They became known as the Emanuel 9. Their names – Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Graham Hurd, Ethel Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Tywanza Sanders, Myra Thompson, Sharonda Singleton, Susie Jackson and Daniel Simmons – united a nation and forced South Caroline to reconsider its relationship with the Confederate flag.
Five months after the June 17 shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., TIME is publishing an unprecedented account of the events that led to and followed Dylann Roof’s murderous rampage. And when it came to photograph the survivors and victims’ families, the magazine turned to photographer and artist Deana Lawson.
“It’s such a powerful moment in America’s recent history,” Lawson tells TIME. Throughout her career, the artist has looked at black culture and identity in the U.S. and around the world. Lawson’s images are often extremely intimate, with the photographer utilizing her subjects’ bodies to reveal and examine their identities. “I knew that the content in my own personal work actually related to the wider narrative of the Charleston story,” she says. “It just seemed like it’d align naturally with my own method and also my concerns.”
When Lawson met her subjects, she could feel “the emotional energy” of this tragic day in American history. Each photo shoot presented its own emotional challenges, as Lawson looked to pay respect to her subjects while conveying the indescribable, yet inescapable sense of loss engulfing them – one they have been forced to share with an entire nation. “Felicia Sanders, for example, has been through so much, not only did she lose her son (Tywanza Sanders) but [there was] so much media attention after that,” Lawson says. “I had to find a way for it not to feel invasive, to have them feel like that this was a part of the narrative that needed to be told.”
Deana Lawson is an artist based in New York City.
Kira Pollack, who edited this photo essay, is TIME's Director of Photography and Visual Enterprise.