Haunting photos of protest and migration by Isaac Scott and Ada Trillo have been paired with the Da Vinci Art Alliance
Tasso Hartzog reviews the “I Look at the World” exhibition, at the Da Vinci Art Alliance, with black and white and color photos of Ada Trillo and Isaac Scott. Scott’s photos capture moments of protest during the George Floyd, Walter Wallace and Black Lives Matter protests, and Trillo’s captures people on the run migrating from dangerous places to the United States, where they hope to find a better life . Intimate in their approach to the human, the works were taken by two photographers who immersed themselves in the world of migrants and demonstrators. Poet and artist, David Acosta curated the show, inspired by the poetic voice of Langston Hughes. The exhibition is open until August 17, 2022.
When David Acosta, curator of I watch the world, first conceived a joint exhibition of photographs by Ada Trillo and Isaac Scott, he considered calling it The Summer of Our Discontent, a nod to Shakespeare’s Richard III. It seemed like an appropriate title – many of the images on display were made in the tumultuous summer of 2020 – but it was too “here”, he told me, gesturing with his hands up. sky, too far removed from the issue painfully real subject. In Scott’s footage, it’s the Black Lives Matter protests that erupted in Philadelphia in the summer of 2020; in Trillo’s photographs, it is the perilous journey north of Central American migrants in search of asylum. “Displeasure” was definitely not the right word.
Acosta instead found inspiration in a poem by Langston Hughes that connects the work of the two photographers with moving language about race, borders and revolution. “I look at the world,” he begins, “Awakening eyes in a black face -/ And this is what I see:/ This narrow fenced space/ Assigned to me.” This stanza, along with the second, which declares that the walls of oppression “must come down,” is inscribed next to the images in the gallery. Much like Scott and Trillo, who hadn’t met before Acosta introduced them, Hughes’ poem, with its themes of eyes, walls and oppression, was a perfect fit for the exhibit.
Acosta worked for six or seven months to sort through hundreds of images for I Look at the World, on view through August 17 at Da Vinci Art Alliance and available as a walkthrough video. Of these hundreds, he chose twenty-two. One photograph of each artist is printed in color and the others are in black and white.
In Scott’s only color photograph, orange flames shoot from a police cruiser, their glow reflecting off the wet pavement. Standing up close, you can almost feel the heat waves. It’s the first image I’ve seen upon entering the gallery, and it has a magnetic power that’s somehow unique among the dozens of other photographs of burning police cars I’ve seen during the summer and fall 2020.
Originally from Madison, WI, Scott was working on a master’s degree in ceramics at Temple’s Tyler School of Art and Architecture when the pandemic hit. He had recently taken a photography course and, needing some fresh air during those claustrophobic months, began walking around his neighborhood with a camera, recording anything that caught his eye.
Then George Floyd was murdered on May 25, 2020, and when the protests in Philadelphia began five days later, Scott was there with his camera.
During those first weeks of protests, he shared his photographs on Instagram almost every day. In early June, he received a direct message on the app from someone claiming to be a photo editor at The New Yorker and said the magazine would like to print his work.
His first thought was, “This isn’t real.” After confirming that the person who sent him the direct message was actually a New York photo editor, he wondered, “Why was I chosen?”
The answer to that question can be found in Scott’s photographs, which were published in the magazine’s June 22, 2020 issue.
Acosta wrote in his curatorial statement that I Look at the World explores the role of the photographer not just as an observer, but as a “participant.” The key to Scott’s success lay in the fact that he was, in the words of the New Yorker headline that accompanied his images, “on the front line”. He was not only there to document, he was also there to protest. About his photography, Scott told me: “That’s what I have to offer the movement.
Its closeness to the action and the confidence it instilled in his subjects allowed Scott to capture intimate moments that other photographers missed. In one image from the exhibit, a protester marches with hundreds of others on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway; her eyes, barely visible above the top of a sign she is holding, are fixed on the camera with a penetrating gaze. In another, Scott observes two masked protesters lying on the steps of the Museum of Art, their limbs intertwined, one’s hands tenderly clutching the other’s shoulder.
