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Where's the Love Philadelphia?

by Kareem Groomes

Dyana and I sat outside of The Green Line Cafe, right on the shoulders of Clark Park, in West Philadelphia. We’d been talking about how “Where’s the Love Philadelphia” was one of the first projects she truly connected with in a long time. Her mission? To create a visual narrative of the gun violence in Philadelphia. The project catalogues the stories and journeys of Philadelphians who have been affected, and are recovering from, the plague of gun violence in neglected inner-city areas. At first she’d just been handling and editing photography, but Dyana decided to further investigate her subjects. A few of the pieces of the project are entirely composed here, from photography to the interviews. Still, this project is primarily a collaborative effort - among her partners, the individuals, and the organizations she is working with. There is a high level of intimacy between these artist and community leaders as you listen to the voices of the individuals, read their stories, and lose yourself in their narratives. And with the subject matter being so relevant given our country’s current climate, it’s a clear that this is project raises an important topic of conversation. This project shows that individuals are coming together on their own to communicate and enhance their community. These individuals come from all walks of life, from all over the country and the world, to fight against gun violence together.

 

Kareem: Tell me a little about yourself, and the people you worked with.

Dyana: My name is Dyana Wing So, and I grew up in two places: Hong Kong, and Bay Area, California. Specifically in the city of Pinole. I came to live in Philadelphia because I am currently a student at the University of Penn, entering into my senior year.

The people that we are working with are leaders of community organizations who are from, and directly work with, the North Philadelphia and West Philadelphia neighborhoods that are heavily impacted by gun violence. These are all people that Dan Kurland, the founder of this project, sought out because they are well acquainted with these neighborhoods. They grew up here, but at the same time are they are well informed about situation [of gun violence] and have an interest in looking back on their communities and themselves. We are hoping [in the future] to become more familiar with and begin interacting with actual residents. The people that we have talked to thus far have been the leaders of non-profit organizations, community organizations; specifically, Mothers in Charge and Philadelphia Ceasefire.

Kareem: What do people “need to know”? What does this project inform us of? In a less glorious way, what is the thesis?

Dyana: People need to know that the gun crisis in Philadelphia’s inner-city  neighborhoods have more to do with the incubation of a culture of perpetual violence, fear and a deprivation of resources, such as love and support, than the assumption of mindless violence of angry, drug-dealing thugs. We've curated this information to encourage people to learn more themselves. To learn what [gun violence] means relative to them, because they are living in the same city that we are living in. What decisions do they make in terms of this knowledge, this awareness? In tackling this project I think [it was] important [to ask,] “Why are a bunch of students or individuals, who aren’t originally from Philadelphia invested in something like gun violence that’s happening in this city?” For instance when you’re on social media, and you see people sharing content about a topic that they are not personally affiliated with, but are so moved that they share the information. I see our project embodying “let’s not just share content, but really be learners, active learners in the situation.” And I think we, people who aren’t from Philadelphia, are earnestly trying to go into these neighborhoods to better understand what’s happening and demonstrate that we want to make people care. We want the people in our shoes to recognize that there is more to be done in terms of activism than just “need to know”; after you know, what are your responsibilities? That is the critical question we want people to reflect on. Our project embodies that “We’ve known, but we want to keep learning.”

Kareem: Who may not be informed about this project but needs to be? And how do you plan on reaching out to them?

Dyana: For me I think it is the millennials who are moving into the city (just being one of them) who need  to hear about this project. This project creates the awareness that you are moving into a city with people who come from a diverse spectrum of socioeconomic backgrounds; that we all indirectly impact [the community]; from our consumption, spurring businesses (which raises the cost of living), to us proactively engaging within these communities through support and volunteering. 

    Before, North Philly was known as "The Bad Landz", a name and description that continues to be part of many newcomers' first understanding of Philadelphia. After spending time learning more about the communities there however, I realized that there is always more to any place beyond what we can readily judge on the surface. Sometimes such judgement is due to the limited portrayals made of a group, leaving outsiders to only make opinions based off of one version of their story. Our project aspires to share multiple stories and perspectives that are contrary and/or complementary to what has been assumed of the "Bad Landz" image. 

    As outsiders ourselves however, we are careful about having a 'savior' mentality in our work. We want to be an ally to these communities and support the leadership and initiatives they have pursued on their own. We never want to assume that we are giving a microphone to those who cannot speak for themselves. To assume that those who cannot speak for themselves are 'voiceless' is to also assume that they truly don't have a voice. West and North Philly does have a voice about how gun violence is affecting their present lives and future, and we are here to listen and spread their messages.

Kareem: When did you realize that you needed to be a part of this project? Can you explain a little about getting involved and your initial thoughts?

Dyana: Something that I always wanted to do was find a marriage between the work that I love and the community that I love. I’ve always been interested in how art relates to community service, but also am weary of the “flat” impact and counter effects of documentary work. I took part in this project with the hope that I would grapple with a social issue I personally cared about, and figure out what form was best for the content. My initial thoughts were that I’ve seen too many documentary projects about the underrepresented, and that it was important for my team and I to critically decide on how we would go about our work. Photographs can be read in more ways than mere objective representation. In fact, they speak a lot to the photographers and their relationships with those they photograph.

 

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Kareem: Who has this project affected? Or perhaps, how have the people involved in this project been affected by being involved in the programs like CeaseFire?

