Chronicling lives and how they’re remembered: Hadley photographer depicts roadside memorials

Last modified: Wednesday, October 07, 2015

You might give them a glance as you’re driving by — that small cross or other marker, maybe with some flowers at its base, a name on a placard.

But for one Valley photographer, roadside memorials and fatality markers are a source of inspiration and mystery, a reflection both on personal loss and the idea of impermanence.

After building a photo collection of memorials in Massachusetts, Florida and Michigan, Sara Acton has taken off on a slow-paced drive to Nebraska to photograph memorials between here and the Midwest, all in preparation for a stay in an art colony where she’ll further develop her project.

Acton, of Hadley, left earlier this month for a four-week art residency in the tiny town of Marquette, Nebraska, about 130 miles west of Omaha. As part of her preparation for that, she opened her first-ever Kickstarter campaign in June to raise funds (a little over $2,900) and also to spread the word about the project, which she hopes to turn into an exhibit.

In addition, Acton, 40, said in an interview at her home that she hopes she’ll ultimately hear from people who put up a roadside memorial after losing a loved one to a traffic accident and are willing to share their stories.

“I’m interested in that human element — how these memorials are being maintained, who’s maintaining them,” she said. “I’d like to get specific information about the people who actually died and their friends and relatives, to find out why this spot is maybe hallowed ground for them.”

This is not idle curiosity on Acton’s part. Her father, Steve Lyons, was killed in a highway accident in 2003 in New Jersey when his car was rear-ended by a bus. And though Acton says she didn’t specifically start photographing memorials because of her father’s death, “It could have developed subconsciously. I certainly couldn’t deny that ... I think I was probably looking for a way to deal with what had happened.”

As she writes about her project on her website, “The carefully curated and constructed shrines are evidence of the curious rituals to which people subscribe after having experienced an abrupt loss. Having an unfortunate kinship with the architects of these memorials, [my] work is a personal meditation on impermanence, immortality, and faith.”

Today a teacher in visual art and design at Four Rivers Charter School in Greenfield, Acton has a daughter, Loie, 8, and a son, Wesley, who’s 5. Her husband, Mark, teaches physics at Deerfield Academy.

As a photographer, she says, she’s interested generally in how we leave our mark as humans. In another project built along those lines, she’s been photographing her daughter’s shoes over the years.

“They’d been piling up in boxes because I couldn’t bear to part with them,” she said with a laugh. “Then I thought, ‘Why not photograph them? Living her life has literally left her mark on her shoes.’ ”

And with roadside memorials, Acton added, people have also left a mark for their loved ones: “That’s something I’m trying to capture.”

Hiding in plain sight

Acton, a New Jersey native, studied photography as an undergraduate at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, then earned a master’s degree in visual art from the Rhode Island School of Design. She was living and working in Washington, D.C., in 2003 when her father, who was 58, died. A month later, she and her husband moved to southern Michigan so Mark could complete his doctorate in physics.

Driving around on weekends to explore the new surroundings, Acton started noticing memorials to accident victims on many smaller roads.

“They seemed to be all over,” she said. “It was the first time I really paid attention to them. I think a lot of people don’t notice them until they put one up themselves or someone puts one up near their home.”

Within a year or so, she began photographing various sites (though she shot with film at the time and did not save many of these images). Over the years, including in Massachusetts after moving here with her family, she took additional pictures.

But it wasn’t until about two years ago that she began thinking of creating a distinctive photo project. Since then, she’s traveled byways through western and central Massachusetts — routes 2 and 2A, 202, 9 and 20 — and, she says, she’s developed a sort of internal radar for spotting the shrines: “When you’re tuned into wanting to see them, you start to see them.”

She looks for different angles and varying light to frame the shots, often highlighting small details. A picture from a shrine along Route 9 in Ware, for instance, focuses on a toy motorcycle, stuffed animal and other tokens at the base of what appears to be a wooden marker. On a small medallion partially hidden by grass, the words “and in our prayers” can be seen.

Acton has also returned to sites to see how they’ve changed since she first photographed them. In June 2013, she took a picture of a memorial along Route 2 in Charlemont; the image showcases a small wooden cross and a larger, weathered one with a garland of flowers. In a shot from this past May, a new cross, with fresh white paint, has replaced the larger old one, and new mementoes are now at the site.

She’s also researched the history of some crash victims when she can find information about them. At one memorial near Worcester, she found a laminated newspaper article about the victim. Closer to home, she photographed a memorial on Route 116 in Amherst for a young man who was killed by a drunken driver a few years ago, an incident that was covered in local media.

“Because these are so personal, I’ve had a hard time reaching out to people,” she said. “I’m hoping the Kickstarter campaign might help generate some of those responses if people want to talk about it.”

Acton has also examined how different states regulate (or don’t) the installation of roadside shrines. In Florida, for example, the state’s Department of Transportation puts up utilitarian memorials — a sign that says “Drive Safely” with the crash victim’s name below — for people that request one.

“They don’t want other people becoming victims by putting up their own site, especially on a busy road,” Acton said. “I definitely don’t put myself in harm’s way” when photographing. She adds that she never disturbs or alters any memorial when taking pictures.

A poignant theme

Though she’s never been away from her family for an extended time, Acton said she was looking forward to her residency, in a place known as “Art Farm” — a working farm that has several buildings that house multiple artists. They’re responsible for their own meals but can take produce from a large garden; they also help out with weekly chores.

By bicycle and car, Acton plans to explore the region for additional memorials while also using her studio space to make large prints of her photos — she has more than 50 so far — and begin thinking of how she might arrange them.

“I’d like to see if I start to see some commonalities, a theme, something that shapes the work,” she said. “At this point it’s fairly documentary, but I’m hoping to see what comes out of it.”

Though there’s no roadside memorial to her father where he died, on the New Jersey Turnpike, one day Acton and her husband visited the spot and made a surprising discovery on the busy thoroughfare.

“I was pleasantly surprised that it’s not just concrete,” she said. “There was a bit of green, some flowers. It was actually a pleasant experience being there, not a sad one.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at

To learn more about Sara Acton’s photo project, visit


Daily Hampshire Gazette Office

115 Conz Street
Northampton, MA 01061


© 2019 Daily Hampshire Gazette
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy