“Civic life is the life we live in dealing with problems of common concern”—this quote from an essay by David Tucker and Nathan Tucker is the epigraph for my Civics project, which considers the ways in which people in a community, in this case New York City, resolve problems and work together on programmes of mutual improvement. My inspiration comes in part from the medical discipline of wellness studies, in which scientists try to understand how the human body is functioning when things are going right, and not only when it is disturbed by disease. At a time when partisan feelings are strong, and among members of all political factions the favourite candidate for President is “None of the Above”, Civics steps back to look at the broad scope of things.
The exhibition of photographs from the Civics project at the Nailya Alexander Gallery in New York this month is divided into four sections. The first, Politics, has to do with the formal process for “dealing with problems of common concern.” The second, Demonstrations, looks at how groups make known their particular concerns, and the third, Press, at how these concerns are reported to the public. Powwows, the fourth section, includes pictures of lectures, conferences, meetings and social gatherings where problems are discussed and plans are made for dealing with them.
Election night, Republican Headquarters, Hilton Hotel, November 2, 2011
Listening to the candidate, Rego Park, Queens, August 25, 2011 is a key image in the first section. This was a special election to fill a seat in Congress vacated by a representative who resigned when he was exposed in a sex scandal, so the constituents felt betrayed. The man in the pictures seems to be not only listening to what the candidate is saying, but also trying to read his character in his face. I assume the man in Election night, Republican Headquarters, Hilton Hotel, November 2, 2011 is some sort of political operative, one of those people who have a hand in politics, but are never in a position of accountability; his face is unreadable.
Above: Entering polling place, Upper West Side, November 2, 2010, below: Occupy Wall Street, Zuccotti Park, October 6, 2011
The demonstrations I photographed crossed the political spectrum, and I came to think of them generally as a form of street theatre. The Occupy Wall Street demonstration I shot in Zuccotti Park on October 6, 2011 was a clown show with antic fringe types performing for the press and passers-by. The double-decker sightseeing buses going down Broadway to the Wall Street area drove close to the kerb so their customers could see; instead of being a threat to the republic, Occupy Wall Street had become a tourist attraction. It was wilfully uncivil.
Advocacy groups in America frequently organise walkathons, another form of demonstration, as a way to raise awareness and generate funds for their causes. The Gay Men’s Health Crisis staged its first Aids Walk in 1986; I photographed it on a rainy May 15 in 2011 as it made its way past my window.
Although the internet has radically altered the way in which we get intelligence of the goings-on in our community, the New York Daily News continues to publish. Founded almost 100 years ago, the tabloid is known for its punchy front-page headlines. Blow-ups of some of the most memorable of these dominate a long wall in the newsroom; it provided an historical backdrop to the journalists toiling at their computers when I photographed them on March 19 of last year.
Editor & publisher, Kings County Politics, Kensington, Brooklyn, October 8, 2015
Meanwhile, Stephen Witt publishes Kings County Politics (Kings County is the political name of the borough of Brooklyn), a daily blog, from the cramped quarters of his bedroom in a basement apartment. With no capital resources except his laptop and a cellphone, he provides valuable information online to his subscribers, and he was at it when I visited on October 8, 2015. The cat keeps him company.
Parent Teacher Association (PTA) meeting, Upper West Side, April 10, 2013
It was surprising to me how much of our civic life is still conducted face to face. The member of the City Council from the Upper West Side of Manhattan organises annual town meetings like the one held on April 27, 2015 in her neighbourhood. Representatives of all the major city departments were on stage to answer questions from her constituents. The fire department, the police department, the sanitation, parks, environment and housing departments were all there, as well as the agency that runs the buses and subways.
The last picture in the exhibition is Parent Teacher Association (PTA) meeting, Upper West Side, April 10, 2013. This is an archetypal civic organisation where people with a common interest in the education of their children get to meet the teachers and administrators responsible for it. Although PTA meetings can be contentious, they are more typically exemplars of amity, so the image is a fitting conclusion to the show.