Cry of the Wounded

Photos and essay by Asher Imtiaz

I was introduced to Minneapolis when I went with a friend to visit the city on Memorial Day weekend last year. I was scheduled to do a workshop on street photography a few weeks later, hosted by Christians in the Visual Arts, and I wanted to see the streets beforehand.

The Earth Beneath Your Feet

© Mari Reitsma Chevako

(“In this time of human quiescence, the creaking of some potentially dangerous faults may be detected better than ever,” NY Times, 4/8/20)

Gone the hum of your human endeavor.
Your great cities lay quiet,
your machines no longer whir,
your games and music have ceased.
Listen: the earth beneath your feet
is heaving and groaning.
Can you hear the migratory birds
trilling each to each? Indeed.
But what does it matter
if you still won’t believe
a black man can thrill
to the sound of a yellow warbler?
Leash your damn barking dogs.
Call off the police.
You have a moment here,
your volume reduced,
your cacophony hushed,
to hear the fault lines creaking,
uphold justice, defend the oppressed.
But mostly you mark
the sound of your own heart, the swish of air
in and out of your lungs.
You check your pulse,
you measure your breaths.
But what of the breaths
of the men on the pavement
knees on their necks?
You boast that you stand
on the right side of the divide,
the right side of the country,
the right side of the street.
You take up your guns
your superior red blood surging,
pledging an oath to your country, yourself,
as if when the moment comes
the earth won’t swallow you up.
Who asked this of you,
this trampling, this restless to and fro,
demanding rights in my name?
Untie the blindfold from your eyes
and wind it around your lips.
You are not immune.
Away from me, away.
I don’t dread what you dread,
nor fear what you fear.
I make the earth tremble in place
and shake the heavens on high.
And you, white Christian,
festooned with your star-spangled shirt—
I never meant your skin to carry
the privilege you claim. Even you
are made from ashes and dirt.

I didn’t know then that I would be taking some of my most important photographs on those same streets a year later.

One of my heroes, the photographer Sebastião Salgado, has said that when producing a body of work, a photographer must consider that “Photography is not objective. It is deeply subjective.” He goes on to say that his own photography “is consistent ideologically and ethically with the person I am.” In other words, photographers bring to their craft the themes they carry inside themselves. I continue to ask, “What themes do I carry inside myself?”

Early on, I decided to focus my camera towards religious and cultural minority groups because I belonged to one, growing up as a Christian in Pakistan, a country that is 95 percent Muslim. I have also wanted to counter some of the narrative Western photographers have appropriated in my part of the world. Being a photographer of minorities and documenting people living under pressure in my home country helped define the themes I have carried inside myself. After moving to the United States, I continued to explore these themes in documenting the lives of immigrants, mainly refugees and asylum seekers.

A few friends suggested I document stories in some Black neighborhoods. I live in Milwaukee, often noted as the worst city in the United States for racial equality. My response has been that this should be done by a Black photographer who understands their own people. I reasoned that as someone on the path to immigration, I should just focus on immigrant stories.

Back in Minneapolis a year later on Memorial Day weekend, I was challenged again to capture the stories of African Americans. I was planning to walk in the 80-degree weather, to relax in a hammock at a park, read poetry, and enjoy a barbeque. Then, on May 26, my friend told me that a video came out of a black man who was killed by a police officer a block away from where I was staying.

Earlier this year, during Lent, I wrote a devotional for my church publication in which I was reflecting on the idea that “we all play some role in the suffering of people. Because of our actions and inaction, real lives are affected.” The devotional kept coming back to mind. I found myself among suffering people, among ashes and dirt, and I knew I had to respond.

Those following the news know what happened the rest of that week. It was my first time in such protests, and I was not ready at all. The first night I experienced tear gas, the second day I was hit an inch below my left eye with a rubber bullet. I thank God it missed my eye. After 10 days, the bruise left by the rubber bullet disappeared. But the thought remains, “What should I do with what I see with these eyes, and how can it help? What is the right thing to do?”

Minneapolis, 2020

Standing among the protestors, I heard the cries of wounded people and witnessed their pain. They were angry and grieving, and not just because of the death of one man, but because of many deaths over the generations caused by racist systems.

In his book The Wounded Healer, Henri Nouwen narrates a story from which I’ve taken a thought to carry with me: “If you had looked into his eyes, you would have known.” The assumption is that we recognize our own brokenness and woundedness. Only then can we become a bridge that allows us to know the pain and woundedness of another. We step into other people’s wounds out of our own woundedness.

When I look into someone’s eyes, they look back. When they see through the camera, they realize that fraction of a gaze is for me, but their questioning gaze is also for everyone who will witness the photograph. In that moment, they are asking me to honor them and who they are and what they represent. I think honoring a person standing in front of you is always right. God is at eye level.

Asher Imtiaz lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and works for IBM Watson.