this folk art.
“Doing this is part of my own way of keeping my priorities straight. I think that our job in life, if we have a job, is to learn and enlarge the consciousness of ourselves and others. I do this with no support, but because it is the right thing to do. I would like to bring this work into a public awareness program and to people who can make use of it, like survivors of street violence.
“As one guy said to me at one of the shrines, ‘No matter how bad you are, no one deserves this.’ When someone is murdered, you don’t just kill a person. You are also killing their entire family. Life is a short, complicated, and mysterious gift. Some lives end too soon. I can’t imagine ending this work unless the murders disappear in this city.”
Read more about Lloyd Wolf’s work here.