As I ran out of things to look at near the end of the ’90s, I began photographing in the various places where people in the community worked. This was one of the more challenging things I attempted as I learned how jittery the business community can be. But it rounded out the work, and I thought it was a good place to end. In 2001, when I moved back to Chicago after being away for a few years, the neighborhood had already begun to irrevocably change. Maxwell Street, the last barrier between Pilsen and the Loop, had been bulldozed and replaced by condos and soccer fields for the University of Illinois. Latte shops and restaurants were springing up along 18th Street, and tour buses made a loop through the neighborhood from Chinatown—two ethnic groups on one convenient bus ride. Though all of this was a bit shocking, I had to accept that for a Mexican neighborhood called Pilsen—a legacy of its Bohemian, Polish, German past—change is virtually encoded in its name. Over the next two years, I made the last pictures that were left for me to make and moved on.
Along the way I was often asked, usually by people outside of this community, what reason I had for going to a place that wasn’t my own or, more aggressively, where I didn’t belong. As I tried to answer that, going from predictable documentary explanations to more personal ones, the work evolved. I ignored, as much as I could, the critical discourse in the art world at the time that suggested it was somehow immoral to photograph outside one’s own race, class, or community. I hoped . . . to photograph from the inside looking out instead of from the outside looking in. I tried to be a part of the community but in the end, of course, I wasn’t. But, oh man, did I have fun trying. I recognize now that all I did was redefine where I belong and take an inordinate amount of time to be in a place I loved. You can learn a lot when you are willing to be a stranger. Most of what I know about photography has come from doing this work. These are some of the experiences that never would have occurred if I hadn’t taken that turn onto 18th Street and kept on driving.
Excerpt from “Words—Between and Behind the Pictures” in Barrio: Photographs from Chicago’s Pilsen and Little Village, by Paul D’Amato ’80 (copyright 2006 by The University of Chicago, all rights reserved).
Paul D’Amato ’80 is professor of photography at Columbia College Chicago. He has an M.F.A. from Yale University, and has been a John Simon Memorial Guggenheim Fellow and a Pollock-Krasner Grant recipient. His photographs have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, DoubleTake, and Harper’s, and his work is held in the permanent collections of several museums, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Fogg Museum at Harvard. His book Barrio was published by the University of Chicago Press in 2006.