3 Words: "Do Or Die" -- A Jean Melesaine Photo Essay

We traveled to a small city in St. Louis to do a video to stop a young man from being executed. When asked about his life he said, "You grow into the shape of the container you were raised in." To tell his story, we needed to tell the story of the city and era he grew up in. The city was war-torn from what many called a "storm"; a plague of violence, poverty, drugs, and incarceration. The height of that war was the 90's. We asked the community members who survived to describe their city during that period. The first person we asked, while showing his bullet wounds said, "Do Or Die".

Our first day of shooting. We went to see a popular block in the neighborhood that used to be filled with people. The city, now like a ghosttown, still holds a place for the resilient residents who still call this place home.

An elder talks about the playground across the street from her home, a place where children can't play. This is a known park where murders and rapes have happen because it is so rundown. 

Once a gangmember during the era that was explained as a "wipeout", a father who thought the violence had gone down, holds a photo of his 16 year old son who was shot and killed a month ago. 

"Gangster" and his brother grew up in the small city during the violent years. He said, "I don't know why I made it, I just know I'm blessed"

A father holds the photo of he and his son. His son is currently on death row, awaiting execution. His son says, "you grow into the shape of the container you were born in".

The first time we meet "Gangster" 

Mrs. Rogers has been an active community leader in the area, and still says its effects from that time is like the effects of a war. You can see it and feel it now. 

"Bone" shows us where he was shot in his abdomen and his tattoos. He has been shot multiple times on different occasions and has survived. His tattoos read: "Gods Son". 

Taneisha sits on the stoops with her 2 children. She once ran and ducked from the drive by shootings during the era that took most of her friends away.

Reminsicing on a block filled with boarded up houses all the way down from the beginning to the end, the community he grew up in has become a ghost town that noone wants to live in anymore.

The generation of these black men are some of the last few left in this community. The rest have dissapeared over the years from death by the uprising violence, prison, or drug abuse. The two men in brown, used to be former opposing gang members and have fought in the past while younger. All four of the men continue to do work to better the community and its youth.



About Jean Melesaine

Jean Melesaine is a queer Samoan community activist, documentary photographer and editor with Silicon Valley De-Bug. 

This article is part of the categories: Community  / Law & Justice  / Photo 
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Awesone Job and so glad you got to come to our great city!PS We met at your workshop at our spring training for the public defender in June. Hope our department can utilize your talents and experience in the future!!! Janey

Its evident in the photos that you got close to the community. You've captured their hope and pride

What caused the violence that you talk about - crack like in NOLA? And did it coincide with most of the white residents moving out of the area, resulting in boarded up houses, empty streets, underfunded schools and derelict playgrounds? Finding these pictures and the associated naratives greatly leads to my understanding of what went down in Ferguson and causes me to rethink some of my empathy. People do not want to live in a violent society and if they have the where-with-all to flee, they will. Just look around the world today at all the people fleeing violence.

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