Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Art of Shutting Your Pie Hole

When I saw Brian Doyle speak at the NonfictioNOW! Conference a few weeks ago, his big message was to ask questions and then shut your pie hole. Luckily, I was given the opportunity to practice this when I was offered a job working on a community photo project with Corine Vermeulen, a Dutch photographer based in Detroit. Her walk-in portrait studio concept started in Detroit and she was commissioned by USF's Contemporary Art Museum to set one up here in Tampa.

She was asked to focus on a neighborhood adjacent to the university known colloquially as “Suitcase City” and officially as the USF Area.

For weeks, she walked and biked the streets to scope out potential sites for the walk-in studio. Once she decided on a spot, that's where I came in. For four days, we set up the studio next to a convenience store, in an empty lot, in a community center, and at a church.

The photographer at work
Her smiling subjects
While she shot the portraits, I interviewed the locals, asking them questions about life in the neighborhood – their favorite parts about living in “Suitcase City,” any changes they have seen over the years, and what name they would call it if they could call it anything else. We got all kinds of answers from “Hell” to “Malfunction Junction,” from “Little Mexico” to “Progress City.”

In order to get to the good stuff, I had to listen – really listen – to what they were telling me so that I could steer the conversation into interesting territory. I learned when to back off a topic, and when to press further. Afterwards, I had hours of interviews to transcribe and then find the gold nuggets amidst everything.

Projects like this one remind me that words carry great power. Even though the people in this community live there day in and day out, they most likely are not asked very often to reflect on their experiences. Also, this project promotes visibility of an population that lives very near to this university campus, and yet, is virtually invisible to us. 

Hopefully, Corine’s photographs and the quotes that I have captured from interviews paint a fuller picture of a community that often gets overlooked or oversimplified as “ghetto” or dangerous. Language is my craft and I am grateful to use it in a way that benefits a community and brings light to a subject that otherwise hovers in darkness. 

I am extremely grateful to the Contemporary Art Museum and to Corine Vermeulen for inviting me to take part in this project. It's been an amazing opportunity to learn more about my neighbors and this city that continues to reveal itself to me in all sorts of interesting ways. 

Here are a few photographs that I took at the artist talk last week where Corine discussed previous projects and explained some of the conclusions and questions that she was left with after working in Suitcase City over the last few months.

The artist and her exhibit, Elsewhere

Corine and museum curator, Megan Voeller
Corine Vermeulen
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