ORLANDO, Fla. – Photographer John Noltner used to live just 11.6 miles south of where George Floyd was killed in May 2020.
As people from around the country traveled to Minneapolis to pay their respects and to protest police brutality, Noltner brought his camera and asked a simple question: “What do you want to say?”
His black-and-white photographs eventually became the new “Uprooting Prejudice: Faces of Change” gallery, a collaboration between the City of Orlando Public Art Program and the Holocaust Memorial Resource & Education Center of Florida, which opened this week at the Orlando City Hall Terrace Gallery and will be open until April 29. The photos are accompanied by short sentences reflecting the missions, visions and values of a community.
“All of the work that I do is rooted in personal stories, but some of the truths that are revealed are universal,” Noltner said. “And they apply, regardless of what community you’re in.”
Noltner said he wanted to see those stories for himself, and by understanding what was happening, he could become a better ally and support his community.
One of the stories featured in the exhibition is Michael Brown Jr.’s, an 18-year-old Black man who was fatally shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. His story is told by a photo of his father, who was in Minneapolis to show support for Floyd’s family.
Lauren Nelson, director of development for corporate philanthropy at the Holocaust Center, said the exhibition serves as a commentary on racism in America and as an opportunity to show how much people care for each other.
“I just think it’s important that our communities continue to offer these types of exhibits and to offer conversations that encourage people to consider different perspectives, and encourage people to get involved, and encourage people to maybe even take action, you know, taking action for positive change and for caring for other people that are just like them,” Nelson said.
The exhibit is the first of a two-part series by the Holocaust Center, with the second being “Uprooting Prejudice: Conversations of Change,” focusing on Black musician and activist Daryl Davis and his dedication to fight white supremacy.
“I think it’s important for communities like Orlando to have exhibits like this that encourage conversation, that showcase different perspectives, that showcase the realness of what people in our community are feeling,” Nelson said.
She said she thinks it is important to keep an open mind and encourage conversation to stay true to the mission of hearing communities that are afraid of hate.
Noltner said there are three things he hopes people take away from this project. First, a willingness to listen deeply, so people can constantly learn. Second, an invitation for people to challenge their own expectations, in other words to see the world with a vision different from what they are used to. And third, a willingness to “stay at the table.”
“These are complicated issues, and they’re gonna require long term effort to try to find some sort of resolution to it and in the process,” Noltner said. “I think it’s really important that we commit to staying at the table, to not walking away, because when we walk away from the table, the hope for finding a resolution walks away with us.”
Noltner’s gallery is also part of a larger project called A Peace of My Mind, which features a podcast. Another recent project is the book “Portraits of Peace: Searching for Hope in a Divided America,” which talks about the process of using storytelling to bridge divides and build communities.
Noltner said the world is complicated, and when rhetoric is heated, the conversation gets divisive, but by remembering the humanity of the situation, one can remove the temptation to criticize those who think differently.
“My goal for this entire project is whoever I encountered, whether we’re talking to veterans or human rights activists or middle school students, my goal is for people to hear us say, ‘I see you, I hear you and you matter,’” Noltner said. “You know, that simple, basic level of humanity can do a lot to heal wounds.”