Detective Mike Santiago, by Stacey Sanner
  • Detective Mike Santiago, by Stacey Sanner
In the aftermath of the 2009 shootings of several police officers locally, Stacey Sanner created a self-described love letter to the Seattle Police Department, which she calls Keeping A Blue Light On. Now featured upstairs at Photographic Center Northwest, Keeping A Blue Light On consists of portrait photographs of the officers in uniform, along with short stories told by each officer about their lives in the line of duty. The project is also a book.

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The pictures are unremarkable for the most part, maybe by design. They focus on the faces of the officers, and occasionally the background tells a story, too—graffiti, railroad tracks, gun racks. The officers look almost universally untroubled in their expressions. The stories they tell, typed out on wall labels hung next to each picture, are not untroubled at all. Some are tales of crime scenes discovered, while others are statements of purpose ("There have to be people in society that stand in the gap and say no. That's what police officers do. Because we do that, we're going to be targets") or descriptions of specialized knowledge (say, the various ways gang members can be initiated).

I spoke to Sanner yesterday by phone about the project: why she decided to do it, how she went about it. She told me she works in PR, but writes fiction and nonfiction and takes photographs as a hobby. She chose police as the subject for her first book because of the "inherent conflict": "As I say in my book, we want them when we want them, we don’t want them when we don’t. We want them to catch the bad guy, we don’t want them to catch us."

But while the public may have a conflicted relationship with the police, there is no conflict in Sanner's project.

Sanner spent about an hour each with about 40 officers, going through the department's public relations office. "I told them my goal was to try to shed light on the stories that typically don’t make the news, and to help people see police officers as people, see the person behind the badge, behind the uniform," she said.

Her project didn't take long—just a few months—and so when she finished, public sympathy was still with the police. But several incidents soon turned the tide another way, including the white male officer who punched the black woman in the face in South Seattle this spring and the killing of John T. Williams this summer.

Sanner's perspective remained unchanged, and her project does not reflect any of the ambivalence people have been expressing in light of these incidents. Neither does she feel any of that ambivalence herself, she explained. "I guess I just see them out there, I see them out there as risking their lives to protect me, and I don’t know how I can’t be grateful for that. There are many perspectives—this one happens to be mine."

Too bad. This is a subject that could use some real exploration, by both artists and journalists.Keeping A Blue Light On is a sweet love letter, but a love letter needs no audience.

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