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Without Sanctuary cover

Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America

James Allen, Hilton Als, John Lewis, Leon F. Litwack

Twin Palms Publishers, Santa Fe, 2000


Today would be William Faulkner’s 120th birthday, and anyone who knows me knows that he is my favourite writer by a long, long way.

Writing about the American South, Mississippi specifically, and its troubled history, he on occasion described the bloodlust that would erupt into a lynch mob, (when he was ten years old, a lynching took place in his home town of Oxford, when, having been convicted of murder, Nelse Patton became the victim of mob violence) e.g. in stories such as “Dry September”, “Black Music”, and in his books “Intruder in the Dust” and “Light in August”.

Reading about such disturbing subject matter is one thing, seeing it is entirely another: “Without Sanctuary” is the one of the most unflinchingly brutal of the Hidden Photobooks, and while not for the faint-hearted, it is an important document of the never-forget variety.

Other than their obviously distressing subject, what strikes me most about these images, ranging in date from the late 19th century right up to as recently as 1960, is just how casual and normalised it was to photograph the victims of lynching. “This is the barbiecue [sic] we had last night” scrawled on the back of a postcard from Texas in 1916 (it was not uncommon for photographs of lynchings to be turned into grisly souvenirs) bearing an image of what remained of the body of Jesse Washington once it had been hung and torched, with a white cloth tied around his waist presumably to prevent any offence as might be caused by the sight of his genitals.

The calm demeanour of the assailants and their witnesses perhaps reflects the lull after the frenzied storm, their lust for what they perceived as justice sated, affording them time to bask in the sense of a job well done.

It is all too easy to believe the gruesome activities portrayed in these photographs belong to another time; the presence of the Black Lives Matter movement quite emphatically states otherwise.

When not part of the current display, you can find it here: HV6459.A6 (social sciences – social pathology, social and public welfare, criminology – offences against the public order – lynching – by region or country — US)



Come along to the Main Library on North Street to take a look for yourself. This book is part of The Hidden Photobooks display which is running from 1 – 30 September and is part of the St Andrews Photography Festival. Everyone is welcome and the event is free. Check out the Library Instagram for photographs Marcus has chosen from his own work to accompany these blog posts. 

The Hidden Photobooks: Without Sanctuary
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