Life After Death: Diamond Reynolds Seen Through the Eyes of an Artist

Artwork: Luke Willis Thompson, autoportrait, (2017). Installation view, Chisenhale Gallery 2017. Commissioned by Chisenhale Gallery and produced in partnership with Create. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Andy Keate.

July 6, 2016, had begun as so many other nights had for 32-year-old Philando Castile, a nutrition services supervisor at J.J. Hill Montessori School in St. Paul, Minnesota. Castile had gone out for a haircut, then to dinner with his sister before picking up his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds and her four-year-old daughter. The family of three had gone food shopping and were heading home for the evening.

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It was just after 9:00 p.m. when St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez spotted the white 1997 Oldsmobile on the road and radioed into a nearby squad car, saying, “The two occupants just look like people that were involved in a robbery. The driver looks more like one of our suspects, just because of the wide-set nose. I couldn’t get a good look at the passenger.”

Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) investigators process the scene of where a St. Anthony Police officer shot and killed 32-year-old Philando Castile in a car near Larpenteur Avenue and Fry Street in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, on July 6, 2016.. Photo: Tony webster/Wikimedia Commons

At 9:05 p.m. CDT, Yanez ordered Castile to pull over and approached the car. Forty seconds later, he shot Castile seven times at point blank range in an extrajudicial killing witnessed by millions on Facebook Live.

July 17, 2016 around 2pm

St. Paul, Minnesota

About 100 people remained gathered outside the Minnesota Governor’s Mansion 7 days after Philando Castile was shot to death by a St. Anthony Police officer during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights. Falcon Heights is a suburb of St. Paul and Minneapolis.. Photo: Ficonacci Blue/Wikimedia Commons

Reynolds had the presence of mind to film the incident from start to finish, showing the world the truth: what happens when a black man legally carries a firearm in the United States. Yanez asked for his license and registration. Castile informed Yanez that the information was in his wallet, and that he was carrying a firearm. He reached for his wallet to show the documents requested and Yanez freaked out. He became convinced that Castile was going to pull his gun, despite Castile’s dying words: he was following the law.

Castile was pronounced dead at 9:37 p.m. in the emergency room of the Hennepin County Medical Center. The Medical Examiner’s office ruled his death a homicide. Reynolds was handcuffed and she and her daughter were taken into police custody, unable to say goodbye.

One year later, on June 16, Yanez was found not guilty one count of second-degree manslaughter and two counts of dangerous discharge of a firearm, as he openly endangered the life of both Reynolds and her child. Yanez claimed he feared for his life and the jury agreed—though the public at large was hard pressed to unsee a government sanctioned murder, just one of 957 people killed by police in 2016.

In November 2016, Australian artist Luke Willis Thompson reached out to Diamond Reynolds, with the assistance of Chisenhale Gallery, London, to begin a dialogue about creating a “sister-image” to Reynolds’ video broadcast. In April 2017, the work was completed: a silent portrait of Reynolds shot on 35m black and white film, which is on view in Autoportrait at Chisenhale Gallery, now through August 27, 2017.

The white cube of the gallery is painted black, while the film screens as a single image on the back wall. It is a simple, silent, poignant portrait of a woman the world has come to know as a heroine, a vision of courage, and a figure of composure that few possess within their soul.

After witnessing Reynolds’ video, Luke Willis Thompson decided to “call her back.” In a conversation with Emma Moore, Offsite and Educator Curator for Chisenhale Gallery, he explains, “There is a radical communication in Diamond’s video. It was a prayer to the – now over nine million – people that viewed it to do something. One answer is to watch it, one answer is to apply pressure in some way, another answer is to show up – Diamond gives her call and a lawyer shows up, others show up, and I show up. Because of her speech, in that moment of violence and terror, Diamond created the possibility for someone to respond or reply. So that is where the process began.”

Luke Willis Thompson, autoportrait, (2017). Installation view, Chisenhale Gallery 2017. Commissioned by Chisenhale Gallery and produced in partnership with Create. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Andy Keate.

Reynolds’ video is evidence of injustice and inhumanity, of the inevitable outcome of centuries of psychopathology that runs rivers of blood across the nation’s flag. It is evidence not just of a single crime, but of a criminality embedded deep within the government itself, one that stretches from the boys in blue all the way up the chain of command to those who sanction the constant violation of human and Constitutional rights.

But for many people, it is simply unwatchable. It is simply too traumatic to watch Castile’s final moments on earth be destroyed by unwarranted violence. It is becomes more than evidence: it is agony. In this way, Thompson’s Autoportrait is a gift, a start to a deep and necessary process of healing.

Diamond Reynolds is more than a heroine: she is a woman in her own right, one whose life did not begin or end on July 6, 2016, but will forever be scarred by that night. Most of us will only know her as she was then, and so it is vital that Thompson shows us as she is now, as someone we can commune with for knowing just a fraction of her story.

Luke Willis Thompson, autoportrait, (2017). Installation view, Chisenhale Gallery 2017. Commissioned by Chisenhale Gallery and produced in partnership with Create. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Andy Keate.

“There are so few possibilities to work across a real boundary, or in other words, between a real psychological or physical difference between two people. I don’t think the boundary at play in this work is race, class or geographical location, or the difference produced through education or life expectancy: everything that can make two people very different from each other. I don’t think any of those typical markers are the difference in the work,” Thompson tells Moore.

“I think the difference in the work is how hard Diamond’s experience of living, day-to-day, second-to-second, can be. Four minutes and thirty seconds – the length of time to use a roll of film up and the length time she would sit for the camera without the connection of a phone, or connection with her daughter – to be alone for that length of time was, and is, incredibly hard for her. That is what it is like to be her right now – to have these memories and to live with this vigilant fear.”

For those that can feel, Reynolds’ fear is palpable, a presence all its own that has invaded her flesh and bone. But still deeper within is her soul, that which accords itself to a higher power that rises above the lies, the distortions of belief, that continuous flow of disinformation and destruction that has devastated this nation for its inception. In Autoportrait, Reynolds is both spirit and flesh, embodying both the trauma of life and the eternal call of justice.

Yard sign in Falcon Heights, Minnesota. September 17, 2016. Photo: Runnner1928/Wikimedia Commons.

Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Vogue Online, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Aperture Online, and Feature Shoot. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.