photograph of keychain

It Wasn’t a Gun

A material archive of police violence

Photographs by Amber N. Ford

Image above: Khiel Coppin, Brooklyn, New York, 2007

A hairbrush. A set of keys. A pill bottle. A candy bar. Each of these everyday items is an unlikely weapon. And yet each is an object that was held by a Black man, woman, or child when they were killed or injured at the hands of police. Amber N. Ford’s series Mistaken Identity is a record of the wounds incurred and a requiem for the lives lost.

photograph of smartphone on left and pill bottles on right
Left: Stephon Clark, Sacramento, California, 2018. Right: Rumain Brisbon, Phoenix, Arizona, 2014.
photo of keychain
Roy Middleton, Pensacola, Florida, 2013

Stephon Clark was holding a cellphone when police shot him in Sacramento, California, in 2018. Philando Castile was reaching for his wallet, to produce his driver’s license during a traffic stop, when a cop shot him in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, in 2016. Twelve-year-old Tamir Rice was playing with a toy pellet gun in a Cleveland park when police shot him in 2014.

Ford, who is a native Ohioan, said Rice’s death was a breaking point for her. She pored over his story, and others like it, then mined her community for found art.

photos of child's toy on left and wallet on right
Left: Charles Kinsey, North Miami, Florida, 2016. Right: Philando Castile, Falcon Heights, Minnesota, 2016.
photo of toy squirt guns
Michael Jones, Brooklyn, New York, 1998

For Mistaken Identity, Ford told me, “I tried my best to pick objects that either I or my friends or family members already had in their possession. So, they’re real-life, lived-in, used objects that were already around me.” Primarily a portrait photographer, she deliberately stepped outside her normal artistic practice, scanning the objects with the scanner’s lid open in a dark room. This method made the stark black background even more severe and hinted at the colorless void that emerges when a loved one dies.

“I hope that in my lifetime I will see policing done differently, where officers can truly de-escalate situations,” Ford said. Until then, her work functions as a material archive.

photos of driver's license on left and vape device on right
Left: Levar Jones, Columbia, South Carolina, 2014. Right: Alfred Olango, El Cajon, California, 2016.
photo of 3 Musketeers candy bar
Andre Burgess, Queens, New York, 1997