For his project Down These Mean Streets, Will Steacy walked, camera in hand, from the airport to the central business district in many of America’s biggest cities to document urban neglect.
Using a large format view camera, Steacy photographed only at night. In his artist for the project, Steacy writes, “America has turned its back on cities as years of neglect have left crumbling neighborhoods with no local economy, a public education system that barely meets requirements, a low income housing nightmare, few options for proper nutrition and health care as violence an drugs reign, making survival a number one priority.”
Read my interview with the photographer, and check out the slideshow below. And for more from Will Steacy, check out last week’s post about his project, The Human Stain.
Brett Myers: You really walked more than 20 miles from the Detroit Metro Airport to downtown Detroit? You did the same thing in Philly, SF, NY, LA, Atlantic City, and Chicago. Why, and what was that like?
Will Steacy: Due to the size of airports, they are located in the far corners of the cities they provide a gateway to, and the guts and history of the American city lie between the airport and city center. Most of these neighborhoods are experienced by outsiders and visitors, such as myself, through a passing car window, and consequently much of the city is missed. Most of us have never even see the whole of our own cities. There is a topography and landscape of the modern day American inner city that has gone missing. Driving removes you from your environment; walking, in contrast, provides a time to slow down and to engage simultaneously with yourself and your surroundings, to think and to feel.
The route that I take is very important. I’m choosing to focus on the areas in between. “The rough part of town,” as opposed to the central business district and airports themselves. By describing the geographic areas that I have been wandering and photographing, I hope people are able to understand on a personal level, and understand the work through themselves, and this is exactly what I want–people to put themselves on that corner at 3am. Most immediately respond, isn’t that dangerous, are you crazy, etc, because they are vaguely familiar with these parts of town and are unable to envision themselves in these circumstances as, ultimately, people see the world through themselves. With this series of images, I want my viewers to be intimately familiar with the American inner city and challenge people to look inward.
BAM: You write that you set out to examine fear and abandonment associated with inner cities, “My focus is the neighborhoods you wouldn’t want to be in at night; the part of town you drive through – not to.” Is there reason to be afraid? Were you ever hassled or threatened?
WS: In my eyes, a modern portrait of the American inner city has gone missing. Our inner cities have been neglected and overlooked for far too long. As a result the problems have become too large to repair, as violence, drugs, no local economy, a failing public education system, awful health conditions, abandoned buildings, and crumbling neighborhoods require resources our cities are unable to provide.
My walks were not fun or thrilling in any way and at all times there was an element of the unexpected. This tension is crucial to the work, as my own discomfort and fear are a part of the process and serve as a “guide.” The purpose of this project is to reveal a portrait of what we have become blind and numb to as our country has become preoccupied with homeland security and fighting foreign wars, and in the end have lost sight of what it is we are fighting for….ourselves.
To get back to your question, yes, I had many close calls making this work. On my walks I have walked by dudes with guns in their hands, dead bodies, whole blocks with like 15 people smoking crack, robberies in progress, every type of prostitute I could have imagined. I have been followed down alleyways, surrounded by crews of guys up in my face yelling threats, etc, and I have had some good escapes too. I carried a wrench in my back pocket if a do-or-die situation arose, but it never did. And none of all that really matters in the sense of me describing some dangerous or thrilling story, because at the end of day (night) the places where I am walking, for many, this is their neighborhood, their street and their everyday reality, and that is really what this work is about.
BAM: Why use a large format camera – is it more about image quality or process? Does being that conspicuous made it easier and safer for you to work?
WS: Many have questioned why I chose to use a large format camera to make Mean Streets. I actually felt the most safe with that big beast on my shoulder. Walking around with this camera does several things. First off, my intentions are clear, I have committed to lug around what looks to most (I imagine) as some kind of antique flea market camera. I make myself clear, there will be no surprises, there will be no quick getaways, I am not there to spy on anyone, and, therefore, I serve no threat and am just some weird dude with a weird camera who looks like he made a wrong turn 20 blocks back and is now lost.
A couple years ago I was in Texas one early morning shooting and this guy gets out of a car that already circled the block once, and he comes over to me and starts asking me about my camera, this and that. I knew this guys was shady and I didn’t trust him so I told him my camera was this old piece of shit I got it off ebay for $25 and that he should look for one of those digital pieces of shit cause everyone wants one of those. After about five minutes, he became fascinated by my camera, and confessed that he walked over here to rob me, but now he was really feeling what I was doing and asked if I would take his picture. I did.
There is nothing better than lugging my heavy camera on my shoulder for 12 [hours] a day, sweating under that dark cloth as I peer through the ground glass in the summer, freezing my ass off in the winter as my fingers go numb, focusing those metal knobs, my back aching at the end of the day with a bag full of exposed film holders. However, I have recently come to the painful conclusion that my days shooting large format film are probably numbered. The act of looking through the ground glass under that dark cloth is such a sensual thing, as the rest of the world disappears, it’s just me and my subject…there ain’t nothing like it.
Brett Myers: How did the project come about?
Will Steacy: For my senior thesis at NYU I was going to walk the railroad tracks from New York to Philadelphia and back, photographing my journeys. I didn’t end up doing it, but it is a project I never forgot and ultimately what laid the ground work for this project. So I had the idea in the back of my head for some time that I wanted to walk at night from the airport to central business district of American cities, but I never had the funding to do this work until I won a grant in which I proposed this project. And for a while I was too afraid to do this project, thinking that I would probably get beat up, robbed, maybe even stabbed or something like that.
But after working in Baltimore it became clear to me that I had to do this night walk project and this is where all of the social aspects I wanted to address were born. In 2007, I spent a couple of days in Baltimore shooting and eventually I had to stop. I couldnt bare anymore to see what I was seeing. The sadness, desperation, the violence, drugs, survival, the limited resources, the rotting, the hopelessness was overwhelming. It was something incredibly hard to experience and even harder to swallow that our country allows its own people to live this way, that we have chosen to do nothing except look the other way. And so I spent the rest of my time there just driving around and thinking and it was in Baltimore that I decided I needed to do this project.
If you asked me a couple years ago what one of my greatest fears was, I would have told you walking through the “ghetto” at night by myself. The photograph making process has always been something in which I try to push my limits to the absolute extreme. I believe that if you dont push the limits and take a risk at what your doing, then ultimately nothing [will] become of it. And that is basically how I concocted this project; I asked myself what are you most afraid to photograph, where is last place you would want to find yourself and that is where I decided I needed to go.
BAM: How much do you worry about aesthetics and making the photos beautiful?
WS: I don’t. I mean, I don’t usually shoot between 10am and 3pm, which is a personal preference about light, but more importantly because I feel there is not much happening then, people are stuck in their jobs, daily routines, etc and the streets are sucked dry of life during those hours….but again that’s all personal….another photographer might tell you the exact opposite. Apples and oranges, you like big tits, I like a nice ass, it’s all in the eyes of the viewer.