The photographer has also created portraits of the descendants of Frederick Douglass and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

In a recent photograph from a series called The Descendants, photographer Drew Gardner recreated Thomas Jefferson's presidential photo with Jefferson's sixth great-grandson, Shannon Lanier. 

Drew Gardner has worked on The Descendants project for 15 years.

"Born out of a passion for history," Gardner's website reads, the image series captures the link between past and present by photographing the direct descendants of famous historical figures. Gardner painstakingly replicates the attire, props, background, and lighting from historical paintings for his modern photo. The photographed descendants often show "startling resemblances to their forebears."


Elizabeth Cady Stanton, image courtesy Drew Gardner.

Gardner drew special attention for his latest photos of the descendants of Thomas Jefferson, Frederick Douglass, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. These three were in collaboration with the Smithsonian Museum. The Jefferson replication, in particular, got people talking.


Frederick Douglass, image courtesy Drew Gardner.

Thomas Jefferson's Lineage

Sally Hemings was the mother of several children with Thomas Jefferson. She was also mixed-race and a slave owned by Jefferson. Female slaves had no legal right to refuse unwanted sexual advances, and their children inherited slavehood. Hemings, at 16 years of age and living free in Paris, had negotiated with Jefferson to return to enslavement at his home at Monticello in exchange for “extraordinary privileges" for herself and freedom for her unborn children. She raised four children over 32 years and prepared them for emancipation. Sally Hemings was never freed, nor did she negotiate for her freedom.

Shannon Lanier, the sixth great-grandson of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, works as a television reporter in Houston. Lanier wrote a book about his experience growing up as a Black man related to Jefferson. When Drew Gardner approached him with The Descendents project, Lanier was apprehensive. Would some people see this as glorifying or condoning Jefferson's actions?

Gardner recalls telling Lanier: "If we do this, a whole lot more people will know about Sally Hemings than if we didn't. More people will come aware of it. And one of the cool things is that this has happened. People have said, ‘Wow, I didn't know that Jefferson had a Black family.'”

Gardner hopes this picture continues to prompt discussion:

“Hopefully it just gets a few more people interested in it and looking at the whole slavery situation—help get a few people on board. Just look at it and if they don't agree with it, even if they stay racist just to accept it. Hopefully, things will start to change. And certainly, the more pieces of conversation that can be started by a project like this or protesting or whatever anyone can do to contribute, the better.”

Check out the rest of The Descendants line here.

What are your thoughts about the Thomas Jefferson / Shannon Lanier photo? Leave a comment below!