Death shrines: Washington’s other monuments

WASHINGTON – Photographer Lloyd Wolf squats to examine a piece of leftover police tape from a shooting in Northeast D.C. There are no candles, liquor bottles or messages to the deceased, but he snaps a few pictures anyway.

“After a while, you know what to look for,” he says.

A quick survey reveals a plastic glove and another bit of tape strewn in the alley behind several single-family homes. Earlier in the week, a 40-something man was killed here, but no shrines have been erected to honor him.

“I’m not surprised, given his age,” Wolf says.

For more than a decade, Wolf has driven to death shrines in D.C., Maryland and Virginia to chronicle them on his blog, Washington’s Other Monuments. He has met family members and neighbors of these victims, and snapped photos of their tributes to the people they’ve lost.

Wolf enters some of the region’s toughest neighborhoods armed with nothing more than a camera. His red hatchback has a flower on the antenna and is decorated inside with dozens of buttons and a handful of bird feathers. He doesn’t use a smartphone or a police scanner to find the crime scenes. Instead, he relies on Homicide Watch D.C., local media and Google Maps to find the shrines.

“I didn’t have any sense of what I would do with it,” Wolf says of his ever-expanding series. “I was just interested in what impact violence has on the city.”

On average, Wolf spends several hours traversing the region in search of these makeshift monuments. The first one he photographed was on First Street in Northwest D.C., he says. After amassing 30 or 40 photos of various shrines, Wolf knew he was on to something.

“Part of what spurred me on is that I get a lot of commentary from friends, family, neighbors, concerned people,” he says.

“This is my way of processing it and giving back.”

Wolf started the blog as a kind of “virtual cemetery,” he says. And after more than 10 years of shooting the photos, he has started to pick up on cultural cues that hint at a victim’s background.

Latino shrines, for instance, often include Catholic imagery and large candles with saints on them. Black communities tend to leave behind written messages and teddy bears for their loved ones. Wolf also has seen Buddhist and other Eastern traditions reflected.

“It’s pure folk art,” he says. “Nobody tells you how to make this.”

A decade into the series, Wolf is not paid for his work and doesn’t have immediate plans for showing it beyond the free blog.

Click here to see his series, Washington’s Other Monuments.

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