Dana Lixenberg

Imperial Courts

In 1992, several southern districts of Los Angeles hit the headlines when they were gripped by civil unrest. The riots were triggered by the case of Rodney King, an African-American who was the victim of excessive police violence. Despite overwhelming evidence from a video recording, the police officers were acquitted by a predominantly white jury. Among the journalists who came to the stricken areas of Los Angeles to cover the riots and their aftermath was young Dutch photographer Dana Lixenberg, who had recently moved to the USA. She was commissioned by a Dutch magazine to do a story about efforts to rebuild the area.

One year later, Dana returned to South Central Los Angeles and, after meeting Crips gang leader Tony Bogard, ended up at Imperial Courts, a public housing project in Watts. She wanted to create an alternative to the often one-dimensional and sensationalized reporting in the media by starting a photo project about the residents of Imperial Courts. She chose a large-format camera, preferring the slower, deliberate photographic process this involves, and portrayed the mostly African-American residents in black-and-white. The project turned out to be a long-term undertaking: Dana visited Imperial Courts many times over the course of 22 years. In 2015, she published her single and group portraits as well as views of the housing estate in the photo book "Imperial Courts 1993-2015". The photos, together with video and audio recordings produced over the years and an online platform, provide a comprehensive and nuanced insight into the people's lives at Imperial Courts. Their community suffers from the consequences of institutional racism, violence and a lack of prospects.

For Dana, the drama in photography comes largely from the "small gestures, the rich texture of skin, body language and the way a person positions herself". It is therefore hardly surprising that her portraits seem so insightful. Often, her subjects' concentrated, fixed gaze conveys a quiet self-confidence, courage and steadfastness; small details reveal a trace of vulnerability. Dana took all of her photographs outdoors so that the reading of her portraits is not influenced or defined by private environments. She avoids stereotypical classifications and approaches her subjects with great respect. The time intervals between the portraits are evident not only in hairstyles and clothes, but also in the changes that had taken place in Imperial Courts. Over the years, some residents had been killed or imprisoned, while the children in her earlier photographs had grown up and started their own families. The project therefore not only helps to increase the visibility of a social group that is underrepresented in the public eye, but is also important as a way of remembering, as a chronicle of the community in Imperial Courts.

Biographical information

1964

born in Amsterdam, The Netherlands

1984-86

Studies at the London College of Printing, London

1987-89

Studies at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam

2015

publishes "Imperial Courts, 1993-2015" with Roma Publications

2017

awarded the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2017

lives in Amsterdam