reed magazine logosummer2007

Life in the Barrio

Shorty-B, 1994 Cullerton Looking West, 1992 Father & Daughter, 1991 Girl in Shopping Cart, 1989 Violation, 1991 Maid of Honor, 1993

For the three years I lived in Chicago, from 1985 to 1988, my way of making pictures was to pile into my Dodge Dart and drive around the city with my camera looking for anything worth getting out of the car for or, more importantly, anything worth returning to. I was fishing and Chicago was an ocean of potential photographs. The summer of 1988, I accepted a teaching position at the Maine College of Art, and a few weeks before leaving, I made what I thought would be my last photographic excursion. I drove all the way down Halsted from the North Side to 18th Street and took a right turn. It was the heart of a neighborhood I later learned was called Pilsen (an odd name, I thought, for a Mexican community). I’ve been coming back ever since.

Though I loved my time in Maine, it was difficult photographing there. It became clear after looking at my contact sheets from the summer before that my interest in making pictures was deeply rooted in some kind of urban experience. The day school ended, I headed back to Chicago for the summer. Thirteen years straight, I left Maine (just when all the tourists were arriving from Boston and New York) for a sweltering, treeless neighborhood made of concrete, bricks, and asphalt—a place that stayed hot well after the sun set and was relieved only when someone illegally opened a pump, borrowed a piece of the lake, and flooded the street. I loved every minute and worked day and night knowing it would be a year before I could come back. Just about all of my time was spent in the neighborhood of Pilsen, occasionally in Little Village just to the west, and, once in a while, in Back of the Yards farther south. . . .

. . . Through the early ’90s, I thought in fairly traditional documentary terms about photography and about what I was doing in Pilsen. That meant bearing witness to something that seemed socially significant, offering a transparent description of it, and being comprehensive—not just telling the truth but the whole truth. In the beginning, as an outsider, the only truth I had was the street. Part of the truth about Pilsen back then was street gangs. As a result, I have a number of entries in my journal from that period that talk about my experiences with one gang in particular, La Raza. This is the only place where the amount of interesting stories far outweighs the number of good pictures. It took me awhile, about three years, to realize that the kind of drama afforded by hanging out with a gang wasn’t the kind of drama that I wanted for my pictures. It was too narrow and sensationalistic and not nearly as complex and nuanced as the day-to-day life of the larger community. It occurs to me now that the gangs unwittingly functioned as sentinels for the neighborhood, keeping outsiders at bay with their reputation for random violence. So it makes an odd kind of sense that I would have to go through them to get into the community. And that’s what happened. Because of my friendship with various La Razas, I got to know their families and was invited to weddings, quinceañeras, house parties, or simply inside to eat.