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Bryan Thomas for Topic: Sunset/Sunrise

Work / Photography

Bryan Thomas documents south Floridians memorialising loved ones lost to gun violence on T-shirts

Lavish Printing is a screen printing and embroidery shop in Miami, south Florida. Located inside Village Flea Market, a place where the neighbourhood can find jewellery, clothing, auto accessories and other assorted merchandise, Lavish Printing’s somewhat niche offering is actually similar to many shops in the area: merchandise memorialising lost loved ones.

“Every south Floridian has grown up seeing rear-window decals, murals, billboards, and T-shirts memorialising lost loved ones, with their birth and death dates,” writes Adam Weinstein for an article titled Their Hearts on Their Sleeves for Topic. It’s a subject that Florida-born, New York-based photographer Bryan Thomas has been researching since 2016, and when he reached out to Topic in early 2018, the online publication commissioned him to shoot what he hopes will be the “first of several cities covered in an eventual series.”

Titled Sunrise/Sunset, the series is a moving documentation of real people who have lost family members, largely to gun violence, all of whom used Lavish Printing to create T-shirts after their loved one’s death. While initially researching shops that specialise in “Rest in Peace” shirts in Miami, Bryan spoke to the former owner of Studio X, “Miami’s most well-known and oft-documented ‘Rest in Peace’ shirt shop.” He put Bryan in touch with a former employee of his, Leon Cobbs, now the co-owner of Lavish Printing.

“Narratively, I wanted to start with the store and branch out to former customers through the store itself,” Bryan tells us of how he met each of the families. “These stores are not just places of commerce but, often, they are the first communal space where family and friends of lost loved ones come to grieve, remember their loved ones, and enshrine their memory on shirts and other pieces of clothing. Therefore, after documenting the store, Leon put me in touch with former customers who had lost loved ones to gun violence.”

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Bryan Thomas for Topic: Sunset/Sunrise

In his approach to telling the story, Bryan understood the sensitivity of the subject and the need to treat it with “the utmost respect and care”, a factor that resonates throughout the images. There’s a sense of exchange to each portrait, as if a conversation, not an exploitation, has taken place. “In particular,” he explains, “two of the families that I visited had lost loved ones in the month prior to meeting them; one of whom had just lost her second son in three years to gun violence.” The photographer, therefore, developed an appreciation that “there’s nothing that I can say or do that will instantly help with someone’s grief,” instead “I attempt to explain why I’m there, what I’m trying to do, and conduct myself with as much grace and compassion as possible”.

Each image in Sunrise/Sunset feels powerful and humbling, the depth of each sitter’s experience wholly felt. But there’s one image of two young boys staring down the camera, wearing matching T-shirts and headbands that read “R.I.P MA” on that Bryan describes as particularly memorable to produce. He had gone to the home of Lanette Early whose sister, Dyenette, had been shot and killed the day after Christmas.

When Bryan and his friend who was assisting him that day arrived at her house, no one was home. “After waiting a while, Lanette arrived with several family members and, after we spoke for a bit, we made some pictures outside her home before going inside to see a banner that Lavish Printing had made for the family.” After this, there was a knock on the door and Dyenette’s three children – Larry, Laron and Larrineysha – arrived. “Within a few minutes, the children had run to their rooms, put on the shirts memorialising their mother, and were suddenly standing in front of the camera.” They insisted he take the photo and “I felt like I understood why,” Bryan explains. “I’d begun this project because, to me, the ubiquity of the ‘Rest in Peace’ shirt was not only a symbol of the ubiquity of the gun violence that disproportionally and unfairly plagues African American communities across the United States, but it was also more than that. These shirts are an act of protest against the ways in which African American lives are often misrepresented and, sometimes, entirely forgotten after acts of gun violence… These two brave brothers – who remained so small despite their lives having been affected in such a large way – were standing in front of the camera to ensure that their mother and her memory were not forgotten. It was powerful and I was moved to tears while making the image. I hope others, when they see the picture, are as well.”

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Bryan Thomas for Topic: Sunset/Sunrise

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Bryan Thomas for Topic: Sunset/Sunrise

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Bryan Thomas for Topic: Sunset/Sunrise

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Bryan Thomas for Topic: Sunset/Sunrise

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Bryan Thomas for Topic: Sunset/Sunrise