When Brooklyn-based photographer Emily Schiffer first arrived on Chicago's South Side, it wasn't long before the widespread desolation and vacancy overwhelmed her. Schiffer felt a different reality must be possible -- one that would allow residents to lead healthy, successful lives and have access to good quality, affordable food.
And with the See Potential campaign, Schiffer, along with Orrin Williams, the founder and director of the Center for Urban Transformation, is hoping to set that vision into motion. See Potential is an ambitious project involving large-scale public art installations and mobile technology to make a case for more development in the city's South Side neighborhoods.
Here's how the project will work: Schiffer and Williams aim to work with community leaders to place large photographic artwork, the artists of which are recruited directly from the community itself, on the sides of blighted, abandoned properties throughout the South Side. Those sites will ultimately become plot points on web-based, interactive map showing potential funders, city officials and policymakers where grassroots interest in locally-owned grocery stores, community gardens and other community centers can be found.
The two recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to help get their See Potential project off the ground and The Huffington Post spoke with Schiffer and Williams to see how the project is going thus far.
HP: How did this idea originally come to be? I understand you live in Brooklyn, Emily, so I'm curious how the issue of food insecurity on Chicago's South Side got on your radar.
ES: I started out doing a photodocumentary about urban agriculture and food security issues in Chicago through a grant I got from the Magnum Foundation. I came to Chicago and was photographing and about two weeks into my stay there, I met Orrin and we started talking. I started learning about the Center and Orrin's plans for developing the community. We connected really well and I wanted to have a tangible, practical use for my photographs, so throughout our conversation and collaboration, the project emerged.
OW: Yes, that's pretty much how the whole process began as we were in conversations about art and the intersections between art, community and community development, from there, is the next step. Food security and access is an important issue, as is urban agriculture, but the bigger overarching thing for me is community-based master planning and making sure that communities are prepared for the 21st Century. We have a lot of work to do there. It's not just about me and my plans, but what we all have to face in this society. It really is about rebuilding neighborhoods, cities, this country and this planet to prepare for a different way of life.
(Scroll down to watch the See Potential project's Kickstarter campaign video.)
HP: Orrin, tell me more about the work you do with the Center for Urban Transformation and how that work meshes with this project.
OW: Well for me, again, it's about how do we create a process that assists us, and not just me, but anyone who wants to engage the community in a discussion and do the work that needs to be done to rebuild communities. Being a supporter of the arts and a photographer myself and just understanding the importance of visual stimulation and the beginning of a new aesthetic, I thought this project was important. We want to get people involved and get people talking about it. I don't want to have just my plans, I want it to be a situation where there's some involvement. I think some of that comes from being raised and coming of age in the '60s and '70s in Alabama and those lessons and that energy has stayed with me all these years. We want to reinvigorate communities and reinvigorate people about the possibility, about the potential to live differently and have a different community.
HP: What do you think it is about art, and specifically photography, that is so powerful in helping to inspire the reinvigoration you're aiming for?
OW: Currently we have an aesthetic of oppression in our community. And what does that look like? What does this abandonment do to our community and how does the built environment impact the community in a lot of different ways, including the aesthetic? What impact on the community's psychological and spiritual wellbeing and notions and who and what it is as a community? Photography begins to change the aesthetic while, at the same time, it creates opportunities for people to visualize and engender a new reality around aesthetic and a new reality in terms of a built environment. Since we posted the Kickstarter, people are seeing the video and it's been interesting that a lot of people have come to me and say they have thought about doing the same thing or had smaller-scale projects related to this.
ES: Photography is used everywhere as advertising and it has the tremendous power of perception of ourselves and others. To see positive pictures of people who actually live in the community as role models for what could be, I think, has a tremendous potential to get people to see things differently, but at the same time, I want to be careful not to overestimate that power. In my mind, these installations are really just the beginning. It's what happens after these pictures go up, what happens after we get people excited and involved. How do we channel that excitement into tangible change? It's really only going to be possible if we get a strong grassroots effort mobilized.
HP: Emily, I read in a recent essay that you wrote for Time that, while you began doing this work in Chicago, the segregation you observed here were quite startling, overwhelming even. Tell me more about your first impression of that issue as it interplayed with the other issues your work addressed.
ES: It is really apparent and there is no mystery there. There is no mystery that the current situation is the result of redlinings and banks not investing in black areas of the city. Orrin has talked many times about the history of food in the black community. It seemed to be pretty easy to talk about and necessary to talk about where the problem comes from. The literature I read before I went out there talked about food deserts, as they are called. We both have some issues with that name. None of it really didn't focus enough, in my mind, on the history and segregation because that, for me, was what the underlying factor was.
I was shocked by how little people mix and how few meaningful relationships I saw between black and white people. They certainly exist, but not at the frequency that I expected. Having lived in other parts of the country and other places in the world, one of the things that struck me was not just the separation, but also the lack of understanding on both sides, such as the white entitlement I saw on the North Side. I'm white and, theoretically, I should be able to comfortably move throughout the North Side of Chicago and time and again, I witnessed the entitlement of white people toward black people and that was very painful for me to experience.
OW: The key word here is partnership. There is this notion, rooted in 500 years of racial history in this country, that people of African descent are really, really needy and really, really need to be helped, but I think we need to shift the paradigm to what people need and what humanity needs: Real partnership with people rolling up their sleeves regardless of race, class and all that stuff and doing the work that needs to be done. Their community has a wealth of intelligence, experience and knowledge that goes untapped. We need to make an adjustment to be able to utilize that wealth in terms of social and human capital in partnership with other people who have other skills and expertise.
HP: How has the response to the campaign been so far?
ES: Given the fact that we started this campaign at the exact same time as every single non-profit in the country and world asking for end-of-year donations, I think we're doing pretty well! We've gotten a lot of enthusiastic feedback from people who are excited about the idea of public art and who are also excited about this specifically in Chicago. I know the people who are pictured in my images that will be on the buildings have been really excited about having their face be part of the campaign.
We also hope people can take away from this project that they as individuals matter. If they can contribute $10, that makes an impact and they are important. Everyone is involved in this and this issue affects everyone.
As of Dec. 23, with just less than a month to go, the See Potential campaign has raised just over $3,300 of their $10,000 goal via their Kickstarter campaign. Click here to learn more and help their project reach its fundraising finish line.
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WATCH the See Potential project's Kickstarter video:
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