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Photographer Lloyd Wolf is circling the projects in Anacostia again, searching for shrines. Driving his Ford Focus down Alabama Avenue SE, he peers down side streets, keeping his eyes open for memorials to homicide victims. As he drives, he talks about corners that spark memories for him. One shrine near East Capitol Street SE, for example, was composed of vodka bottles, a giant plush bear, and a sign reading rip weezy. Then there was the one for “Lil Cindy” Gray on Benning Road NE. It was the only shrine he ever saw being built. “She was a drive-by,” he says.
Wolf, 55, works for a wide range of commercial clients, has provided images for three books, and contributes to magazines and newspapers. (One project on prison drug-rehab programs ran in Washington City Paper in 1990.) But he has no commercial ambition for this shrine pursuit. He’s been taking pictures of memorial shrines in the D.C. area since 2003. In that time, he’s amassed photographs of approximately 50 of them for a project he calls “Washington Monuments.” Most of the time, the Arlington photographer spots shrines while crisscrossing D.C. on assignments—“the nature of my job takes me all over the city,” he says—but friends and colleagues also locate them for him. Occasionally, he’ll read about a murder in the Washington Post and hit the road.
Wolf’s fascination with shrines began more than 20 years ago when he took photos for his 1986 book, Facing the Wall: Americans at the Vietnam War Memorial. “I became interested in why people leave these heartfelt objects,” he says. His interest intensified a decade later when he mentored a young man through the program Shooting Back, which taught photography to homeless youth. The teen had four relatives gunned down in 13 months, he says, and “I became very frightened for him. It was a terrible time.”
Wolf decided to document the losses. The shrines range from two teddy bears duct-taped to a telephone pole, he says, to large mounds of photographs, candles, Bibles, and even a pair of lacy panties. He remembers a pyramid-shaped shrine near Capitol Hill whose base was 6-feet-by-6-feet. “It was huge. It looked like someone had dumped a toy store on the street,” he says.
“To me, it’s ‘Pay attention to this, look at that.’ I feel like I’m gathering a community, like a photo album.” And he’s attracted to the shrines’ artistic properties. “They’re often very bold, visually. They’re almost like visionary art,” he says. “The work is…coming from somewhere very deep in the person.”
So on a recent sweltering afternoon, he’s off to Columbia Heights: A friend told him about a new shrine at 14th and Girard Streets NW, and he’s determined to shoot it before the city removes it. About a dozen teddy bears, a dried bouquet of flowers, and three metallic balloons are tied to a no parking sign. Wolf spots white splotches on the pavement and guesses they’re remnants of candles. A neighbor drives by, and Wolf asks him who the shrine is for. The neighbor says it’s a memorial to Tayon.
Tayon Glover, a Columbia Heights resident, was shot and killed Aug. 23 on Girard Street. Mourners made the memorial during a vigil held about a week after his death, says Walter Johnson, a friend of Tayon and a mediator with the anti-violence organization Peaceoholics. He says the shrine “basically represents someone that was lost and very respected.” Police say the investigation remains open but aren’t talking about any possible suspects.
Tayon’s brother, Anwan Glover, is a longtime go-go artist and an actor on the HBO series The Wire (he played Slim Charles for 20 episodes of Season 4). “He was a good person,” Glover says of his brother. “He took care of his kids. He loved his mom. He wasn’t no angel, but he wasn’t a person who would go out there and hurt no one.”
Wolf walks around the shrine a couple of times and begins snapping pictures. Within a few minutes, a passerby, Rodney Weaver, asks him what he’s doing. “I know the teddy bears and the flowers, I know what it means, and it’s sad, man,” says Weaver. The two begin talking about shrines; Weaver says Champagne bottles are common in shrines because survivors drink to the deceased. “It’s the neighborhood. It’s drugs. It’s not just one thing,” says Weaver, who lost two cousins to violence in the ’80s. “They were out there in the streets, and they got killed. At some point this has to stop.” Wolf gives Weaver his card, and the men agree to meet up for coffee sometime.
Wolf takes a few more shots, writes down the shrine’s location, and climbs back into his car, pleased he was able to shoot the shrine before the city took it down. Linda Grant, a spokesperson for the Department of Public Works, says that after receiving requests from residents a couple years ago, the agency developed a procedure to deal with shrines. “Our SWEEP [Solid Waste Education and Enforcement Program] inspectors are generally familiar with the streets they work in. They will try to identify the family and then ask the family to remove it,” she says. “If we cannot identify the family, we will post a notice saying the Department of Public Works will remove it in 30 days. We ask the family if there are valuable items so they can remove them, and we’ll take care of the rest.” Grant says the agency has removed 10 to 15 memorials over the last several years.
Wolf doesn’t know what he’ll do with the scores of pictures he’s accumulated. “I’m a little concerned about showing at a commercial gallery with a bunch of rich people walking by,” he says. Sometimes the whole project gives him pause. “I feel strange about it,” he says. “I feel like a vulture. I’d be happy if I never saw one again.” But as he weaves through the city streets, he can’t help swinging his head from side to side, searching for his next shot.