I previously featured two of Will Steacy‘s photo projects – one about urban decay and the other about family photos destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. For his project titled A Product Of Our Environment, Steacy examines food deserts in poor neighborhoods throughout New York City, places where cheap fried whatnot can be found on virtually every corner, but produce is often overpriced and hard to find. A Q&A with Steacy follows and check out the slideshow below…
Brett Myers: I don’t mean for this to be insulting, but these photos seem more like evidence than art or even photojournalism. Is that intentional?
Will Steacy: That is exactly my intention. When making these images I applied what one might call a “scientific approach” to this work, as if I was collecting data within a specific landscape. While shooting Down These Mean Streets, it became abundantly clear to me the lack of health and nutrition options in our country’s poorest neighborhoods, and so for this project I wanted to find a way to examine food options in context to socioeconomic status and overall health and well being. So by creating a visual record of the food options within a certain geographic area whose boundaries are determined by the highest reported rates of poverty, obesity, diabetes and people living without health insurance (all of which overlap—the poorest areas in NYC are also the sickest) I want these images to function not only as evidence, but, it is also my intent, through a depiction of these options and resources, to reveal the everyday challenges and realities that define life in the inner city. When you have $10 in your pocket and your next paycheck is 2 days away, you don’t have many options, you are eating McDonalds.
To give you an example of some of these statistics, one area where I worked in the Bronx, 41% of residents are living below the poverty line, 1 in 3 adults report to be in poor health, more than quarter are obese, 1 in 10 have diabetes, and 1 in 3 are without health insurance.
BAM: Do you also take photos that are precious?
WS: No. Precious is not in my vocabulary.
BAM: In your bio you write that you used to work as a union laborer. How does that inform your work?
WS: I spent my summers working construction as a Local 332 union laborer while I was in art school. I always say that I learned more on the job site than I did in 16 years of school. As an 18 year old kid and into my early 20s the experiences I had working construction have had a profound impact on me and how I approach the world, from ingraining early on the simple things like discipline and toughness, to the stories guys told me about their lives, jail, murders, crimes, poverty, a perspective on life and into a world that I had little experience with, and the little I did know was from the other end, as a victim. As the youngest guy on the job by at least ten years, I looked up to those guys as father figures. On most jobs as the only white laborer in a city (Philly) known for its racial issues, I had to earn the respect I was eventually given by working my ass off and showing that I could hang, and then I was treated like family, a union brother. I could tell you a million stories, but the one that means the most to me, was on the last day of my first job, tearing down the Philly civic center, before I had to go back to school. As we were nearing the end of the day, Dennis and some other guys came up to me and said that they enjoyed working with me, told me I was a good worker and shook my hand. Dennis then said I was the coolest white guy he knew and promised when other guys were talking shit about white people, that he would think of me and say that not all white guys are all that bad. He told me never to forget him and to always remember that I was a good worker and a good union man. 332 true blue baby, till the day I die…..Dennis Wallace, I hope you’re still giving ‘em hell.
BAM: You describe yourself as a photographer and writer, but community organizer or sociologist seem like an equally applicable titles. How do you see your role?
WS: I come from five generations of newspaper men, so that journalistic instinct runs deep in my blood. But I don’t consider myself a documentary photographer, nor a fine art photographer for that matter. For the past 5 years my work has explored various chapters of contemporary social and economic issues that concern the character and identity of America. I use photography as a method of inquiry, a tool for telling stories and trying to make sense of the world. I believe the photograph can serve as a document to expand upon a larger set of issues. Through my art I intend to ask questions and instill a sense of empathy, I want my viewers to put themselves in my photographs. And while your associations with a community organizer and sociologist are a great compliment, and professions I greatly respect and admire, I see myself as a photographer, but I suppose too you could say we use different tools to produce a similar end result.