For about a decade now, Ézé Amos has walked all over the city with his camera, capturing slices of Charlottesville life — friends catching up over drinks on the Miller’s patio, children dancing to a busker’s tune. He knows everyone, and everyone knows him.
Amos was out there, with his camera and with his community, during the weekend of the Unite the Right rally in August 2017, documenting the horrors and dodging punches from a neo-Nazi wearing a Hitler t-shirt.
He hasn’t stopped chronicling the extraordinary suffering the community has endured since. He’s also documented the well of support and comfort people have offered to one another.
This week, Amos debuts “The Story of Us,” a series of 36 large-scale, never-before-seen photographs taken during Unite the Right and after. He’s shared plenty of those photos with local, national, and international news outlets, but he kept these 36 for himself — until now.
The photos, which do not depict violence, are printed on weatherproof material and suspended in the trees along the Downtown Mall, where they’ll remain through the end of September. Each has an accompanying recording, in which the photo subjects tell their own stories, in their own voices.
Amos was surprised by what he learned throughout “The Story of Us” interview process. Here, he describes in his own words where he was when he took some of the images, why he clicked the shutter when he did, and what it was like to hear about those moments years later.
Aug. 12, 2017, 2:16 p.m.
Her name is Shell, Shell Stern. She’s a good friend of mine, a therapist here in town.
The car had just run into the crowd.
I was busy photographing David Duke [a Ku Klux Klan leader] at McIntire Park when we got the message that the crash…. So I drove downtown, parked somewhere — I can’t remember where — and then I ran to Water Street. There was just confusion everywhere. This was one of the first things I saw, and I saw from a long shot. This photo, it tells me so much about what had happened. And she was just like, trying to check in with them and see how they were doing and all that. And, it was just so…this photo just did so much for me in terms of helping to capture that moment and what was going on, without showing violence. Without showing the scene.
I needed to hear her story so badly, and that’s what prompted this whole project. I reached out to her, she said yes, and her reaction is what really gave me the push to do this project. When I told her about this, and I showed her the photo, she teared up, and she said to me, “I want to tell you about that day.” And then I realized, folks want to talk. Folks want to share this.
I was thinking of doing something around August 11 and 12. I wasn’t sure what it was going to be. I fell into the same trap of wanting to show photos of protestors, signs, and all that. Then I started thinking, why would I want to do the same thing, show photos of anger? Yeah, we resisted, we did all that, but still, photos of anger? Why do I want to do that?
Then I saw this photo, and I kept looking at it.
I decided I don’t want to show photos of protestors, I don’t want to show photos of activists. Not that they’re not relevant — they’re very, very relevant, and very important to the movement. But, I want to put a human face to Charlottesville. If I am going to try to reclaim the narrative of Charlottesville, I don’t want to show photos of the same activists marching with signs. People have seen those photos.
Instead, let’s talk about us. Let’s talk about the people, the regular, average, Charlottesville people, what they experienced on that day. Let’s talk about that. Or let them talk about that. And that is how this project came to be.
Aug. 13, 2017, approximately 6 p.m.
This photo was a no-brainer. A dad with his daughter on his neck in the middle of thousands of people, on Fourth Street, at the vigil? And she was just there, like, “What is going on here? What are these people doing?” There was no way I would just let that go.
The craziest part of this project? I had to find these people. I had to track them down, and then interview them. I interviewed the dad for “The Story of Us.” His daughter, she was five then, so she’s 10 now.
Aug. 13, 2017
This is the same vigil. His name is Dee Dee, and he’s a cook at The Haven.
I thought his face said it all. But when I asked him— I didn’t expect anything like that. When we talked, he just went for it. He started, “I saw everything.” They [the white supremacists] had rented his Air BnB?! He saw everything.
Of course I had to keep quiet [during the interview], but I was thinking, imagine, how many of these stories I’ve taken in. Think about the effect of that when you’re listening to them on the Mall.
Aug. 13, 2017, at 7:37 p.m.
I took a ton of photos of officers that weekend, but there was something about him looking into a crowd of thousands of people.
For this photo, I was photographing from right in the crowd on Fourth Street during the vigil. I was photographing all those people, and I looked down at Water Street, and he stood out, the head of a cop standing there looking into the crowd. He was the only cop there.
When I interviewed him, he told me about his experience and he said he was conflicted. He was wearing two hearts. He grew up in Charlottesville, so as a resident of Charlottesville, this had just happened to his community. He has his family here. And then he’s also a police officer, and the idea that they had to guard and protect the idiots that came to town, that’s the instruction that they were given.
So, there’s a lot of hate and stuff that was thrown at him, and as he was telling me this, he was crying. This man was tearing up saying his truths, telling me his story, and I felt for him at a point. Wow, I felt for him. This project is not about what side you take. It’s about us as a community. What was he experiencing?
The first time I showed someone this, they were like, “ew, cop, ugh.” I get it, but let’s stop for a second to think. This guy’s also a human being. Something happened to him on that day. What’s his story? Wouldn’t you want to hear that? He is part of the community. I wanted to hear his story as well.
There was something about him looking into this crowd, a crowd of thousands of people. [In our interview,] he described what he was looking at. He said he was looking at Charlottesville, and he said, even though he couldn’t express it, he was proud of what he was seeing, that this community is doing their thing.
The crowd that day, it was huge. It was more than huge.
Dec. 11, 2018, 1:48 p.m.
I took this right after the [guilty] verdict in the James Alex Fields murder trial, right outside the courthouse. This was right before Heather Heyer’s mom, Susan Bro, walked up to the podium to do a press thing.
It took me a while to land on just one photo from that day. I could have gone with a Susan Bro photo, but this was the best photo, and I think I made the right choice. Because from hearing Star [Peterson, pictured center] tell her story — not to diminish other people’s stories, because they all have really, really difficult stories to tell — I felt it was important to hear her voice. [Peterson was seriously injured when James Alex Fields drove his car into a crowd of counter protestors on August 12, 2017: The impact crushed her pelvis, and she has had many surgeries since.]
I didn’t even ask them to pose — they just did that. There are a lot of other photos that I could have used, but there’s something about this photo, how it shows “I’m f – – – – – g tired” and “we’re here for you.” There’s just so much going on in there. I love how she’s flanked by all these people who are like, “we’ve got you.”
I keep saying that these are not photos of violence. They’re not photos of violence when you look at them, but there’s so much violence that has happened, and that they’re carrying. If you look within, oh God, there’s a ton of violence in there.
“The Story of Us” is on display on Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall through late September. Can’t make it to town? See the photographs, and hear the recordings on the project website.