The following is an artistic reflection on a series of photos of my Hamilton neighbourhood that I’ve been publishing on Twitter. It describes why I started taking street photos and why I am taking the street photos I am taking. I am attempting to describe this process with using only 10 photos. Mt twitter handle is @muskoxen (tweets & links are also in the margin of this post).
This was a difficult but a very valuable endeavour. The tight constraint of choosing 10 photos over a scope of over three years was challenging. I found it almost an all-consuming activity to scroll through the 40,000 digital images I’ve accumulated during that time. During this exercise of self-curation, I’ve realized it is only possible to understand my photo work by understanding why it suddenly became such a prolific activity in my life. It’s quite a pathetic story but has a well as you could expect ending. So far.
I was pretty much just a painter and drawer until just over three years ago. At that time I finally found some time and studio space to work and so I did — but, as it turned out, only for a month. Then a condition that would only be accurately identified years later as “Frozen Shoulder” struck my right arm and everything stopped. Except for the debilitating pain.
Of course … I paint and draw, write, get dressed and even piss with my right hand. You don’t think about how many times a day you need to use an arm in certain way. How many times a day you need to reach up above your shoulder? How would you get dressed or even stand in busy bus? Even a touch, a jolt, a sway or simply standing was agony.
Unable to get off of the couch for more than a few minutes at a time, I was very frustrated at my lot. Lying down was the only way to keep manage the pain. No work, no walking and not even my fair share of house chores. However, I could have a laptop resting on top of me, hunting-and-pecking awkwardly with my left hand.
Decided to keep myself busy as possible and proceed with this scheduled studio time. Produce as much work as possible. Keep my sanity through artistic insanity. It worked for me through worse.
I started to scour my hard drive for digital work perhaps I’ve forgotten about. I had done some previous photo based work but not substantially. I found lots of videos and some earlier studio and travel photos I had messed around with and, as with most abandoned work, had always intended to return to. “Well, I guess now was the time.” I thought and started to pull stills from the videos and started to finally create some collage work.
This was very rewarding and liberating. I felt I was appealing to the frustrated painter me by working with digital images as if they were scraps of paint. Through the ease of today’s software I became enthralled with creating many variations of grid work with every digital image I could muster. You can see some of that work here but for the purposes of this post / assignment I want to stick with the street photography that began at this time as well.
I needed more photos. I was invigorated and motivated to get more source material and, at the same time, exercise my brain with composition studies.
I loved walking and exploring, at first around interesting parks and industrial areas then through neighbourhoods and streets. I never really took many photos as I did this but now I was living somewhere inaccessible to most people. I was living in the depressed area of my city most noted for crime, poverty and abandoned storefronts. It’s a place you drive through to get to another part of the city. With the drugs and street prostitution some don’t admit to coming here. To most they simply hear about it, read about and see the smudge of it from the scenic lookout overlooking Hamilton from the escarpment. They don’t come here because they don’t have to. They are afraid of who lives here.
Fair enough but not for the people who do live here. One of the insights I’ve had since arriving in Barton Village is that the problems of the area are not the fault of the people who live here. Rather, they are here because this is the area that many marginalized people and communities can go to because this where they are expected to go to.
You can see this attitude reflected in the blowing garbage and oversized one way roads leading in, through and out of this place. You can see it in the thriving parking lot industry sheltering the hospital, shelter and school employees who don’t live here. You see it at night where the only food available is at the convenience stores. You see it the empty and neglected buildings that absentee owners sit on until it’s worth their while to sell. Some have been waiting for decades. There is no local drugstore or bank where I live but there is a jail and a drive through beer store. Charities, churches and police also thrive here.
So when I decided to start walking as much as I could (I was thinking this may help my mysterious should ailment) everyday I decided to take street photos of my area but not of the people. I was interested in the narrative of the spaces and buildings. Especially when compared with the blandness of the suburbs this area turned out to be a rich visual environment beyond my expectations. Even almost beautiful at times. If I slept soundly, went out first thing in the morning and used my left hand then I could take some photos.
It was very interesting to work with a new medium with my opposite hand. I am convinced it used different parts of my brain to approach and process this act. I started to adopt a “no cropping” rule for myself; I found it is almost always a stronger composition if you get it right when you take the photo. Especially with a mobile device camera it is all about your body position and reflexivity to your subject. I started to prefer squared and defined areas devoid of meaningful community communications – an area of visual cognitive atrophy as induced by the conditions of this place.
Sometimes I made more collages and sometimes I posted these to my blog but otherwise I collected these works on my hard drive and dreamed of painting and drawing very large works.
The other half of the story of my street photo series came about a year later when things got political. I started posting my street photos as a critical reaction to some decisions affecting my community.
At this time, I had gone through unsuccessful diagnosis, prescriptions and physiotherapy until my right shoulder just ended up getting better anyways on its own. It was still kind of delicate. The worst part was not knowing if I could or would aggravate this injury.
I then discovered that the big, beautiful 1932 heritage school building close to my house had suddenly been slated to be torn down. The school board had already been issued a demolition permit. This place was a no-brainer to be renovated and turned into all kinds of community things, and I discovered later there would of been a line-up of developers with more profitable ideas for preserving it.
