Photography Lets Viewers "See Potential" of Healthy Communities in Chicago


About a year ago, photographer Emily Schiffer won a grant from the Magnum Foundation Emergency Fund grant program to do a documentary project about emergencies not covered by mainstream media.

Schiffer, who studied fine art, photography and African-American studies at the University of Pennsylvania, wanted to document public health problems related to the lack of access to healthy affordable food. It's a problem that many cities face, but she chose to focus on Chicago, a city that has experienced a steadily growing urban agriculture movement over the past decade but still faces vast social and economic discrepancies in the availability of healthy food.

She spent a month last summer taking photographs in Chicago's South Side neighborhood. Her original plan was to publish the images in traditional media, like magazines and gallery shows, as well as in non-traditional venues, like hospitals, where she could print images on hospital curtains, cafeteria trays, tables or blood pressure cuffs, to target the medical community.

But that all changed, about two weeks into the project, when she met Orrin Williams, the executive director of the Center for Urban Transformation, a nonprofit based on the South Side that is dedicated to developing sustainable communities and the "green economy." Its programs involve urban agriculture, while also taking into consideration things like job security, housing, medical care, artistic and personal expression, and happiness. With Williams at the helm, the Center is looking to gain support for its business plans and proposals to transform vacant, unused spaces into productive community hubs, like grocery stores or urban gardens.

"As soon as I heard about [Williams'] redevelopment plans, my desire to have a use for my images started taking a different form," Schiffer said.

Now, the project has grown into a public-art-meets-advocacy campaign, where large-scale photographs (shot by Schiffer and other prominent Chicago area photographers) will be installed at different sites proposed for redevelopment to encourage people to visualize what the community could become,  hence the name of the project, "See Potential."

"I'm not just documenting a problem; there's actually a lot of potential for solutions that can be included in the project," Schiffer said.


The project is organized into three phases, as described on the project's Kickstarter fundraising page:

  1. Work with community leaders to locate blighted buildings, abandoned factories, and unoccupied storefronts that could be transformed into healthy corner stores, urban gardens, year-round indoor growing sites, and community centers
  2. Transform urban blight into photographic artworks that enable community members to imagine shared community space
  3. Distribute information about healthy living and gather community support through a dynamic text messaging campaign

For now, Schiffer is trying to raise $10,000 to compensate participating photographers and designers, print artwork on weather-proof banners and install them at various sites, and distribute information about the project. Schiffer estimates she'll need two to three times that amount to meet the full scope of the project, though she says she'll scale the project to however much she's able to raise.

The ultimate goal is to "Mobilize Community," a piece that wasn't entirely fleshed out in the original project proposal but now is a critical component of its success:

Each photographic installation will include a text panel encouraging onlookers to send a text message in support of that specific site transformation.  Using a custom-designed SMS text messaging infrastructure and GPS technology, we will collect all messages and record the location from which each text was sent.  By pinpointing the different locations and by tracking the amount of public support at each site, we will be able to present a series of interactive, web-based maps to potential funders, policy makers, and city officials.

She got the idea for creating a GPS-enabled, crowd-sourced online petition from Voice of Kibera, a citizen reporting project that uses the Ushahidi platform to aggregate and map reports in Kibera, a slum of Nairobi, Kenya. Schiffer said the See Potential map will be part of  a larger Internet mapping project by Judith Helfand, in collaboration with Digital Democracy, that aims to show every single business, empty lot, sports facility and other "neighborhood resource" on the South Side.


I chatted with Schiffer to see what motivated her to use photography to improve public health in Chicago, and what requests she has for collaboration. Heads up, Michelle Obama and Oprah - she needs your help to take this to the next level!

Why were you interested in documenting urban agriculture and food-related issues?

Food and organic farming have always been important to me. I grew up working on an organic farm after school in Massachusetts. It had animals, big gardens and big vegetable fields. It made me feel connected to food and aware of how political the food system is. It also made me aware of my own power as a child, that I was capable of having an impact. If I didn't feed the animals, they would be hungry. If I didn't mush the potato bugs that grow on the potato plants, they wouldn't be harvested. When I was 12 years old, I delivered a baby sheep. It was a pretty beautiful responsibility that I took on. I was part of something that was larger. There's something very important about being able to provide for yourself in the sense of providing your own food.

What motivated you to create a social impact campaign around the photography installations?

The segregation in Chicago really startled me. I didn't feel like I could talk about food security and health without talking about segregation and the link to the loss of economic investment in black neighborhoods due to redlining and other real estate practices.

