Oakland photographer Brandon Tauszik's series White Wax documents "murder shrines"—temporary memorials set up to honor the lives of victims of street violence. Through the project, he has created a way of respecting a segment of the population whose deaths are often ignored.
VICE: Are the shrines located at the exact locations of murders?
Brandon Tauszik: Yes.
How do you find them?
I search Twitter every day. There’s a couple hashtags, like #oakland187. Then I search “Oakland homicide,” “Oakland shooting,” “Oakland murder.” And then usually the local news outlets will have tweeted about it, and I can find it through that. Sometimes, rarely, that won’t be the case. I go out for walks a lot at night. I live in West Oakland, and sometimes I’ll see one, and I’ll go home and try to look it up by the address. They're so common. It’s every few days, on average. And Oakland’s not that big of a city. It’s only 400.000 people, compared to like New York, which is eight million. It’s a pretty concentrated occurrence.
Do you ever have to deal with the family and friends of the deceased while you're at the shrines?
Yeah, they’re all set up by the friends and family. I try to catch that process, but it’s time-consuming hunting these down, and going out at night so they all have the same visual aesthetic. I would say one in twenty that I go to I get to interact with the friends and family because they’re there setting it up. But for most of them, they’re already set up and kind of existing as is.
Are they generally OK with you taking pictures of the shrines, or does it bother them?
Yeah, I mean, I kind of freak myself out sometimes. Because a lot of these are neighborhoods you wouldn’t really want to go in under any circumstance, and I was going in at night and going in with a camera. But I’ve only had positive experiences interacting with friends and family. They’re honestly saying, “Please, take pictures, he was a good kid, it was over some really petty stuff, it’s really sad that we permanently lost him.” They’re usually pretty approachable.
That’s really kind of them.
There are a couple of them in some of the photos. I wanted to leave those in, because I feel that’s an important part of the process. It is part of the mourning process for people in Oakland. So I wanted to show the product of the murder shrines, what is actually represented, but I also wanted to show the people who put them up.
What kind of work goes into making a shrine?
It’s usually within one night or two nights of the murder occurring. They’ll usually organize, “Hey, we’ll go there tonight or tomorrow night.” So it can be anywhere from five people to almost like a party, a couple dozen people. You can see in some of [the photos] there’s lots and lots of ephemera and candles and messages, hand-written notes, liquor bottles. Candles are obviously a big part of making the shrines. There’s a term here in Oakland that’s definitely of this city, that they say, “Shine in Peace,” instead of “Rest in Peace.” It’s just a way to rephrase. Instead of resting or sleeping, you’re shining forever. Which definitely ties into the use of candles. And then, also, it’s a social event. You’d be pretty surprised if you went to one being set up how oddly jovial the mood is. You can see [in the photos] all the liquor bottles that get set up. It’s like one last party. It’s part of the process of mourning. There’s a lot of music, telling stories and reminiscing, but it’s a big social event.
So, is that pretty much why people make the shrines? So they can have one last good-bye?
Yeah, I mean, it’s weird. The person is going to get a tombstone, they’re going to get a funeral, they’re going to get a permanent memorial in a graveyard as we all are when we die, but these serve some different purpose. They’re ephemeral in nature. They’re here and then they’re gone. They’re personal; they’re localized very uniquely. They’re right where it happened, usually. In a lot of the photos you can still see the blood on the sidewalks. It’s one last hurrah. Funerals are so impersonal—you all wear the same color, sing the songs, the reverend has the message, but this can just be much more personal.
Are you ever afraid that you might be seen as exploiting strangers’ grief for your art?
That’s something that’s on my mind. I don’t sell these photos, but even if I were to, I don’t feel that would really be exploitative. This type of crap happens in all the cities that we live in, and these deaths are really easy to ignore. They’re hiding down side streets in neighborhoods that you don’t go into. If people think that’s exploitative, that’s fine. Because I just want to get these out on the internet for people who don’t live here, or wouldn’t walk down these streets ever, to see them and think about them. I create my art to explore the world I know and to pose questions, for myself and for others. If a great deal of people want to view my work and I end up compensated for creating it, I don’t see that as bad.