Poor areas are typically vulnerable to these kind of bad decisions. Similar public school buildings in more affluent wards of the city are still standing and are important hubs for their communities. The one near my house was purposefully neglected for a decade. It’s part of a strategy I learned about since living here called “demolition by neglect”.
A small group of us fought to save it, to at least head of the demolition until developers could present proposals to re-purpose it. That was a bitter couple of months as I learned there really was no hope all along. It was a total sham, a farce. There is a community that cares here, but that group of us were too small and outside of influential circles. Why didn’t more people fight to save it? Perhaps for the same reasons this area also has very low voter turn out.
There is hopelessness and resignation embedded in these decisions. T found more hope for this area when talking the locals, but they tend to be non-participants in these decisions. The decision to demolish this otherwise sound and important example of historic architecture was not a community based one.
This is a very small town with blind spots the size of cities. The biggest argument I encountered for tearing the building down was so there would be plenty of parking. I actually watched a city politician and a school board trustee tell us, at the same meeting, about how difficult working with each other’s bureaucracy is. Thus they had agreed to demolish the building and maybe someday other politicians would build something there. There was and is no funding to replace it with much needed community facilities.
It seemed the plan was a patch of grass beside an empty parking lot. I was told they had not and would not consider using that parking lot for the green space instead. Later, as you’ll read, I found out why, and why they were in such a rush.
We lost. The building was demolished in early 2013.
I felt powerless. Local politics had made roadkill of my sense of civic pride. Though my blog posts, tweets and speeches at meetings had garnered some attention it did not matter. I become background noise as my voice was taken away. Activism has spawned an industry of marketing, propaganda and political lingo and I felt my voice was just currency in some sort of giant babble machine.
So I decided to stop talking. I wanted to reach beyond this wall of my ward and show the world what was happening here. Through posting my pictures of my neighbourhood on my Twitter account I wanted to let anyone anywhere decide what they were seeing.
I followed the demolition of Sanford closely and posted pictures of the process. I posted photos of the empty storefronts. I posted photos of garbage in the parks and sagging houses.
At this time my left arm then succumbed to the same pain that my right arm did. I switched back to using my weakened and slightly atrophied right arm and continued to take as much street photography as I could. I could not renovate my house, I could not work, I could not leave this place. I wanted to and still do, but until then I intended to work with everything I could handle.
I tried my best to be as good as painter with these photos as I could be. I really did enjoy the formal and artistic qualities of doing this. The peeling facade of derelict store sign, or the mesh of brutually assembled plywood boards over a window. Sometimes the way garbage has collected around an open sewer grate. These are beautiful to me now, and they are political. I am no longer held back by my physical ailment or my political powerlessness. I am no longer toiling in artistic obscurity, isolated from the western arts district of Hamilton. These threads of self-empowerment converged through this textual act of taking photos of my neighbourhood and posting them to social media. I have reached up and beyond my ward with these photos and they cannot be demolished or obscured from history. When this place is completely changed, many years from now, people will see this is the way it was.
That was not enough. I decided to represent my community by hash-tagging these photos #panam in preparation for the 2015 Pan-Am Games taking place in this ward.
By addition to the local hash tag #hamont and geo-location info, I have been preparing my tweeted photos for mass scrutiny.
My photos of my neighbourhood are as a real and valid as any other representation of my neighbourhood. I will not self-censor the defining visual characteristics of my landscape.
As these games approach more people will search online for information about this city and the Pan Am Stadium that is being built in my neighbourhood. Many will find my photos and many already have.
You see, this isn’t all sour grapes and hurt feelings. This has made a material and tangible positive difference already. I have heard from a “friend of a friend” that the purpose of the demolition of the school was not even to put in a patch of grass but actually to create a giant parking lot for the Pan-Am games! So that’s why there were in such a rush to tear it down and sell of the pieces…
Since my little group and I put up a such a public fuss, especially with social media efforts such as my neighbourhood street photos and documentation of Sanford School being demolished, they felt there was suddenly too much scrutiny focused on this issue.
It is also an election year. So there is a really nice expanse of grass with a state-of-the-art self-watering system and fences all the way round to try to keep the neighbourhood dogs out. We’ll see.
My left arm is much better now. I am relieved that this nightmare is almost over and the currently the single biggest obstacle to my taking street photos is the cold weather draining the batteries quickly on my iPhone. That and the awfully nice patch of grass makes for boring photos.
I think my relationship now to photography is one of activity, as performance on par with memory and communication. It was not an approach to create an object so much as a record of meaningful work or even a meaningful presence in a certain time and place.
Now I see compositions everywhere I go, but in the uncelebrated parts of our daily realities. I know I am sending missives from an outpost. I am an outcast here, a silent walker some may see stop, raise my iPhone briefly and then quickly walk on. Sometimes people will confront me — who am I? What am I doing here? This area has seen enough exploitation and colonization by speculators, developers and other representatives and I look like just another middle class, middle aged entitled white asshole traipsing through their community. When I explain I live here and I’m an artist and that this is art, there is surprise and then acceptance.
Often I will hear stories about where this area has been, what is going on and what they hope will happen. These are the same narratives as my photos.
I am almost well enough to move from here. We are hoping to have the house on the market by April. The real estate market is heating up here because prices are lower than in Toronto or even in other parts of Hamilton.
I know I’ll probably never come back here.
You can see more of my Barton Village images here. After the jump I’ve added 14 photos that did not “make the cut” for the above post.