“I wanted people to see the humanity,” Scott told me. “I think it’s important that we tell our own stories, especially as black and brown people.” He stressed the importance of the historical record and the fact that his photographs, published in a national magazine, are now part of it. “Isaac Scott, 2020” may one day appear in the photo credits of a textbook.
This awareness of history shapes the exhibit: one image shows a march organized by members of MOVE that passed through the site of the 1985 bombing, which razed dozens of homes in West Philly and killed 11 people, including five children. The 2020 protests, the scene recalls, were not an isolated movement. The rage was fresh but not at all new.
The cops, the objects of that rage, are usually sidelined in Scott’s footage, appearing behind a wall of stained riot shields, or as pairs of arms and legs struggling against a protester on the ground . An exception is a photograph of three National Guard soldiers stationed outside the Municipal Services Building. One of them – hands draped over a riot shield, automatic rifle slung across his back – looks very annoyed. He seems to be staring at the camera, and it’s tempting to imagine that behind his sunglasses he might be thinking, “Why am I here?”
The police are more often present in the section of the exhibition devoted to Trillo, even when they are not actually present in his photographs. When you see a migrant named Joel crossing the Suchiate River between Guatemala and Mexico, holding a pair of crutches above his head, you understand that the desperation on his face is driven by his fear that law enforcement do not come within the scope.
To complicate the familiar narrative, Spanish is the only language that appears on the uniforms in Trillo’s photographs: “policía federal”, “guardia nacional”, “marina”. Even when migrants are within a few hundred yards of the US border, it is the Mexican Federal Police and not US Border Patrol agents who block their path. As Acosta told me, Trillo and Scott “have a common language” and their work is most powerful when taken together. Scott’s photographs hang on the right side of the gallery and those of Trillo face them on the left. A phalanx of riot shields in West Philly on one wall mirrors a very similar phalanx of riot shields in Mexico on the other. The language on uniforms may change, but police repression knows no borders.
Although Trillo’s photographs are deeply political, that doesn’t mean they aren’t personal.
“I think one of the most powerful images in the whole series is the image of Ada’s daughter,” Scott told me, referring to “Maria Fernanda.” “It hits you hard. The humanity in that photo, in those eyes, is haunting.
The portrait itself may be haunting, but the description alongside it is heartbreaking. Trillo explains that Maria, 15 and a member of the LGBTQ community, “was dressed as a young man to protect herself during her trip.” At the US border, she was denied asylum and deported to Honduras. This year, Trillo reports, Maria was killed by gangs.
Trillo, based in Philadelphia but born and raised in Juarez and El Paso, had become friends with Maria while traveling with a group of migrants to Tijuana in 2018. Like Scott, she wasn’t just an observer. She slept and ate alongside the migrants, gaining their trust and encouraging them to let their guard down.
Trillo’s work is most moving when she brings children like Maria into the frame. In one photo, it shows a boy named José looking through barbed wire. At six, his eyes are still large and vulnerable, but he’s dressed like an adult with a button-down shirt tucked into his pants. Childhood is a luxury that is not offered to people like Maria and José.
As I exited the gallery, I again stopped at Scott’s photo of the burning police car, titled “October 26, 2020, 55th & Pine”. Along with a few other images from the exhibit, it was made in the days following the police killing of Walter Wallace, which reignited the anger that had fueled the summer protests, an anger that escalated when it became clear that the largest mass protest in US history had resulted in only a frustrating number of institutional changes. “After Walter Wallace, it hurts the most,” Scott said. “This could have been avoided by the measures we were advocating.”
I thought of “Harlem”, another poem by Langston Hughes which is perhaps his best known today. It begins with a question – “What happens to a deferred dream?” – that Trillo, Scott and Acosta also seem to pose in I watch the world: What happens if the police killings don’t stop? If the United States continues to deny asylum to desperate migrants?
Hughes offers a few possibilities. Perhaps the dream is drying up “like a raisin in the sun,” he writes. “Maybe it just sags / like a heavy load?”
“Or does it explode?”
I watch the worldduo exhibition with Ada Trillo and Isaac Scott, Da Vinci Art Alliance, on view until August 17. See a video presentation of the exhibition.