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In Memoriam

They Lost Their Sons to Guns. These Are the Mementos They Can’t Bear to Throw Away.

An Iraqi photographer captures the painful remnants of American gun violence.

Photographer Wesaam Al-Badry met Sala-Haquekyah Chandler for the first time at a protest that erupted after San Francisco police shot a 26-year-old black man more than 20 times. Chandler, one of the loudest and most passionate demonstrators, told Al-Badry that her own son, Yalani Chinyamurindi, had been shot dead just a year before in a quadruple homicide while sitting in a Honda Civic with a group of friends in the city’s trendy Hayes Valley neighborhood. The other victims were David Saucier, Harith Atchan, and Manuel O’Neal — all black men.

After speaking at length with Chandler about the shooting, Al-Badry decided that he would focus on the mothers of the four victims in a photo series. Grief is a subject Al-Badry had long wanted to explore in his art. He grew up in Iraq and experienced the realities of the Gulf War at the age of 7. His uncle died in the Iran-Iraq War. Al-Badry remembers his grandmother hoarding her son’s belongings for more than two decades. That response captivated Al-Badry, and inspired the approach to the project that began with Chandler. “Our Sons” combines portraits of the victims’ mothers with images of the objects that they refuse to throw away — from bottles of body wash to a favorite hat or hoodie.

“These objects, sometimes, are the only things left of these children,” Al-Badry told The Trace. “They have highly emotional value to these mothers that you and I or any other person can’t understand.”

In the first installment of the project, two of the victim’s mothers are featured: Pamela Saucier and Chandler. Al-Badry said he hopes his work shows the reality of losing a loved one to gun violence, particularly for people of color, who he said must often grieve in silence and shame.

Police investigating the killing of Saucier and Chandler’s sons said the incident was likely gang-related — a characterization refuted by family and friends. At a vigil held just three days after the shooting, notes appeared on nearby cars with the message: “4 DEAD CRIMINALS — Honored by the A-A [African-American] ‘Community.’ Are you kidding me?”

Al-Badry described the episode as an example of the “psychological warfare” waged against grieving mothers in marginalized communities. “‘Did I fail as a mother? — Society thinks I failed as a mother,’” he said, describing the mindset of the women he photographed. “‘They called my son a thug — was my son a thug?’ These mothers have to go through all of that trauma.”

We asked Al-Bardy to explain the story behind a few select images from the series.

At first, I was just going to photograph the objects by themselves, but Sala was always wearing her son’s clothing, so one day I just asked to photograph her wearing it. This is a part of her process of remembering her son.

Each piece of clothing she wore brought on a wave of emotion, which explains her sad facial expression. It was a difficult shoot, because while I was behind the camera photographing, Sala was reliving all those memories. She was telling me what the clothing means to her, what Yalani meant to her, and how it feels to not see her son anymore.

The check she’s holding was provided to her by the city examiner after Yalani died. It’s for $1.20, the amount of money her son had on him we he was murdered. So, it’s like this whole cycle of thinking: is this the value of Yalani? Sala would often say “that’s what they gave me for my son’s death,” and that really stuck with me.

I asked Sala, “If you could write Yalani anything, what would it be?” She ended up writing a five-page letter and I put the first part of it against a picture of black hoodie that Yalani often wore.

The meaning behind the photo can be a few things, but America’s history with black men and hoodies is one that I wanted show. It’s a widespread, dark history associated with this object.

For this image, Yalani’s mother went through a wallet that she bought him, something she otherwise would not do. When the city gave it back to her after the shooting, it was a very painful for Sala to rediscover so much about her child. The things he once held onto have become the things she can’t let go.

This photo was taken in David’s room. It shows Pam holding flowers David gave to her on the Valentine’s Day before his death. Pam is a very strong person, she doesn’t usually show her emotions. But there were times when we’d be having a conversation and, when I stopped talking, I could see her emotions come out. So I realized that, if I just paused and looked at Pam, her pain would come through.

David’s family has a tree in the back of the house that they turned into a small altar. The photo has to be in a ziplock bag to protect it from the weather, so it’s like David is protected after his passing.

I went back this year, and the altar space wasn’t there anymore. Pam works every day as a nurse and her kids have moved out, so I don’t think she has time to keep up with the big backyard. She is planning to replant and regrow in the summer.

Pam is being comforted by her son, Jordan. I wanted the story to end in a beautiful scene that shows that Pam still has family to be there for her. I wanted to show that a death doesn’t leave just one person suffering. A whole family, a whole community is going through the pain, but at the same time, there is comfort in their camaraderie.