Levon and Kennedy: Mississippi Innocence Project, a documentary photo book of two Mississippi men wrongfully convicted for nearly identical murders in Brooksville and their lives post-exoneration, is full of repetitions.
Armand has structured both men’s stories in a visually similar way. Brooks’ chapter begins with a found photograph of three-year-old Courtney Smith, and a photograph of the pond in which Courtney’s body was found in 1990, obscured by dead leaves and bare branches. Brewer’s chapter begins with a found photograph of three-year-old Christine Jackson, and a photograph of the creek in which Christine’s body was found in 1992, obscured by dead leaves and bare branches. For Courtney’s murder, Brooks was sentenced to life in prison; for Christine’s, Brewer was sentenced to death.
Armand, a New York-based photographer who focuses on documentary and portraiture, is keenly aware of these ironic parallels.
In 2012, she first came across a “disturbing article” on the cases of Brooks and Brewer, who spent a combined 29 years in prison before being exonerated in 2008 through DNA testing that would eventually identify a single perpetrator, Justin Johnson, underscoring a collaboration between medical examiner Steven Hayne and dentist Michael West that would rely upon shoddy bite-mark testimony and a state unwilling to check either official.
In collaboration with the Mississippi Innocence Project, Armand follows the men and their families into their homes and communities to counteract the “silence and oblivion,” or the risk of erasure these rural communities face, Armand writes. Levon and Kennedy serves both as insistent proof that life after life sentences, after death row exists — see Brooks embracing his new wife on his wedding day; see Brewer mid-grin, surrounded by his brothers — and as a document of the tension between clinging to Mississippi and choosing to leave it behind.
As the book unfurls to become a family album, posed portraits of the men’s families are paired their own words, capturing several generations with a gradient of desires and aspirations.
Teenagers talk about the colleges they plan on attending. Mentions of moving to Texas, where the jobs are, are frequent. “I want to be a policeman, a fireman, a football player and a wrestler!” a 5-year-old cousin, R’nez, says. “I really want to be in law enforcement because I want a better life and more chances for my girls,” Brewer’s niece Roynika says, cradling her daughter on her lap. “There is no equal opportunity for African Americans here.”
The “here” Roynika speaks of is Noxubee County, a pocket of the state Armand depicts as empty of economic promise with bare fields, unpaved roads, gutted Main Streets and downtowns (Armand calls them “villages”), but full of people who resist the lure of outside chances, who nonetheless buy land and build houses and who say they are reluctant to move away from their family.
This fraught relationship between geography and opportunity, geography and history can be seen in an 1870 Noxubee County census, which lists 32 black people with the last name “Brooks” and 35 with “Brewer,” we learn in an accompanying essay by the Mississippi Innocence Project’s director Tucker Carrington (who also co-authored “The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist” with journalist Radley Balko, another featured book at this year’s festival). We learn that Brewer was born in a tenant shack on a plantation, and that his mother started working in the cotton fields when she was “just old enough.”
In Armand’s portraits, we see centuries of racist institutions, discriminatory policies, a flawed (or perfect, perhaps) justice system populated with bad actors come to bear on the lives of the Brewers and the Brooks, who know it and live despite it. Brooks, who died earlier this year of colon cancer, did see the book, Armand said in an interview: “He took it all around town, and he was proud of it.”
Isabelle Armand will appear on the panel “Seeing the Light in Mississippi” at 4 p.m. in the Galloway Fellowship Center. Other panelists include Maude Schuyler Clay, Timothy T. Isbell and Jason Taylor. Tucker Carrington will appear on the panel “Southern History” at 1:30 p.m. in the Old Supreme Court Room along with panelists Lisa M. Corrigan, Gene Dattel and T.K. Thorne.