I consider myself more of an artist than an activist, but that is an intersection I need to become more comfortable inhabiting. When the uprising began after George Floyd’s murder, I felt useless in the face of it, but called to do something. For the past six years I have been working with wet plate, which is a photographic process that dates back to the mid-1800s. Rendered chemically on a surface of glass or metal, it results in a one-of-a-kind image. Wet plate first documented moments in the American Civil War. I feel it is appropriate to use that same process to document our modern-day civil war against racial injustice. It highlights the longevity of racial inequality in this country that I am able to use one of the first photographic processes to document a fight that is still being waged.
For this series of images, I am photographing self-selecting individuals at the George Floyd memorial site at 38th and Chicago. A sacred area to many, it has become a powerful space. At the time of writing this, the city is looking to remove the street barricades and return the intersection to normalcy.
People are anxious for normalcy, but that also means returning to the status quo, and we can no longer tolerate that. If and when that intersection is reclaimed by the city (hopefully without ignoring demands made by activists and protesters), I know the land will always remember what happened there and the spark that was ignited. It is a changed and charged space, and we must carry that with us. We cannot forget.
Black families historically have few photographs of their ancestors. Tintypes (the product that results from the wet plate process) have powerful archival qualities. Partially because of the chemical process, the metal used, and the surface sealed with shellac, wet plate is one of the longest lasting photographic processes.
We are still finding tintypes today that are 200 years old and in amazing condition. I hope to create new historical documents and heirlooms for the people I photograph at the memorial site.
These images are able to capture a spectrum of light that we cannot see with our naked eye; they show who we authentically are. There is no hiding imperfections with filters or post-process editing.
Photography and art have always been emotional outlets for me as I have navigated the various traumas and experiences of my life. I have gravitated to processes that are difficult and heavy, and wet plate is maybe the ultimate distillation of that. Completely handmade chemically, it helps me to feel like I am tangibly creating something. Being able to touch something and form it with my hands can be cathartic.
It is important that the people I photograph at the memorial have something physical to remember this time with. It is hard to forget something when it exists physically in a space. We have no idea what the future of digital photography is, but even if all those files are lost to the ether, my hope is that these images will be around as reminders of this paradigm shift.
Carla Alexandra Rodriguez (she/her) is a photographic artist in St. Paul. A first-generation American from Venezuelan parents, she earned a BFA in Photography from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. She has started a small portrait business called Blkk Hand.