Dyana: For the individuals involved in making this, in addition to the people we’ve interviewed, there has been an impact; at least in the sense [that] we are finally having a dialogue between communities heavily steeped in gun violence and a community somewhat removed from it. Part of the purpose why community led organization like Ceasefire was created was because [local members of the community] realized that there wasn’t enough help from Philadelphia as a whole to help the people within the inner-city neighborhoods. It was a very internal “help ourselves” attitude. Now, people are actually coming out on the streets and vocalizing that they don't like the culture they are in. In the past, no one snitched on anyone even though they were living in fear. With more support, people starting to come out and say, “Yeah, I agree, this is pretty whack, it’s pretty mad that we are all killing each other, living in fear. We need to do something.”

Kareem: Your project deals mainly with gun violence, but do you see this touching other subjects or social issues?

Dyana: [Our project is] less so about [gun violence] and more so about the environmental and social issues that have made gun violence into a cultural crisis of cyclical violence; it has become a banal element of daily life in neighborhoods like the 22nd police district of Philadelphia. Understanding gun violence as part of culture illuminates other questions about how an environment impacts those who [continue to] go about their daily lives. How does a kid grow up in a neighborhood like this? By helping people [become] introduced to what life is like living in neighborhoods like these, we can start to identify how people’s lives are altered relative to the conditions they have to adapted to. Violence begets violence because people are in fear, and they feel they need to defend themselves. Staying alive is a daily priority which most Americans do not have to worry about.

“By neighborhoods like these” I am referring to ghettos in parts of North and West Philadelphia where many of the buildings are in stages of decay, boarded up, or unoccupied. Most of the people who live there are below the poverty line.* The children grow up in-single family households and do not have access to well-funded schools that provide afterschool programs that could keep many of them off of the streets with recreational activities. Such an environment does not induce a college-going culture, as kids and their younger parents are more focused on making ends meet than investing in higher education. Selling drugs is a popular and profitable form of income. The high rate of gun homicide in these Philadelphia neighborhoods are not solely due to drug dealers. In fact, you don't have gangs like LA. Guns are the go-to weapons whenever conflicts and arguments arise. Disputes are settled within seconds of drawing these readily available handguns.

Kareem: Can you tell me about why it was important to have a visual narrative, and your choice of style for this project?

Dyana: There are many reasons why visual [narratives work]. [I]n a general sense we live in a more visual world. [P]eople rarely have the attention span sometimes to appreciate something that doesn't have a visual component, that design element. Aside from all of that, I think an important thing to consider is that many people fear going into North Philadelphia or West Philadelphia; they have all of these preconceptions about what it's supposed to be like there. But at the same time they do not see what it actually is like. [F]or the photographs I put more emphasis on the surroundings. I think our most striking photographs are the ones that appear as the people are speaking, and you see scenes of the places they are talking about.

Kareem: Can you tell us about how this subject drew out a sense of creativity from you?

Dyana: It was the desire to translate that really spurred my creativity. Sometimes there is a disconnect when you are a photographer because you are just there to take pictures. But when you are a photographer-interviewer you have to get to know your subject. And then you come out of the interview with the responsibility that, in addition to creating a portrait , you are responsible for someone’s story that you have to bring out and showcase in the best light. So you carry two things: the visual and linguistic narrative. That spurs my creativity. It’s not an attempt to please the audience because I’m not trying to please an audience. I'm trying to create an audience because of the individuals I’ve the responsibility of representing.

Kareem: I think the strength of this project come from the fact that there is a strong visual, audio, and written presence. How did you strike a balance among all three of these elements?

Dyana: We initially were going to do long transcripts and one photo but we realized that was very flat. We decided that some of it [the material] was more powerful if we can take their stories and combine them with pictures. We made sure that those with a lot of text did not have a lot of pictures, because we want [the viewer] to focus on the words on the [screen]. But with those [interviews] that are predominantly audio we want you to focus more on zoning out and sitting there, looking at the pictures and listening.

Kareem: What is a question you ask some of your interviewees? Why that question? What were you looking for?

Dyana: A question we ask individuals is how do they associate with other parts of Philadelphia. We started to realize that a lot of [the interviewees] talk about Philadelphia in this very insular way; that it’s North Philly or West Philly. We realized that a lot of these individuals, Nortavin specifically, make a poignant comparison. He goes to Center City and he feels like it is a completely different world. When he talks about Philadelphia, he’s talking about North Philly. That question is so important because we want to make people realize that your separation of North Philly and “everywhere else” is the same as we have been doing [Center City residents]: they’re looking and saying “That's the other side,” but it's one city. We all look at City Hall but it depends on which side you are walking through that determines your different living experience.

Dyana and her partners have worked with Philadelphia Ceasefire, Mothers in Charge, and the Anti-Violence Partnership of Philadelphia to chronicle the narrative and effects gun violence has on the people and the culture of Philadelphia. To hear their stories visit: http://www.wheresthelovephiladelphia.org/

 

*poverty line:

Twenty-eight percent (28%) of Philadelphians—between 430,000 and 440,000 people—live below the federal poverty level, including 39% (135,000) of our children, 27% (265,000) of work-age adults and 17% (32,000) of seniors.

http://sharedprosperityphila.org/crisis-level/

By definition, a family of three living in deep poverty would take in around $10,000 annually, half the poverty rate of $20,000 for a family that size.

http://articles.philly.com/2014-09-26/news/54322611_1_deep-poverty-poverty-line-south-philadelphia

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