It's very clear that publishing an image in a magazine or having a gallery show or having a book isn't actually going to change anything. It's not enough for me to raise awareness for people who are going to pay attention for just a few minutes and walk way. I've always been interested in making new points of connections to unite people and find practical ways to use pictures to create some sort of tangible impact, something measurable, practical. I'm always jealous of people who do pottery, for example, because their art has some sort of practical use.

What are you trying to accomplish with the photos?

We're using similar tactics to advertising. We want these pictures to catch people's eye because they're cool. People will want to look at them because they're high quality art. The idea is to showcase the work of great photographers who have done substantive work on the South Side and have positive images that need to be featured and celebrated.

Why do you use black and white photographs, as opposed to color photographs?

There's something really great that happens when you don't have color in images. You notice more details. They get separated from reality a little bit, which I find is a great way to draw people's attention into the image and make them step back and consider it because it looks a little bit less familiar than they're used to.

The photographers, with the exception of Andre Lambertson, all shoot in black and white, coincidentally. We're going to, if possible, convert any color photos to black-and-white for a consistent aesthetic.

How do you build trust with your subjects?

I'm not somebody who can stick my camera in somebody's face and feel entitled to photograph them. I'll never feel comfortable making someone else uncomfortable. It takes a lot of sitting through awkwardness and talking to people and just getting to know each other. There are a lot of people who never trusted me and I didn't photograph them. I was very upfront about why I was there, what I was doing and what the pictures were going to be used for. A lot of people were curious about me. It was clear to most people that I wasn't from there; I think that was a huge advantage.

What stage of the project are you in now?

After we get the initial funding from Kickstarter, the Center for Urban Transformation is going to secure permission from owners of abandoned buildings and vacant lots to install the photographs on them. It's not going to be guerrilla style; if we're investing that much money in this, we're going to keep it legal.

We're going to start installing the art in a concentrated area, repeated on blighted buildings and vacant lots within a downtown strip. It's the reptition that makes it effective. We want to have it on a very big scale so we can really make our point. We want this to overwhelm residents.

The idea is that on each site, there will be text that asks people to show their support for the development plans at that site by sending a text message that will be added to a petition. Using GPS technology, we'll be able to pinpoint the location of where that text was sent from. Orrin is very interested in having the ability to text back and have a conversation about what people want.

What are your next steps?

We want to install the artwork by June, and then have data to show potential funders and politicians by the end of the summer. Between now and June, we need to get permission to print images and install them. We'll throw a block party in collaboration with different organizations and artists and musicians so we can tell the community why this is really important. It's really important that it doesn't just stop at an installation; then it would just be public art and it would still be really cool and help people "see potential," but there needs to be community follow-through for this to happen.

What are your outreach plans?

We're going to have a website that will have up-to-date information about this project and anything pertaining to urban agriculture and community development. There are tons of nonprofits who work in these areas; we need to make it exciting for them and motivate them to stay involved. Orrin will be the leader of all that. We're counting on their grassroots enthusiasm in order to make this spread.

Since there is such a strong online component to this project, how will you engage people who do not have access to the Internet?

We're going to have pamphlets and there will be a telephone number that you can call to get more information, so if you're not tech-savvy, you can do it human-to-human. We'll go door-to-door, to churches, to community organizations. Orrin already has those relationships with the community. It wouldn't be possible if I was trying to do this myself. I don't have that trust and years of building relationships.

What are your metrics of success?

One, to actually have people getting excited and sending text messages. Two, convincing potential developers and politicians and policy makers that these entities are important, and getting their political support behind Orrin's business plans. Three, people actually getting together to open businesses, or having community members step forward and say they're willing to start a community center, or having a corner store willing to have healthy food sold at an affordable rate.

What do you need help with?

We need people to get excited. We need help passing out fliers and promoting this, cleaning up after the block parties, calling different organizations and individuals to come out. We could use more contacts in mainstream media. We want to see articles about this project in Chicago newspapers and national radio. We're trying to reach Michelle Obama and Oprah. The bigger this gets, the better.

What have you learned?

It's very obvious that it's not comfortable for a lot of people to think about the situation on the South Side. It's not comfortable to think about poverty and segregation in America. But it shouldn't only be people who live on the South Side who care. It should be everybody because it's exciting and it's real.

I'm an artistic facilitator. I'm not the leader of this; I'm just making it happen.