June 13, 2008

RIP Gilbert Manor Project

I have not shot a lot of longterm documentary projects. I wouldn't be so bold to say that I've very seriously dedicated myself to more than a few. But I'm not naive, I know that access and trust and follow-through can be difficult.
With that being said, a photo story I chose to work on starting last November presented me with nothing but obstacles and frustrations. By last week, after working on it off and on for 6 months, I've decided it was cursed from the start.
First, the community I wanted to document, a housing project made up entirely of impoverished African Americans, was skeptical and withdrawn from me, a white stranger with a camera on my neck. I was emotionally invested in the story before it began because this can be a racially tense city. On blogs and message boards and even an official's email, the sale of the Gilbert Manor Housing Project became a black versus white/ poor versus rich issue to some people, whether that was the root of the issue or not. (Case in point, the comments below my photos online) I am sensitive to stereotypes and bigotry and through working on this I learned that stereotypes can be both very true and very false. This was a story I chose to work on not because I thought I would get really great access or even really great photos, I just wanted readers to pause and really see, even for just a moment over their coffee in the morning, a community that existed for decades that they drove past every day and probably ignored every day. Two months into me wandering the community trying to meet more people and slowly gaining hints of trust by knowing more and more names, it was decided that the two photographer/two writer poverty project would be completely scrapped for reasons too absurd to explain. The reporter on my team said he would still write something so my photos would be used. I kept visiting the community and realized the few people who had let me into their homes and lives were very unreliable when it came to meeting with them or returning my calls or even answering the door. I then found out that a mother I decided to focus on lied to me about a very important detail that could compromise her family if it was published. I worked around it and the reporter happened upon a new family to supplement my access. Then, the reporter got swamped with daily work and couldn't find time to write the article, then the story was pushed back a month, then another. When I brought this up to my boss last week, editors decided the photos would run minus the article before it lost its timeliness and relevance to the community, and they would run my photos on the front page. YAY! on Sunday. YAY! then I was told they would be running all nine photos on the front page. Oy. Good exposure for the readers to notice, but not a lot of space to tell a story with my photos and not a lot of opportunity for good design/layout. (Some photos just aren't readable at 2 inches.)
Finally, the web element I spent hours on (my redemption!) was never put online although it was referred on the front page all due to egos or miscommunications or something I don't even understand.
Like I said, cursed.

All those frustrations aside, I met people I probably wouldn't have otherwise thanks to my job and the time I was given to work, I learned how to swerve around roadblocks and to keep working despite them, I learned how to rise above my own discomforts and fears and be more friendly and open and approachable. I'm still trying so hard to not become too emotionally wrapped up in what happens with my photos and my stories and to enjoy and learn from the process. I am trying to not become cynical about my possibly idealistic view that you can work on a story you find important to serve the readers and show them things or people or lifestyles they have never seen and even went out of their way to see for decades. I don't want to give up the journalistic ideal that you can help people see their community differently.
Maybe even at 2 inches wide.
Maybe not.

(you may have to pause this to be able to read each slide.)

1 comment:

Jill Peterson said...

thank you for this. photojournalism? in augusta? nice.