When the Atlanta Streetcar launched in 2014, it aspired to enliven businesses, entice tourists, and engage citizens. These photos are from a longitudinal photo essay I’ve been doing (now 1300 photos rich) along the route (both inside the streetcar and out), titled A Streetcar Named Aspire, that documents the changing city over time — its people, places, and potential. I entered this particular selection of photos in The Fence photography competition, and did not get selected (yet again — it was my third time entering*) so I am choosing to publish my entry right here on my blog.
I am nervous about presenting this because who I am to tell this story? However, I am inspired by a man named Danny Lyon, who was a white college student from Brooklyn who became the first photographer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) during the Civil Rights movement. (I learned about him when I was researching history, interviewing artists, and helping write the narrative for the Off the Wall bike tour earlier this year.) Danny chose to bear witness, and that’s what I do. And somehow I believe it matters, in ways that I don’t yet know. When faced with fear yet feeling a calling to continue, I choose to trust the journey.
I call this selection “I am the boy.” Following are the captions I submitted with each photo.
“I am the boy who looks out the streetcar window and sees the man who I can be, on what was once the richest street for African Americans in the United States before its fall, and is now facing the pain and pride of change. What will become of these men I see? What will become of this street I travel? What will become of this boy I am?”
As this boy watches intently out the window of the Atlanta Streetcar as it winds its way on its three-mile route in a part of Atlanta rich with history yet ripe for change, I try to see through his eyes, even though I am a 55-year-old white woman from New York.
Men are always hanging out here, between the historic Royal Peacock Club and the Oldest Black Store in Atlanta. I ride my bike past them day after day. Sometimes we wave or say hello or talk. Mostly we just exist together. Are they prepared to die? Am I?
When I enter the original Ebenezer Baptist Church, the historic landmark where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached, I am immersed in the sound of his sermons. “I have a dream,” he says, and I start to have a dream, too. I change. And I realize that every person who enters this door emerges somehow different, too.
Men gather in groups to play chess in Woodruff Park, and I slow down when I am riding past them because I never learned how to play and I am amazed. How smart and accomplished they seem. And yet, every year or two they are forced to move elsewhere because they are somehow undesirable. Increasingly, however, I notice we are running out of “elsewhere.”
A man who appears to be homeless sleeps alongside the entrance to the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change. When I came upon this scene (which included the chalked words already on the ground) and took this photo, I wondered if perhaps we are all the man, or could be for just a moment, just to understand, just to imagine a new way forward.
* I chose to present the two other rejected submissions from earlier years in found-space guerrilla art exhibits. One was called The White Dress and the other was called Bearing Witness. Here are the photos with their little intro summaries (yes, I re-used one photo):
The White Dress (2016): Cast-off detritus from a night where good turned bad, perhaps, The White Dress lay on a pile of wood chips in an abandoned urban garden until I found it accidentally. I carried its unknown story around the city on my bike and tossed it recklessly into existing unloved tableaus of reality. These photos somehow honor the woman (or man) who was, and a city currently facing the pain and pride of change.
Bearing Witness (2018): While traveling at the speed of bike down streets in a city at the crossroads of change, I trust the journey to lead me astray, where I bear witness to beautiful and provocative remnants of lives upended, and in so doing, honor them.
Note: If you are interested in the intersection between street photography and fiction, you may enjoy my collection of 76 flash fiction stories (which overlap after about story 14), all inspired by original street photography in a city (like mine, like yours) at a crossroads. It’s called Stranger Things Happen. Here is its website, with link to instantly download the book. Four stories from it have been featured selections in online literary magazines. It is available in all Amazon markets globally, as are all my books (here is my Author Page on Amazon USA. I have two nonfiction books available in both print and digital versions: Traveling at the Speed of Bike and Food for My Daughters, plus others exclusively digitally). Here is its promo video:
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