I've been following the last remaining member of a tiny street ministry that works with gangs and advocates for the poor in Chicago.
Jim Fogarty, known affectionately as "Brother Jim," wears a hand-sewn habit made out of scraps of denim, now tattered after over 30 years of use. That's how long he's been traversing the streets by foot, carrying only rosary beads to pass out.
His path across the city is broad, and the Back of the Yards neighborhood on Chicago's South Side is my primary vantage point. The area, which takes its name from its proximity to the old Union Stock Yards (former hub of the U.S. meatpacking industry), was where 13 people were shot while playing basketball in a park in September 2013.
By now, many residents know who he is, and often come running when they see him coming down the street, or call out from their windows, asking him to pray for them. Years ago, he stood between warring gangs shooting at each other, bullets whizzing by, risking his life.
In an effort to neither whitewash nor sensationalize, I've taken care to attend to all those moments that, while difficult or simply mundane and easy to ignore, are also sublimely beautiful.
But less important that what the project is ostensibly "about" is what I want to happen to the viewer. And that's this: I want you to stop trying to understand. There's a fullness to humanity that escapes comprehension, and the lyricism of some of these images punctuates because they are meant to - they are pauses meant to attune you, and to stop your thinking so you may feel, so you may be more open. I want you to accept the mystery and the complexity of life in this community. There are no easy narratives, here, because easy narratives are false and do a disservice to the honest discontinutiy that lies in each of us.
In this work, I undercut simplistic notions of documentary "objectivity" by implicating both myself and the audience in the images. The idea is transformation, not voyeurism, and since the success of visual activism depends, at least in part, on the receptivity of the viewer, the aesthetic of the images is designed to cultivate that receptivity. The lyricism and poetry of the photographs serve as an invitation for the audience to enter the space opened by the images.
During the course of this project, I was a photographer-member of SEE POTENTIAL, a public art and community engagement project produced in partnership with the Magnum Foundation. It installed large-scale documentary photographs to visualize community-driven development plans for Chicago's South Side and to tally the community support for each idea. The primary goal was to enable residents, community leaders, and elected officials to visualize the potential for sustainable, locally owned community development and to mobilize community support behind great ideas.
The campaign I collaborated on involved a small group of documentary photographers who had their own photography projects, all based in/about Chicago's South Side - where I lived for 15 years. We established an Instagram account where we posted photos and stories, and we held salons and workshops in our respective neighborhoods in order to discuss the SEE POTENTIAL mission, do slideshow presentations from our projects and discuss what stories we were working on, and to get feedback from the community.
The workshop I co-facilitated took place at a Saturday program for youth in the neighborhood at the Port Ministries, which offers youth programming, a free clinic and a bread truck that drives through the area passing out sandwiches and snacks. We printed out images from my documentary project and asked the kids (grades K-12) to respond to them by writing (or drawing) on them. We were impressed and touched by what they saw in my photos, the things they noticed and the commentary they offered.
To make the work directly accessible to the folks in the neighborhood, I had panels printed with a couple selected images (the new pieces, co-created by myself and the young people of Back of the Yards) and attached them to the sides of the bread truck, which then served as a mobile art exhibit.
Following my photos, in this gallery you will also see snapshots from the workshop, scans of the kids’ writings and drawings, and the bread truck in action.