Jonathan Hanson: Charleston And A Fragile Forgiveness

A year later, we remember. On June 17, 2015, a young white supremacist walked into a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina. He stayed for an hour of bible study with 12 church members, then opened fire on them with a concealed handgun, killing nine. Just two days later, the victims' families started offering words of forgiveness to the murderer at his bond hearing -- one year later, photographer Jonathan Hanson visits the town of Charleston to see how the families and survivors are progressing through their journeys of forgiveness, grief, and resilience.

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In his photo essay, to accompany an article written by Bob Smietana for Christianity Today, Jonathan wanted to explore questions of forgiveness.


What does forgiveness mean and how is it shaped by their faith/identity? What are the lasting impressions and how did the shooting affect the current state of race relations in a city decorated with racist symbols?

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Jonathan was found by the photo editor for the piece through his coverage of the Black Lives Matter activists surrounding protests in Baltimore. The photo editor, Alecia Sharp, remembered these photographs of Jonathan's and reached out to him this year, asking if he could do this shoot in a similar style to his street portraits in Baltimore. Again, his task was to take portraits of the people that somehow honored their pain and humanity, while showing their strength and voice. Jonathan made two trips out to Charleston with writer Bob Smietana so that they could get time with the survivors, family members, and community members.

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During the first trip, Jonathan and Bob only worked on meeting people and gaining trust. Jonathan explains that because people in the town were so media-weary, they needed to take time to do this. They worked through the community to find voices that may not have already been publicly heard.

Most of the stories out there touch on what happened the night of the shooting, so after we gathered the facts, we spent time talking through how we could tell the story beyond the headlines.

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On the second trip, Jonathan photographed, using a Hasselblad film camera. He says this camera is a great ice-breaker because people haven't usually seen a camera like this and are curious about it. Throughout this whole project, he was able to talk to the people who the photo series was about and really learn from them.

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Jonathan says that one of the most powerful lessons he got came from Nadine Collier, daughter of one of the women killed, and the first person to offer forgiveness to the shooter.


After I photographed her we were talking and she said to me, "Forgiveness is power." She further explained that forgiveness allows you to take power back and not let others control you. It's something I'm trying to implement in my life.

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The complete photo series can be viewed on jhansonphoto.com.

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