Influences: On the Subway
I grew up in Buffalo, New York, where for four years I spent several minutes every day on the subway in the presence of Milton Rogovin’s black-and-white photographs of the Buffalo working class. The subway station where I stood every morning displayed his pictures of men and women at work on the subway tunnel and at home or in their neighborhoods. The images were larger than life and printed on sheet metal. They were taken by Milton Rogovin, who from 1958 to 2002 took the challenge of documenting Buffalo’s working-class neighborhoods and the people he called “The Forgotten Ones.” His attention to and celebration of everyday people grabbed my attention. His photos of working women tied in with my later study of women who entered the skilled trade unions in the 1970’s and 80’s.
Getting Off the Bus
When I entered medical school four years ago, I started making trips to Syracuse’s South Side and Near-West side to learn about living conditions in what were considered the city’s most distressed neighborhoods. I had worked as a planner for several years and had grown comfortable exploring urban communities during that time. The medical school offers a bus tour every year to incoming students in these same neighborhoods. The tour guides are professors, faculty of public health, and directors of the area community centers. We rarely got off the bus but instead rode and listened to the tour guide’s descriptions of how these places come to be. We experienced the community much as a tourist might, at arm’s length, with only brief glimpses, freeze frames, snap shots in time. We got off the bus only once and listened to the tour guide explain why the windows on the community center were covered in plywood: a stray bullet from a fight across the street had shattered the window. He explained that it happened between two and three in the morning when no one was using the building. He was thankful that there were no schoolchildren around when it happened. One of the medical students on the bus asked what we were doing there without bulletproof vests. “Nothing good happens after two am,” the tour guide repeated a warning he gave his daughter at regular intervals on how to stay out of trouble in neighborhoods like this. It could be a dangerous place if you were cavalier about entering into it. Even so, people live there. I wanted to know them and what it was like for them to live there. We were getting the outside-in perspective. Was it possible to get insight from the people living there?
I Believe In Talking with Strangers
I wanted to get off the bus and take in the neighborhood on its own terms, as a vulnerable “participant-observer.” I returned to that neighborhood months later and started taking pictures with an inexpensive point and shoot, eventually investing in professional camera. When I started carrying the fancy, expensive camera and the tripod, it was harder to be discrete, much as it is hard to blend with patients and their families when wearing a white coat in the hospital. More then improving my photography, the new camera increased my visibility and inquiries from neighborhood residents about what I was doing, even affording me the opportunity to begin taking pictures of them. People asked me if I was a photographer. People asked me if I was a tax collector. People asked me to take their pictures.
In Syracuse, residents were curious. Their curiosity about my project and my curiosity about the neighborhood started many conversations. Some asked why I wanted to take a picture of their house and scoffed when I gave honest answers like, “I like the way the foil on the house flutters in the wind and reflects the sun.” Some said they were artists too and understood my impulse to capture the light of the day. I wanted to record the strange urban-rural feel of the devolving neighborhood, so hard struck by fifty years of disinvestment and neglect.
I learned about this neighborhood from the people who lived there and from my own responses to them. These photos are about my growing relationship to Syracuse and the people I have met by the act of exploring it. Although I have invited many people to walk in the neighborhoods with me: my mother, my cousin, other photographers, my husband, and even my children, I have mostly gone alone. This is how conversations happen. Perhaps it is my vulnerability that makes them approach and ask. By getting off the bus and ignoring advice not to walk alone, I have had the pleasure of meeting many residents of the city who are not like me. From them, I have learned about the living conditions, the character, the vulnerability of being out of place.
Confidentiality, Vulnerability and Connection
At first, I only took pictures of the houses, the empty old schools, the streets, the vacant lots, the inside of abandoned houses. I’d only talk to people. The camera gave me an alibi to walk around and look, even stare at buildings, absorbing the context. The longer I stood still in one spot there, the greater the chance I’d start up a conversation with someone. Eventually, after a handful of people asked me to take their picture, and a little coaching on how to ask from other photographers, I took more chances. Some said no, turned their backs, walked passed me faster, but many said, “O.K., shoot.”
When it came time to put this collection together and decide whether to include photos of the people who either asked to be photographed or granted permission when I asked, I had to consider whether I was taking advantage of vulnerable subjects. What would they think of the pictures I took if they could see them? Would they like them? Would they want them displayed in a public place?
It was easy where kids were concerned: whether they asked to be photographed or not, I needed parents’ permission, and when I could not find the parents, I excluded the pictures where children’s faces were visible. In most cases I was able to return to the neighborhoods, speak with parents, and get permission. I got permission from adults too, from the man with the guitar who plays on an abandoned sofa at the edge of the street and the man with the yellow roses, the elderly black gentleman in a Sunday suit. I gave them prints of my portraits of them. The man with the guitar remembered my name and talked to me as if we’d been neighbors a long time, just catching up on each others’ lives. The man with the roses was overtaken with laughter and delight at how good he looked. He kept saying, “I never thought.... I never thought....” Together we stood in the entry way. It had clearly been a struggle for him to get up and unlock the door. He stood holding onto a walker with both hands; the hospital bed where he must have slept occupied what must have once served as the dining room. I held the picture out for him to see. He laughed so hard, I thought he might collapse. The joy was contagious and soon I found I too could not stop grinning.
Learning from Strangers—Who After Time Are No Longer StrangersBefore I started medical school, or trained as an urban planner, I learned to talk to strangers, to learn the lay of the land, from my grandfather who peddled apples all over New York State. He talked to farmers, to men and women who ate and worked at diners, to people from all walks of life. He collected stories. My brother and I rode with him. It was before the days of child seats and seat belts. We soaked up the waxy sweet scent of the apples and ate them too. I learned from him to be curious, that we were all connected by our travels, our willingness to explore beyond the bounds of our homes, and that the roads between places were many, that the root of understanding and connection was conversation.