MLK: One Year Later

Martin Luther King Jr. 

First of all, when is the last time you listened to his speech

I recently gave it a listen and it's just entirely profound and beyond relevant in today's world.

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Last year on this day, I ventured around photographing the inhabitants of Austin, Texas. 

I was a few months into my life here in Austin, Texas, working at a restaurant - a hip, posh little diner called June's. My manager there was an incredible photojournalist who specialized in non-profit work and storytelling photography. She worked on campaigns for the homeless and LGBT veterans. She was my first photography point of contact here in Austin. Joanne told me about an event that was taking place just down the street from my house at a local bar. It was Austin Photo Night

I had no idea what to expect but I knew that she was a speaker at the event.

It turned out to be a gathering of all types of photographers from across town - real estate photographers, commercial photographers, lifestyle, travel and portrait. I didn't know anybody other than Joanne and was feeling quite shy.


The event was in the backyard of an east side spot. There are skee ball slots inside and a backyard patio out back. A large screen lined the back fence and there was a giant map on one of the wooden picnic tables. I walked over to the map to see what it was all about it and discovered that it was a map of the east side. Each block was outlined with different numbers. All the photographers were huddling around a hat to choose a number corresponding to their streets on the map. The photographers were to spend the next few days roaming around town, interacting with the people, and taking street portraits in their designated blocks.

Wow.

What a cool community I just stumbled upon. 

I couldn't wait to have a reason to hit the streets with my camera again. Street photography is the reason that I initially picked up a camera. I hadn't roamed the streets of Austin just yet. It's an entirely different way of seeing the world for me. It's a form of interaction that allows you to dive deep into strangers. For some reason, I envisioned that it would be much more difficult and would yield a completely different response here in the U.S. I was afraid that nobody wanted me to put a camera in their face. I thought that people would shut me down and feel as though I was invading their privacy. 

I was wrong. 

The night continued into a screening of East Austin's history. 

The team gathered old videos from the library and showed us what life was like for minorities in the last few decades. The videos showed advertisements to African Americans to move to the east side. It showed children in watering holes trying to persuade this community to move further outside the city. This was around the same time that the highways were built, they moved everybody out of their homes and on eastward. The videos were fascinating. The history was saddening, but entirely still what is happening today. 

The speakers got on stage and talked about their experiences. There was a wide variety of talent - many different styles and messages. Eli Reed, a Magnum photographer, and a dear idol of mine, talked about photographing different subjects around the world and how you just have to treat people as people. My manager at the time, Jo Anne Santangelo, showcased her very human portraits and talked about riding her bicycle around the east side growing friendships and communities on the streets. John Langmore showcased his Texas culture and Rama Tiru showed her impressive photo essay book. 

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I went. I walked the streets and spoke with all kinds of people. I cannot believe that was a year ago. It feels like just yesterday when I walked down the street and got invited into Joseph's home. Joseph is retired and grows plants. He invited me into his space and talked to me for over an hour. He told me about the evolution of this part of town. He told me about the move from Montopolis - That's where the real trouble was. He told me about having to take food in order to eat and he told me about how he couldn't ever ask his mother for a dime. He worked. He helped take care of his family and he stayed out of trouble, most of the time. But he did tell me about the times that he didn't. Joseph was just one of the lovely humans I met during my escapades. He gave me a plant. 

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I still have the plant. 

It's now in a new home and has more than tripled in size. 

I still think about that day with Joseph when I tend to the little ivy.

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I met the owner of a local barbershop. He's been there for 20 years. I followed him all over to hear about growing up on the east side. He told me about the changes and told me about all of the people he has known who have been pushed out in the last 10 years, once again. It seems as though this story is repeating itself.. And I am also a part of the problem. 

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It's a difficult thing to comprehend - " gentrification. " 

How do we allow space for those who have loyally called a place home? 

How do we avoid this harsh and unequal 'survival of the fittest' mentality for housing?

Is it fair? 

Is it equal? 

How can we make things right? 

Can we? 

I surely do not know, but what I do know is that we are all people. When I roamed the streets, I came to find that each and every person that I encountered wanted to be heard. People just simply want to be heard. People deserve to be heard. 

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During one of my last stops, I walked past a large, beautiful, historic home. I was just strolling along when somebody came outside and started talking to me. She was a striking, older, black woman with wrinkles to show her earned happiness and a spirit that shouted at me softly from across the street. She invited me in. 

It turned out that the home was a sorority house. The space was filled with women of all ages.. from college students all the way to women in their nineties. They grabbed me by the arm to open me up to fried chicken and sweet tea. These ladies brought me into their world in the most loving, genuine way. They were gathered on this day last year to watch Selma. Selma is a powerful depiction of Martin Luther's march to Montgomery. I sat down and watched the movie with them and ate their snacks. After it was over, we all went outside for some group photographs and warm hugs. They were delightful and made my whole day.

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A few days later we gathered back at the skee ball bar. It was inauguration day in a seemingly strange presidential year...Nonetheless, we gathered. The Austin Photo Night team printed up each of the photographers photos. We invited the people that we met around the streets to come and attend the showcase. It was incredible. Each photographer had a different vision, view, and experience over the few days, but the stories all seemed to echo one another. Change is something that has stricken this community over and over again, and not by choice. It was a powerful Martin Luther King Jr. Day in my world. I was engulfed in the community around me and it felt like a breath of fresh air. It felt like being human was all that mattered. It was beautiful. I strive each day to carry this into my life because that is all we are, human.