Photographer learns pictures are matter of trust

His night in the 'hood persuades residents to open their world

July 16, 2006|By KARL MERTON FERRON | KARL MERTON FERRON,SUN REPORTER

Ifelt like a foreigner. And carrying two expensive cameras around, I simply didn't fit in.

As I walked amid blocks of boarded up and vacant homes while working on a yearlong project to document life in a community that has been all but abandoned by the city, people stared at me and asked why I was there, wondering why The Sun would be interested in their neighborhood.

I understood why they felt cautious about opening their world to a newspaper, or to anyone, for that matter.

Over the decades, politicians have neglected their community. Government services such as street cleaning and trash pickup have fallen short. Even the news media neglected their plight, residents said.

The only time the "knockers" (Baltimore police) set foot on the sidewalk was to pat someone down or make an arrest, residents said.

Faced with the initial responses I had heard from those who live in the community, I felt somewhat powerless to capture images that could make an impact. I shared my concerns with Dudley Brooks, The Sun's assistant managing editor for photography, who's had much experience in documenting long-term projects about urban life.

"Keep showing up every day," he told me. "Let them know that you won't disappear. They've gotten used to people abandoning them, and you'll show that you're staying there. You'll be accepted."

As the sun was setting one day, I watched children laughing and playing on the corner at Lafayette Avenue and Bradford Street.

"Are you afraid of being outside after dark?" I asked.

"I'm not scared; I live here," a girl about 6 years old replied.

Her words inspired me, and I remained in the streets until after midnight, walking from stoop to stoop, getting to know the people in the community while letting them know about me.

I felt an immediate change in the neighborhood when I returned the next day.

"You stayed out all night with your cameras? You're one of us, now!" yelled a young man walking on the other side of the street.

As I approached to ask what he meant, he added: "Not many people would walk around with those expensive cameras in the 'hood. You showed us that you respect us and that you mean what you say. We got your back; you're like family."

It was the difference between night and day.

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