The story behind the viral family portraits shot on a former plantation.

It was supposed to be a simple family photo shoot. And to the untrained eye, it was.

The Mayo family: two adoring parents laughing and smiling with their sweet son and cheerful daughter in a cool, relaxing forest down in Louisiana. Their light and joy is palpable. But a closer look — and a refresher on American history — reveals that  these family portraits were anything but ordinary.

That’s because this family had their portraits taken at the Tezcuco Plantation, which burned to the ground in 2002.

Photo by Katherine Lea, used with permission.

The woman behind the powerful portraits is photographer Katherine Lea, a Louisiana native.

The Mayo family hoped to have their family portraits taken at a plantation to show respect for their ancestral journey.

Lea, who is also known as scottie., scouted a different plantation home for the shoot, but when she arrived that day, there was a large crowd attending an event. Thinking on her feet, Lea drove down the road and discovered Tezcuco, a plantation built by slaves between 1855 and 1860. The home there was on National Register of historic places and briefly housed an African-American museum until it was destroyed by a fire in 2002.

Lea was unsure if Mayo would go for it, as not everyone wants to hold a family portrait session among literal ruins. (Not to mention, the site was private property, so the shoot required a little trespassing.) But once Mayo saw the site, she was all in.

"When we saw that the plantation had been burned to the ground, we knew that we were in the perfect place," Mayo writes in an email. "I truly believe that fate landed us there for a specific reason."

Photo by Katherine Lea, used with permission.

Though this wasn’t Lea or Mayo’s first time on plantation grounds, it was no less emotional.

Even for someone who grew up in Louisiana, Lea described her session at Tuzuco as an odd and overwhelming experience. "There’s so much history and so much blood that was shed on plantation grounds," she says. "They stand for something that we would all like to actually heal from, and not just hide in the closet."

The experience stirred Mayo to her core as well. While her children are too young to know the horrors of slavery or the history of the site, Mayo felt a shift in them too. "It’s always eerie and a heaviness washes over me. Not even my babies were their usual energetic selves," she writes.

Photo by Katherine Lea, used with permission.

Despite the eerie mood, the care and affection the Mayo family has for one another shone through and brightened the darkness of this horrific place.

"It was really hard to think about all of the — negative history that was associated with plantations because it was love. It was just all love," Lea says.

Mayo hopes the photographs start a much-needed dialogue about race and the parts of our shared history that few want to address.

"I wanted people to walk into our home, look at these photos, and feel compelled to have that conversation that so many people usually try to avoid."

Photo by Katherine Lea, used with permission.

After the shoot, Lea shared the photos on Twitter, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive.

While the photos weren’t taken to make an explicit political statement, Lea posted them in response to the hateful rhetoric and violent demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia.

"We’ve got to remember that there’s love in us, even if there’s hate everywhere else," she says.

Mayo is glad the photos are inspiring conservations on race and slavery that many try to avoid.

"There is still so much oppression to overcome. Let these images be a testament to the fact that the oppressed can and WILL prevail."

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