A Different Way of Seeing

By Chris Fowler

Spring. Brighter light and longer days are here. The rigorously contemplative winter is making way for an active and fruitful vernal season.

I am very pleased to report that the documentary photography class that I taught at The Eliot School in collaboration with UFORGE Gallery was a great success. The four-week class took place in Jamaica Plain on Tuesday evenings. During those meetings, our class looked over a great deal of work by documentary photographers ranging from Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine to Mary Ellen Mark and Darcy Padilla. After studying images in the documentary canon we turned our attention to the students’ own work and practice. They shared images from their projects and we discussed issues technical, ethical, and practical. I am also happy to relate that each of the wonderful students who participated have at least one photograph (and in some cases more) from projects started in our class hanging on the wall at UFORGE Gallery through the end of April.  It was very rewarding to collaborate with the local community arts scene and share what I could with folks interested in making this kind of work.

On a related note, the class Evidence with Bill Burke at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts recently concluded. It was a great privilege to participate in that course and to have the guidance and encouragement of an artist whose work I admire so much. The time in Burke’s class introduced me to many photographers, historical and contemporary, with whom I was previously unfamiliar. I feel that a great gap has been filled in my own photo education. Burke’s portraits, like the one below, were made using Type 55 Polaroid film in a 4×5 camera. This method allowed Burke to photograph strangers and instantly connect with them in a deeper way than other formats might have allowed at the time. He was able to share the positive print with his subject and get an immediate reaction, begin a more involved conversation.

“Family, Kermit, West Virginia, 1979” Photograph appears courtesy of the artist.

I was intrigued with this method of photographing and considered ways that I might achieve similar results. I acquired a 4×5 camera and began experimenting with instant film. Alas, the positive/negative peel-apart Polaroid Type 55 is long gone. Fuji produces an instant ISO 3000 black and white film that produces a positive image, as well as a negative-like paper-backed image that is only usable if scanned and digitally manipulated. The high speed of this film, coupled with the relatively slow shutter speeds of my antique Crown Graphic, present interesting challenges for me as someone who is used to the flexibility of relatively fast electronic shutters and low ISO numbers. The entire endeavor forces me to slow down, be more deliberate, think. As well as the rewards of this process—my pace, film’s inherent aesthetic qualities, instant visual gratification, an image to share with potential subjects, a tangible print instead of zeros and ones on a memory card—I am also interested in the idea of having to digitally manipulate the “negative” that this film produces in order to make more prints. These digitally mediated analog pictures somehow seem appropriate for me, being of this time—born digital—and with my feet straddling both of these worlds.

“A different way of seeing.” Photo by Chris Fowler

I have recently acquired a refurbished photo printer and am now able to make prints to share with folks in the community. This has been an important tool in building trust and strengthening relationships. Recently I find myself printing lots of portraits from a series in the Dudley Greenhouse. One afternoon a week, with the help of Danielle Andrews and Jennie Msall, we invite folks from the community into the part of the greenhouse where the tomatoes are growing to have their portraits made, like the one below.

Travis Watson, Community Organizer for the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative. Photo by Chris Fowler.

As programming and produce ramp up at The Food Project I will be increasingly busy with them. Just a few weeks ago we installed a seventy-two inch tall sign featuring my photographs on the side of the Dudley Greenhouse. I look forward to getting to know the youth who are coming on board for the Summer Youth Program and learning their stories. I also look forward to cataloging, formally and photographically, the things that TFP produces (which I think I mentioned in a previous letter). I am also, selfishly, very excited to spend some time out on the farm and in the sunshine.

Repetition, Ritual, and Reassurance

By Indaia Whitcombe

In the recent months I have begun to understand the functioning of the Boys & Girls Club on a deeper level. The mission of the Boys & Girls Club is to foster positive youth development and how they do this seems pretty clear to anyone who comes through the doors. The club provides a safe, positive environment, supportive relationships, opportunities, expectations, and recognition for children, all which these kids might not be finding elsewhere. And fun. Fun always seemed in my mind to be the container that all these important ingredients fit into.  If it wasn’t fun, kids wouldn’t want to be there.

Jack, 11 on the stairs of The Boys and Girls Club.

There is one child in particular with whom I share a connection. Jack is eleven years old, thin and lanky with light brown hair, pale skin, and a dash of freckles across his nose. He is arguably the best-dressed young man at the club, arriving each afternoon looking smart in a collared shirt and sweater vest. Meeting him for the first time, Jack appears timid and hesitant, lowering his head and answering in a barely audible tone. But it isn’t long before he is clapping and singing and yelling at the other children to “slow down!” when they are running in the hallway. He has such a presence, on the days he isn’t at the club, it seems there is surely something lacking.

