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Book review: Privileged Mediocrity by Kris Graves

Self-portrait of Stonewall Jackson Shrine © Kris Graves

Kris Graves is an American photographer known for his thought-provoking visual narratives.  Graves’ work has garnered critical acclaim for its profound exploration of the human experience; particularly the experience of Black men in America. Privileged Mediocrity by Kris Graves explores the potential of a mere ‘book’ to depict the lives of Black people in America with visual narrative elegance. 

“If people bring so much courage to the world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.” Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms

Admittedly, I include the quote above from a flawed white man, Ernest Hemingway. Anyone who carries the nickname of ‘The Great White Hunter’ surely falls under Graves’ list of the Privileged. I wouldn’t argue with that. But Hemingway’s quote speaks to the way Kris Graves explores and illustrates a thought-provoking examination of contemporary American culture and society. Many are strong at the broken places. Kris Graves visited broken places on the US map, and witnessed the broken places where the voices of the many rose up in defiance and pride. Privileged Mediocrity’s cover image – a projection of George Floyd’s face over a tapestry of graffiti on the statue in Richmond, Virginia during the height of 2020 BLM outrage – is an emblematic symbol for millions of people who are fed up with racial disparity. It is a global iconic masterpiece to be celebrated for its succinct and poignant portrayal of the human experience.

George Floyd Projection, Richmond, Virginia © Kris Graves

Photography, like literature, possesses the unique ability to convey complex narratives through images. It freezes moments in time, preserving the raw emotions and realities of a particular era. Each part within Privileged Mediocrity becomes a concise yet powerful chapter in this narrative – telling stories that resonate with the lived experiences of Black individuals in America.

The three sections of the book consist of ‘Part I: Privileged Mediocrity and the Deceived Within’ (2013-2021); ‘Part II: A Southern Horror’ (2020), and ‘Part III: Latency’ (2000-2002). Part one opens with a sunset seascape at Big Sur, California. Without knowing this (the title is listed in the back of the book), I mistook the first image as a sunrise; a fresh beginning with the ‘dawn of enlightenment’ kind of feeling. But the following series of images progresses through people and places where Graves acutely uses visual wit and interplay with titles or settings. A sporty Mercedes-Benz coupe is casually parked in front of a Charleston, South Carolina historic building that once was a slave market. A white man and woman enjoy the outdoors in New York State, despite a sign which reads “area closed “and a torrent of water, from what I presume is dangerous flooding, fills the background of the scene.

Childhood Diptych, Las Vegas / Washington, D.C. © Kris Graves


Childhood Diptych, Las Vegas / Washington, D.C. © Kris Graves

Sobering images of an unhoused person lying on the street across Pennsylvania Avenue, directly in front of the White House, and the sites where the murders of Michael Brown and Alton Sterling show the viewer ad hoc memorials of flowers and stuffed animals. Over time, unfortunately these memorials will be likely fade quietly back into the residential street and gas station as they appeared before tragedy struck. These sites bear a sharp contrast to Graves’ photo of the chiseled stone memorial in a grassy field for the arm of Stonewall Jackson. An arm gets a marble marker? Jeezle Petes!

Colonial Man, Boston © Kris Graves

A skateboarder practices on the plinth of the J.E.B. Stuart statue on Monument Ave. © Kris Graves

The contrasts continue with Graves’ sly juxtapositions of scenes of Black families and white families, the affluent and the impoverished. This is America. This is now. It makes me reflect on just how much social injustice plays a role in the everyday lives of people, and how long it has been going on. 

We see a Richmond, Virginia monument to Matthew Fontaine Maury (removed in July 2020) with spray-paint make up that leaves him clown-like on his permanent seat beneath a stone plinth topped with a globe and people amidst a churning sea. Graves’ triptych of Maury is immediately followed in the book by an image of a bridge support-column in Indianapolis, Indiana with a large, black, prominent swastika spray painted on it. This image was made no more than 20 miles from my home. The haunting reminders of past transgressions by people who oppressed and/or enslaved others, and the present reminders of how little has changed over time is chilling. The 21st century is shaping up to be much like the 19th century. Without sounding like a harbinger of doom and listing the slow and steady decline of certain aspects of US society, I ask – what has the United States become?  Surely we as a society can do better than this.

South of the Border is a roadside attraction located near Interstate 95 on the border of North Carolina and South Carolina, on the South Carolina side. © Kris Graves

Robert E. Lee Elementary School in Spotsylvania, VA was built and dedicated to the Confederate General by the same name in 1952. Its namesake was a point of heated debate in 1990 when a cartoon rendition of Lee was proposed as mascot. As of 2020, the school’s name continues to remain unchanged. © Kris Graves

Joseph Johnston Monument site in Bentonville, North Carolina. © Kris Graves

Kris Graves’ work transcends mere photography. It is a deep exploration of identity and place in contemporary America. Through his lens, he reveals the intricate web of human experiences. Graves’ recent projects, “Privileged Mediocrity” as well as “A Bleak Reality,” provide an incisive and thought-provoking examination of contemporary American culture and society. His unflinching gaze, coupled with a compassionate understanding of subject matter, brings to life the multifaceted nature of American life. Through his work, Graves encourages us to reflect on privilege, and the inspiration for change for people of color that exists within the United States. His work stands as a testament to the power of visual storytelling and its capacity to provoke thought and hopefully… inspire meaningful change.


Privileged Mediocrity by Kris Graves

11.5 x 9.4 Horizontal Hardcover with dust jacket
176 pages
Published: Monolith Editions and Hatje Cantz
Text by John Edwin Mason, Diana McClure, and Kris Graves
Design by Caleb Cain Marcus | Luminosity Lab


About Cary Benbow

Photographer, Writer, Publisher of Wobneb Magazine

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