These Vibrant, Bigger-Than-Life Portraits Turn Gun Death Statistics Into Indelible Stories


PHILADELPHIA — Zarinah Lomax is an uncommon documentarian of our times. She has designed dresses from yellow crime-scene tape and styled jackets with hand-painted demands like “Don’t Shoot” in purple, black, and gold script. Every few months, she hauls dozens of portraits of Philadelphians — vibrant, bold, bigger-than-life faces — to pop-up galleries to raise an alarm about gun violence in her hometown and America.

In a storage unit, Lomax has a thousand canvasses, she estimates, mostly of young people who died from gunfire, and others of the mothers, sisters, friends, and mourners left to ask why.

“The purpose is not to make people cry,” said Lomax, a Philadelphia native who has traveled to New York, Atlanta, and Miami to collaborate on similar exhibitions on trauma. “It is for families and for people who have gone through this to know that they are not forgotten.”

Each person “is not a number. This is somebody’s child. Somebody’s son, somebody’s daughter who was working toward something,” she said. “The portraits are not just portraits. They are telling us what the consequences are for what’s happening in our cities.”

Firearms in 2020 became the No. 1 cause of death for children and teens under 18 — from both suicides and assaults — and fresh research on the public health crisis from Harvard Medical School’s Blavatnik Institute show how those losses ripple through families and neighborhoods with significant economic and psychological costs.

On June 25, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy declared gun violence a public health crisis, noting: “Every day that passes we lose more kids to gun violence. The more children who are witnessing episodes of gun violence, the more children who are shot and survive that are dealing with a lifetime of physical and mental health impacts.”

Philadelphia has recorded more than 9,000 fatal and nonfatal shootings since 2020, with about 80% of the victims identified as Black, according to the city controller. Among those injured or dead, about 60% were age 30 or younger.

Lomax has been a singular, and perhaps unlikely, force in making the statistics unforgettable. Since 2018, when a young friend poised to graduate from Penn State University was shot to death on a Sunday afternoon in Philadelphia, Lomax has set out to support healing among those who experience violence.

She launched a show on PhillyCAM, a community access media channel, to encourage people to talk about guns and opioids and grief. She organized fashion shows with local artists and families that focused on bearing witness to distress. She seized on portraiture, reaching out to local artists to memorialize the lives, not the deaths, of Philadelphia’s young. She began tracking shootings on social media, in news accounts, and sometimes by word of mouth. In 2022, City Hall opened three floors to a remarkable exhibition of lost lives, organized by Lomax and created by dozens of artists.

She recently shared the portraits at a summit sponsored by the nonprofit Brady: United Against Gun Violence and CeaseFirePA. The meeting offered guidance on enforcing regulations to prevent straw gun purchases that propel crime and provided data on weapon trafficking across state lines. Lomax knew the art, displayed along the stage, brought home the stakes.

Look at these faces, she said. These people had promise. What happened? What can be done?

There are two rows of colorfully painted portraits. The top row has four paintings and the bottom row has five.
Painted portraits commissioned by Zarinah Lomax. Each person “is not a number. This is somebody’s child. Somebody’s son, somebody’s daughter who was working toward something,” Lomax says. “The portraits are not just portraits. They are telling us what the consequences are for what’s happening in our cities.” (Christine Spolar for KFF Health News)

Lomax, now 40, said the conversations she starts have purpose. Some paintings she gives to families. Others she stores for future exhibits.

“This is not what I set out to do in life,” she said. “When I was growing up, I thought I’d be a nurse. But I guess I am kind of nursing people this way.”

So far this year, Philadelphia has seen a drop in the number of murders, according to an online database by AH Datalytics, but ranks among the top five cities in murder count. Last year, the Harvard researchers established that communities and families are left vulnerable by gun injuries.

The 2023 study led by Zirui Song, an associate professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School, examined data related to newborns through age 19. The research documented a “massive” economic toll, with health care spending increasing by an average of $35,000 for survivors in the year after a shooting, and life-altering mental health challenges.

Survivors of shootings and their caregivers, whether dealing with physical injuries or generalized fear, often struggle with “long-lasting, invisible injuries, including psychological and substance-use disorders,” according to Song, who is also a general internist at Massachusetts General Hospital. His study found that parents of injured children experienced a 30% increase in psychiatric disorders compared with parents whose children did not sustain gunshot injuries.

Desiree Norwood, who paints with acrylics, has been helping Lomax since 2021. Like all the artists, she’s paid by Lomax. She has completed about 30 portraits, always after sitting down with the subject’s family. “I get a backstory so I can incorporate that in the portrait,” she said. “Sometimes we cry. Sometimes we pray. Sometimes we try to uplift each other. It is hard to do.”

“I hope one day I would not have to paint another portrait,” said Norwood, a mother of five children. “The idea that Zarinah has had so many exhibits, with numerous people who have died, is scary and heartbreaking.”

Mike Doughty, a self-taught digital artist, was among those who wanted to help to “honor and to offer a better look at who these people were.” Doughty, a city employee who works at a courthouse, may be best known within Philadelphia for a series of fanciful murals in which he has grouped famous natives such as Will Smith, Grace Kelly, and Kevin Hart.

He has produced about 150 portraits on his iPad and laptop, working with Lomax’s nonprofit group, The Apologues, to best match a face with a phrase, embedded in the scene, that telegraphs the lost potential of youth.

“At the beginning it was hard to do,” said Doughty, who works from family photographs. “I look and I think: They are kids. Just kids.”

One time, he received a text from Lomax seeking a portrait of a rapper he recognized from art and music shows. Another day, he opened an email to find a photo of a man he knew from high school. In May, Doughty shared on Instagram his work process for a portrait of Derrick Gant, a rapper with the stage name Phat Geez, who was gunned down in March. The killing happened a few weeks after the rapper released “No Gunzone,” a music video referring to an Instagram account that promotes anti-violence efforts in the city.

Doughty, 33, who grew up in the Nicetown section of north Philadelphia, wryly noted: “It wasn’t so nice.” Lomax’s exhibitions, he said, allow families, even neighborhoods, to sort through sorrow and pain.

“I went to the last one and a mother came up and said, ‘Did you draw my child’s portrait?’ She just fell into my arms, crying. It was such a moment,” he said. “And a reminder on why we do what we do.”

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