The Bay Area Community Changed In Front Of My Blind Eyes.
I’m East Bay Area bred, it’s in my blood. I’ve always had a diverse group of friends. This means I’m friends with nerds, artists, thugs, trust fund drug ridden kids and any other stereotypes imaginable. I wasn’t raised to judge someone over the fact that they sin differently. This was my community.
I’d heard that the Bay Area was a cutthroat place but I never experienced it first hand because I grew up with an extremely diverse group of friends that were all going through different things. I went to Iowa for college, naturally I changed with the environment. Being in a well educated college town of Iowa City, it’s not acceptable to use slang or throw in the signature Bay Area mumbling accent that all of us naturally had. It was all I knew prior, being in Iowa allowed me to grow and change. When I’d come back to visit, nothing changed within my friendships, they accepted that this is who I’d grown into. My friends grew into bigger shoes as well but we were still the same old team that could laugh the night away. Even though some kids were faced with really tough times while others were flourishing it never changed our dynamic.
When I’d visit the Bay Area, I started to notice strange patterns. Low income neighborhoods were disappearing, the crime ridden areas seemed to look worse than ever and there was a sudden prominence of luxury apartment buildings. Gentrification was happening in front of my eyes and I had been too blind to see it for years. Due to the rapidly declining middle class, hostility was high. Neighborhoods I used to frequent, I began to feel like a stranger in or feel my presence was unwanted. One day, I was on a street photography adventure on International Ave in Oakland. This was a place I had been to numerous times to photograph during my lifetime and despite the seedy reputation it carried, I’d always felt safe. It was a place my friends and I would go underage to try to score booze at liquor stores hoping that the clerk wouldn’t ID. Some of my best friends have lived in the surrounding area. We’ve had great times there. Although, all good things must come to an end.
As I walked down the street with my DSLR, I was approached by a group of people that didn’t like my presence. They described it as a form of exploitation, essentially me facilitating a certain facet of media known as poverty porn. I never meant for that to be my intention. Being a photographer, I don’t care if anybody is rude in their critiquing method. I don’t care if someone says they don’t like my style. It hurts when someone thinks I’m exploiting them. I’ve been taking photographs in this area for years and had never encountered such a statement. The group proceeded to be hostile and made hints at robbing me for my disrespectful act. I didn’t even know how to explain myself. I wasn’t scared, I was unfathomably disappointed. I ignored the group, walked back to my car and headed home. During the drive, I asked myself why I do this. Why do I take photos?
They were understandably agitated that their days in the good old neighborhood were numbered before it was replaced by luxury apartments and Whole Foods Markets. We all knew it. But where do I fit into this scenario? Am I a Truman Capote exploitive piece of shit? No. I want to tell your story, I want to show people what’s happening around you and give a way for you to positively express yourself with freedom. This is why I wield a camera, it isn’t to put you down. It’s to allow you to be heard.
In the last year I’ve had two separate encounters of aggressive humans that have approached me with intentions of robbery. Before that conversation continues any further, I always say the same thing, ‘It’s either I tell your story or nobody does.’ It sounds cold but I can’t come up with anything better.
This is not just my community, it’s ours and we all deserve better. We aren’t going to get better by erasing the ghettos with luxury apartments, we aren’t going to get better by continuing the cycle of high crime. The way I grew up, having a variety of people around me was a blessing. I understood and respected so many unique backgrounds as did my peers. I don’t know where this concept fell apart. The sad thing is, the Bay Area is still wonderfully diverse. It’s us, that are refusing to mix with one another causing us to fear the people that we don’t understand. We’ve created an us versus them mentality.