Jack hugging Trudie, a staff member at the Boys and Girls Club.

While Jack is legally blind, it is clear that his big brown eyes do register something- perhaps a combination of shape and color and light. If he knows you and you’ve entered the room, after a moment he’ll sense your presence and recognize that you’re there. Then he’ll start to sing to you, sing your name and ‘how are you today, is it cloudy, is the day almost over?” And for some reason, you always feel obliged to sing back. To enter a room where Jack is, you’ll almost always find a group of singing, laughing people, and Jack at the center of it all. Jack has autism and like any child he is innately curious about the world around him. And like other children with autism, he experiences the world in a different way. I am curious about his world, and his experience of it.

Getting to know Jack and learning more about autism, I had a lot of questions like why there are many different forms of autism and yet each child is still labeled with the same disorder. When I asked Jesse if she could define autism in her own words, she laughed a little, as if the idea was absurd and responded with a sincere ‘No.’ Autism is a spectrum disorder- meaning all cases fall under the umbrella of autism, somewhere on the spectrum. No two cases of autism are the same; they vary widely in terms of the child’s abilities and symptoms, and they can look very different. One person who has autism may show no obvious signs at first. He or she may communicate verbally and display a high level of intellect, but have an inability to make eye-contact when engaged in conversation. On the other hand, another person with autism may have little or no ability to communicate verbally and may have severe behavioral challenges because of this.


Jack, looking out from a window at the Boys and Girls Club.

There are some classic behaviors associated with autism, but still these are expressed across a spectrum of intensity. One of the main characteristics of autism involves routine or repetitive behaviors, like repeating words or actions, or playing in repetitive ways. Jack clears his throat, he smells the back of his hand, and touches his hair. He asks what time it is, and then he will ask again, only minutes later. And then again when that minute has passed. He likes to watch the clock, the second hand making one full circle, and when it has he’ll ask, ‘What time is it now?” Jessie describes this as ‘mind-looping,’ a self-soothing behavior. While ‘mind-looping’ and other self-soothing behaviors are common in autism, they are not specific to this disorder, they occur in many different developmental disorders and are a fairly typical trait. Like a lot of children with autism, Jack gets extremely overwhelmed by noise and over-stimulation in general. So when he asks what time it is repeatedly, often it’s because he wants to know how much longer he has to be in that environment. The question comes from anxiety and uncertainty; the answer makes him feel better. He may ask the same question one hundred times, in order to get the same response one hundred times back.

Jack, looking up towards a skylight at The Boys and Girls Club.

Jessie says she doesn’t buy it when people say, ‘we need to ignore those behaviors because they’re not typical.’ “I think they are typical. Other people just don’t say it out loud. I think we all want the same reassurance. Everyone has times when they feel worried or overwhelmed and we all have different ways of coping with those feelings. There’s a lot of things in the world that are completely out of control and maybe kids with autism have that feeling magnified. We keep calendars and planners so that we can know what’s coming up.These kids need that too, just in a shorter time frame. That’s why we use a lot of tactile things and visual aids,like a schedule you can carry around with you. It’s a lot easier to hold onto than something that’s in your mind.”

I think about why I make pictures.  A lot of the reason is to make sense of my experience and what is happening around me. It’s the same reason I enjoy writing, so that I can say this happened, this was real, and see the words on the page in front of me. Isn’t this how we affirm our memories- through pictures and pages, and the telling and retelling of what has happened. And in doing so, aren’t we simply reaffirming our own lives, again, and again. Isn’t that a self-soothing ritual in itself?

The Third Season at The Food Project

By Chris Fowler, November 2011

Autumn. Bright greens go yellow, then red, while the days get darker more quickly. Haste is made to harvest the remainder of the heartier crops: collards, kale, carrots, and leeks. Care is taken to prepare for the next season. Garlic cloves are planted by hand and hay makes a blanket over them to keep off the cold until the full-grown bulbs may be lifted from the spring soil. Tools are put away and equipment is repaired.

The Food Project follows the seasons. In the same manner as the farm, the organization seemingly slows down and does the less glamorous but equally important work of organizing for the coming spring, even as winter approaches. I find myself following a similar order.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Although my first official day at The Food Project was October 14, my introduction to the organization took place back in September. A couple of my colleagues in the Outreach Team were working on stories for the organization’s 2010-2011 Annual Report and were in need of images. They kindly offered to fly me up from North Carolina and house me at a coworker’s apartment for eight days. The purpose of this trip was tripartite: 1) For me to photograph the stories that they wanted to tell in their report; 2) For me to meet my new colleagues and get a feel for the culture at the organization; and 3) For me to find lodging. I am happy to say that we accomplished all these goals, and also yielded

an unexpected benefit when one of the images was chosen for TFP’s Thanksgiving Day card. This is, to quote Ki Kim (Director of Communications at TFP), “one of our most important donor cultivation devices, aimed at an important segment of our donor base—folks who give $1,000 and up.” I have attached a digital copy of this card to this report. I hope to share a copy of this Annual Report with you as soon as they are delivered by the printer, both to give you a better idea of the work that The Food Project does, and to illustrate a very direct way how the Hine Program has already benefited The Food Project.

