The Memento Mori series was one of three photographic projects that grew out of Gonzales-Day's research into the history of lynching for his first monograph, Lynching in the West, 1850-1935 (Duke University Press, 2006). The series began during his research of racial profiling in California and looking for new ways to represent a history of radicalized violence that had largely been forgotten. Through his research he was able to reveal, for the first time, that race was a factor in the history of lynching in California which, even up to that time, had been regularly mischaracterized by historians as part of a race-neutral fantasy of white on white violence, which existed as well.
The Memento Mori portraits were an essential part of a larger strategy to use his artistic practice to raise awareness and create a visual language to address the history of radicalized violence in California. Because BIPOC and Latinx bodies figured so prominently in this history, Gonzales-Day photographed a range of models from different groups and was also struck by the fact that so many of the lynching victims were described as being young men. Gonzales-Day's portraits of contemporay young Latino men are stand-ins for California lynching victims who were often between the ages of 16 and 22. The men sport contemporary hairstyles, clothing and tattoos. Isolated against dark backgrounds and gaze serenely or defiantly back at the viewer. Just as the artist wanted to experience the lynching sites in his Erased Lynchings and In Search for California Hang Trees series, he wondered what the victims might have looked like. "I was also interested in sharing this history with young Latino men," he says, "telling them about it, seeing what their responses were."