Richard Frishman set out in March 2018 to document America in a way he hadn’t before.
Frishman, a Pultizer Prize-nominated feature photographer, had recently wrapped a photo series on the more whimsical, “mega-architecture” locations across the country — the ones that make a child’s jaw drop on a family road trip. But in the fall of 2016, Frishman said he lost the sense of nostalgia for America that prompted his series.
“I didn’t want to keep photographing just funny American places,” he said. “I wanted to do something of greater social significance because I felt like we were in a dire position as a nation.”
It took about a year, but Frishman settled on the idea of photographing sites around the United States that still bear the scars of Jim Crow-era laws that followed the end of slavery and perpetuated decades of segregation, violence and inequity against Black people.
Called “Ghosts of Segregation,” Frishman’s current project took off with a four-month road trip in March 2018 that began and ended in Houston, Texas and took him to 30 locations. That initial foray has grown into a nationally recognized collection of 75 photos documenting — as his website phrases it — the “vestiges of America’s racism evident in the built environment, hidden in plain sight.”
“This was a lot harder subject, a painful subject. Not an amusing subject. There’s nothing nostalgic about it,” Frishman said. “And plugging myself into this topic, I realized how misplaced my nostalgia was. I could afford to be nostalgic because I grew up white, and not only that, I’m still white. So what do I know about the suffering of others?”
“With that realization, I kind of toned down my nostalgia and my desire to seek out Americana, and rather seek out truths about our society that we need to consider,” he said.
Though the series doesn’t currently have any shots of Kansas locations, Lawrence will soon have the distinct honor of launching the first traveling exhibition for “Ghosts of Segregation” at the Lawrence Arts Center from Sept. 10 to Dec. 12.
Frishman will be in Lawrence to speak at the exhibit shortly after it opens, though the exact schedule hasn’t been determined. In the meantime, though, he said he wants to hear from the Lawrence community of places he should consider photographing for his series. Frishman doesn’t consider himself a researcher or historian — just an eager photographer who wants to shoot subjects of consequence — so he’s relied a lot on help from community members around the country.
“(I want to hear from) people who have experienced segregation of race, as the participants. Just a child having witness of what their parents had to do or just people who are familiar with the history of segregation around there might have a place in mind,” he said. “What I’m most interested in is finding places that have been overlooked.”
Frishman said he has Kansas sites on an itinerary of more than 150 locations across the country, and absolutely plans to dedicate time to the Sunflower State. The history within Lawrence, dating back to Kansas’ bloody Civil War-era founding in 1863, made it an ideal location for the series’ first traveling exhibition tour, Frishman said.
“The primary purpose of this project is to raise awareness, to make people see the history that’s around us wherever we live — whether it’s in Selma, Alabama, Seattle, Washington, or Lawrence, Kansas, there’s history,” he said. “Lawrence is in the center of so much in terms of this project, and the history of race and segregation. I mean from the creation of the state, it’s been a hotbed … so I thought this is really a great location for the premiere.”
Margaret Weisbrod Morris, director of the Lawrence Arts Center, described Frishman’s photography as “profound” and said it’s the sort of work everyone should see.
“It’s really critical work, and it’s really critical work at the right time,” she said. “The project is kind of a perpetual project. At this time in history, it’s really important for us to be recognizing our racist history and the history of the U.S. that we live with every day. It may be deteriorating, but it’s still there.”
Ben Ahlvers, the exhibition program director at the center, reached out to Frishman soon after reading a New York Times piece on the “Ghosts of Segregation” project, and the two quickly connected to put together a show concept with the help of a California-based art exhibition firm called Curatorial.
Beyond the “incredible images” that make up the “Ghosts of Segregation” show, Ahlvers said he was drawn to Frishman’s passion for the subject matter.
“I liked the ‘why’ of why he was pursuing this work. It’s an ongoing thing, so I liked that and I like his attitude and his approach to what he’s doing,” he said. “Elevating awareness of the past, and then he speaks about sparking interest in conversations surrounding racism … There’s sort of an engagement piece that I think is maybe the most important part about the whole project.”
The exhibit, when it opens Sept. 10, will be both the longest running and the largest physical exhibit the Arts Center has hosted — and as with all other Arts Center exhibits, the show will be free to all, Ahlvers and Morris said. The center is also working to develop outside programming to coincide with the show.
Anyone who wishes to contribute an idea to the “Ghosts of Segregation” series can email Frishman at email@example.com.
Conner Mitchell (he/him), reporter, can be reached at cmitchell (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com or 785-435-9264. If you have sensitive information to send Conner, please email connermitchell (at) protonmail (dot) com. Read more of his work for the Times here.