In this week’s Lovesourced we talk to New Jersey based photographer Linda Leonard about her Kickstarter project “Camden NJ – A Troubled City”: a photo-documentary that aims to raise awareness of America’s poorest and most dangerous city.
Firstly, can you tell us about your background as an image maker / photographer?
I began to photograph after taking a class on photography in NYC in 1984. That same summer I took two seminars in Cape May N.J. at the Art Kane Photo Workshop which is no longer in existence. I met Larry Fink who encouraged me and would critique my work for the next few years. He also had one-day sessions at his farm in Martins Creek, Pa. where other photographers would come to look at each other’s work and provide input. I have not had formal training in photography and actually went to college for nursing. Photography became my passion and I constantly took as many images in NYC as I could. I would give myself projects to focus on and Camden was my first.
Who are your photography heroes and how would you describe your own style?
I would describe my style as photojournalistic. My images are recorded as they are happening and I do not pose my subjects.
What was the motivation behind ‘A Troubled City’?
I moved from NYC to Mt. Laurel, N.J. I read that Camden was one of the most dangerous cities in America at that time, and it is only a few miles from where I live. Today it is the most dangerous city. Plagued by significant poverty, drug use, and crime, it is surrounded by Philadelphia and attractive suburbs. The magnitude of the situation is almost unbelievable and the problems are constantly increasing. I was intrigued and made this my first project to photograph. I felt an obligation to tell the story of this troubled city to a large audience. My hope was to make people aware of how desperate their living conditions were. I was always amazed that children would be in a courtyard or on the streets with no parental supervision, even when infants were present. Every time I went to Camden it seemed as if it was the forgotten city.
How did the residents of Camden react to you and your project?
The Camden residents for the most part could not have been more supportive. They cooperated as I took my photographs capturing them as they were going about their daily activities. Some of the children were sad. One told me he wished he could fly away, while other children loved holding and taking pictures with my camera. Mothers would say how happy their children were to use the camera. Often a resident would approach me and talk about the news of the day, their political thoughts, and walk with me down the street. They were always concerned for my safety, telling me to be careful and not stay long. Every time I took a photo I would tell them that my goal was to show the world their living conditions. A couple of times I rode with an undercover police unit. Although this allowed me access to more locations, it was dangerous and there were restrictions for my shooting. Twice people tried to take my film and some would shout for me to stay away as they did not want a picture taken. Once I was chased down a street.
You intend to use the book to raise awareness of Camden’s issues. Why do you think photography, and specifically this project, will create a better campaign than previous media coverage?
I think this project will generate more publicity than prior works as it focuses mainly on children. The subjects were recorded as they went about their usual daily activities. No posing or manipulation was used. Photographs allow the viewer to pause with the picture as long as desired whereas video documentaries offer more fleeting images. A photograph allows one to pause and reflect on the image with time to bring experiences and expectations to the moment. By studying the picture, a person can relate to the image in a very personal way.
Why did you choose to mainly shoot in black and white?
I always envisioned that this project would be photographed mostly in black and white. Color can distract from the subjects and composition. Black and white makes the viewer focus on the image itself. Simply, I just saw Camden in black and white.
What equipment did you use?
Photography was done using Nikon film SLR’s with Tri-X and color negative film. The negatives were scanned on a Canon flatbed scanner and processed with Apple Aperture software.
Three favourite photos?
My favorite image is the boys playing stick ball in the alley. I like the perspective and the transition from shadow in the alley to sunlight in the distance. It is just a game that millions of kids play in fields everyday but I liked the uniqueness of the them isolated in this narrow space.
Another favorite is the image of children pushing a sleeping baby in a stroller and a boy holding groceries and laughing. It is boys being boys having a fun time.
The third one is the three boys along the stucco wall that was used as the opening image on Kickstarter. Of all the subjects I spent the most time with these three and got to know them the best. I love the way they sat for this photograph. They also used my camera to take a picture of me.
What’s next for A Troubled City?
The next step for the project is to publish the book and reward the backers. I then will present the book to as many people as possible. Hopefully this leads to increased awareness of Camden. If enough people become concerned, there is a chance that Camden and its people will get the help they deserve.
Pledge your own support:
Visit Linda’s Kickstarter page, or find out more about her at her website.