With the University Avenue Project I incorporated some new conceptual approaches, but much of the process of finding subjects has remained the same since I first photographed my father and the neighborhood where I grew up in Duluth. I simply walk around and ask people if I may take their picture. My camera opens doors, and I meander through nooks, alleys, and living rooms.
Many of the people I’ve approached say no, but there are always those who are willing to be photographed. I have interacted with thousands of citizens who live, work, play, and worship in the neighborhoods connected by University Avenue, a stretch of six miles from the Minnesota State Capitol on the east to Emerald Street on the west where St. Paul officially meets Minneapolis.
I’ve photographed businesses, community organizations, and nonprofits. And for this project, I also photographed hundreds of students. Along the avenue, I found nine schools catering to different age groups and collectively constituting amazing diversity.
These schools range from AGAPE High School, where all of the students are mothers or mothers-to-be, to the Hubbs Center for Lifelong Learning, an adult education center where over fifty countries are represented. I met with young children at New Spirit, a charter school with a large Hmong population, and Dugsi Academy, where are almost all of the students are East African. At Gordon Parks High School, an alternative school named after the great multi-talented artist who began his photographic career in St. Paul, I photographed a diverse group of young people who were starting on their own paths through life.
In many of my projects I have used direct quotations to accompany the images, excerpted from interviews I conducted with people in the photos. But with this project, I also decided to incorporate words directly into many of the photographs. I came up with a series of questions that would not be easy to answer, but might elicit a wide range of responses:
What are you? Describe yourself in a couple of sentences. How do you think others see you? What don’t they see? What advice would you give a stranger? What is your favorite word? Describe an incident that changed you. How has race affected you?
I then asked the participants to write only one of their answers (chosen by me) in chalk, turning the simple boards into black-and-white mirrors of the self. Like messages in a bottle, the words bubbled up, bringing to the surface a wealth of emotions and needs, prosaic and philosophical wishes, private and public fears.