Tyre Nichols explored Memphis, the city he had moved to in 2020 from Sacramento, through the lens of a camera.
Before he died on Jan. 10, after being beaten by Memphis police officers, Mr. Nichols had been an aspiring photographer who shared his work on his personal website. There were pictures of sweeping sunsets, blue skies, vibrant city lights and the Mississippi River. He wrote on his site that “people have a story to tell.”
After his death, The New York Times obtained special permission from Mr. Nichols’s mother to publish some of his pictures in an article about his work. Meghan Louttit, a deputy editor on the National desk, and Heather Casey, a photo editor, noticed how his photography was resonating with viewers on social media. They wanted to publish an article that was driven by Mr. Nichols’s pictures — to show who he was through the art that he had created and to express another side of a vibrant city, that, according to Ms. Louttit, is too often reduced to its worst moments.
Ms. Louttit grew up outside Youngstown, Ohio, which became a Rust Belt byword after its steel mills closed in the 1970s, and she said she often looks for the texture of daily life in the places the National desk covers and asks, “What’s it like to live there?”
The day before Mr. Nichols’s funeral service in Memphis, she called Eliza Fawcett, a reporting fellow on the National desk who was in Memphis covering the aftermath of Mr. Nichols’s death. Ms. Fawcett, along with Ava Sasani, another fellow, spent about a week searching for the scenes captured in Mr. Nichols’s pictures, visiting his hangouts and speaking with his friends. Their article, “Memphis, Through the Lens of Tyre Nichols,” was published this month.
To report on the story, Ms. Fawcett and Ms. Sasani went to some of Mr. Nichols’s favorite local spots, such as Tobey Skate Park, where he liked to skateboard, and a Starbucks where he would sit with a group of regulars on most mornings.
When Ms. Fawcett first visited the coffee shop, none of Mr. Nichols’s friends were there, and the employees did not want to talk to reporters. “It was a dead end,” Ms. Fawcett said. But when she returned the next day, she noticed a man who hadn’t been there the day before. “He just kept saying hi to every single person who came in, by name,” she said.
From the man’s outgoing demeanor, she suspected it was Perry Williams. Ms. Fawcett had learned through her reporting that Mr. Williams brought the Starbucks group together. She approached him, introduced herself and asked if she could join him. While they spoke, he relished the sun shining on them and said that their group always sat on the sunny side of the patio. His gregarious, easygoing manner grew somber only when the conversation turned to Mr. Nichols’s death.
During the interview, Ms. Fawcett took in the scene around her.
“I spent some time there sitting in the same spot where Tyre had sat so many mornings having his coffee, seeing the same people come through,” Ms. Fawcett said.
While Ms. Fawcett tried to see what Mr. Nichols had seen, Ms. Sasani listened to what he had been like as a person. She reached out to some of Mr. Nichols’s friends and spent hours talking on the phone with a childhood friend of his from Sacramento, Angelina Paxton, who said that Mr. Nichols had been having a tough time with the isolation brought on by the pandemic. He was lonely in his new city.
But in the year before he died, Mr. Nichols began to post pictures of Memphis at dusk, a city set against the warmth of fading light. Ms. Paxton said that when she saw those sunset photos, she had sensed her friend coming back.
“It adds a layer of heartbreak to an already heartbreaking story,” Ms. Sasani said.
Both reporters said it had been a hard article to write and that they had labored over individual phrases. Their reporting had to explore Mr. Nichols’s introverted, artistic life in light of an instance of police brutality captured on video and released to a public already distrustful of the police and reeling from gun violence.
But through Mr. Nichols’s lens, Memphis is not just a struggling and traumatized city. It is one with natural beauty, of bridges spanning the Mississippi.
Ms. Casey, who chose the photographs from Mr. Nichols’s portfolio, said she had felt a lot of pressure to select the right images to feature in the article. “You want to represent someone and their work in the way they would want to be remembered,” Ms. Casey said. “I think it was the last way we could get anything in Tyre’s voice.”
Ms. Sasani and Ms. Fawcett agreed that one photograph had best matched the descriptions of Mr. Nichols offered by his friends. According to them, “Tyre was always looking for these small moments of peace and joy,” Ms. Fawcet said.
It is a photograph of golden light on an open field.
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