When I returned to Boston in early October, I settled into a quiet little place in Jamaica Plain. Most mornings I left my camera at home. I wanted to get my hands dirty. So far I’ve helped to harvest at the thirty-one-acre farm in Lincoln and at the urban farm in Dorchester. In both places I wanted to get a sense of the work that goes on and to build relationships with the people who are often in these locations. This is a work in progress. I hope that the seeds that I am planting now will grow. Because the weather is getting colder, I aim to begin spending more mornings at the Dudley Greenhouse, where refugee groups in the neighborhood have garden plots—and where it will be significantly warmer.

Because of the season, most of the youth programming is in its annual hibernation mode. The bulk of TFP’s youth activities happen, unsurprisingly, during the warm months. There are, however, thirty high school students who work as interns year round. These interns rotate through different pods over the course of the year to provide different kinds of work experience. I, along with my colleague Ki Kim, have been working with the Media Pod on Saturdays to get interns out into the field and producing words and images. So far we have conducted two photography and writing workshops with each of us leading sections of the workshop related to our particular expertise. Because of the interns differing levels of

familiarity with making images and their limited access to equipment, my contribution to these seminars thus far has focused on the power of images to spread a message and change minds, invoking the name of Lewis Hine, among others. Each of the thirty interns will have the opportunity to participate by the end of my time at TFP. Eventually, as the interns begin to produce and share more materials, we plan to post them to a new, youth-driven Food Project website. We would also like to see the youth run these meetings, and further share their work with others. I envision this program becoming self-sustaining and long running.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
I have big plans. Even though winter looms close and the opportunities for community engagement are less than they will be in the spring and summer months, I have devised several projects to keep me busy until the snow thaws.

The first of these is a portrait project. I hope to photograph members of TFP staff in their home kitchens. This project will serve the dual purpose of making a record for TFP’s archive and fulfilling outreach needs, as well as helping me to connect more closely with the people that work here. Their experiences and convictions could offer some compelling material for me as I craft my final project later this year. Beyond photographing these folks, and at the suggestion of Elena Rue and Alex Harris, I will capture video portraits of everyone and also have a few general, unifying questions to help tie these images together. Eventually, when the weather breaks, I would like to extend this project to include youth and people in the community who benefit from the services that TFP provides.

The second project, which I hope to start next week—timed for the arrival of my winter share in The Food Project’s Community Supported Agriculture program—is a formal catalogue of the stuff that The Food Project produces and the tools it uses to produce them: cabbages, radishes, tomatoes, shovels, spades, knives, and all the rest. This work will provide TFP with visual aids for their educational outreach programs as well as (hopefully) beautiful, compelling images that they can use with their promotional materials.

Finally, I will continue working to interact and collaborate with the larger community that TFP serves, and as prudence and permission permit, will record my experiences and share their stories.

Although I am only one month into my fellowship, I feel very comfortable at my organization and with the goals that I have set. I look forward, from autumn, with excitement to see how all this work develops, and I also look forward to sharing more news with you soon.

Chris Fowler 2011-2012

Christopher Fowler, who received a master’s degree in folklore this spring from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has taken several writing and photography courses at CDS over the last two years. Having grown up in rural eastern North Carolina, an area heavily impacted by industrial agriculture, Chris’ master’s thesis was an ethnographic study of one eastern North Carolina farmer who is moving toward a more traditional agriculture, that is to say a type of agriculture that is more responsible, equitable, and sustainable.

Due to the quality and depth of his work, Chris was invited to be a teaching assistant for Lehman Brady professor Mike Wiley and CDS director Tom Rankin. Chris will travel to Boston to work with The Food Project, an organization that engages young people in personal and social change through sustainable agriculture. Chris says, “Most of my work thus far has focused on rural and southern issues. The Hine fellowship offers me the opportunity to test the waters of a northeastern, urban environment. I believe that being pushed out of one’s comfort zone is imperative for intellectual and creative growth.”

For more about Chris’s fellowship, visit:

http://documentarystudies.duke.edu/projects/hine/gallery/chris-fowler