MERCED — Violence and the grief that flows from it are devastating for families, no matter where they live -- Oakland or Merced.
But it can inspire the people who go through such agony and those who chronicle their suffering to push for change. That was the focus of an exhibit Monday at the University of California at Merced.
"We should not be here today," Susan Latham's voice broke as she spoke to a packed room of students, scholars and professors at the campus. "This should not be happening. It can change."
Latham, a multimedia journalist and photographer, spent months following the lives of people affected by violence and homicide in east Oakland.
Using her camera lens and storytelling talents, Latham created a multimedia exhibit called "Living with the Memory" to capture the despair and grief experienced by black families in the aftermath of tragic crimes.
She showed 45 of her exhibit's powerful photographs, along with written text and voice recordings, at the university art gallery.
For two years, Latham chronicled the heartbreaking stories of slaying victims' families by visiting crime scenes, churches and memorial sites -- and, in the end, she emerged a different person.
"It changed everything," Latham said. "This project has had a huge impact on me personally."
Latham said she grew up on a New England farm with a good upbringing, knowing little about urban poverty and violence -- until she began her graduate studies at the University of California at Berkeley.
Surrounded by the violence of the East Bay, the journalist decided it was a pressing issue that needed to be reported in depth. She chose to frame her master's thesis project around the lives of those families affected by crime -- telling their stories through her art.
Along the journey, Latham met Ora Knowell, a mother, activist and victim of tragedy. Knowell's two sons were slain in Oakland in 1996 and 2002, and their killers never have been found.
Knowell said Latham became an inspiration to her because she was willing to tell her story.
Knowell, who lived in Oakland for more than 35 years, had been fighting to be heard, advocating at City Council meetings and spreading her message at support groups for relatives of homicide victims.
"Believe it or not, I was happy telling my story to Susan," Knowell said, embracing Latham's hand. "She didn't feel like a stranger. She felt like a person who cared."
Knowell said she lived in fear for years after her sons' slayings, but felt comfortable opening up to Latham, who became a trusted friend.
"I cope by the inspiration of people like Susan who keep my story alive," Knowell said. "And hopefully, the killer will be caught."
Latham, a mother of four, is returning to her hometown near Boston this week, but not without the memory of the lives she has touched in the East Bay. She hopes her exhibit inspires change and touches more lives, hoping it will be put on display in Oakland.
"I can't change homicide, but maybe I can make a difference in one person's life," she said. "This is about the system changing, because no child should have to go through this."
It's a change Knowell believes can be made by providing youths in urban areas with better education and resources.
But it can't be accomplished alone, Knowell said.
"To change what is happening to human beings as a whole, it's going to take people coming together and fighting together for peace," Knowell said. "It should be about equal justice for everyone."
Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or firstname.lastname@example.org.