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Pigeon Hill Portraits: Then and Now
From 1987-1991, I photographed the residents of Bloomington’s housing projects, an area on the west side known as “Pigeon Hill”.
At the time, there was much discussion among politicians and the media about the problems of the welfare state and with crime and drug abuse (the crack epidemic was in full swing) and enduring poverty. Since my father grew up in tenements in New York in dire economic straits with a single mother and four brothers, I felt a kind of connection to the problem. I made nearly 3,000 negatives with my medium format camera over nearly five years.
- Darlene + Larry, Pigeon Hill, 1988
- “When I learned Larry had molested my daughters, Vicki and Trish, I checked the .357 in my boot. I drove 100 mph from Martinsville where I worked to Bloomington Hospital where they took Trish. Then I drove to the gas station where Larry worked but the sheriff was already there and he was arrested. Judge Dixon gave Larry 5 years but he got out in 2 ½.”
In 1991, I moved on to two other series which occupied most of the next 15 years of my work: “Written in Memory: Portraits of the Holocaust” and “From All Sides: Portraits of American and Vietnamese War Veterans”. I have a strong interest in memory and trauma and much of my work involves the inclusion of text and image.
In fall 2010, a woman was murdered in Bloomington and her picture appeared on the front page of the newspaper. I immediately recognized her as the subject of several of my portraits from many years ago and tried to find out more about her life by speaking with her relatives. I realized then that I wanted to locate the residents of the projects that I had photographed earlier and re-photograph them and learn more about how their lives were going, a full generation later.
- Darlene, Buck + Zeke, Spring Street, 2012
- “Buck and I have been together for 21 years—we don’t even argue any more. We got Buck’s daughter, Lacey, out of Owen County Jail when she was 4 months pregnant with Zeke and put her up until she could get back on her feet. When Zeke was 6 days old, Lacey went drinking with her friends and didn’t return. Buck and I love raising Zeke and wouldn’t change a thing.”
At first it proved difficult to find former subjects. To aid in this process and to pay back the community for allowing me into their lives 20 years earlier, I taught a photography class to kids at the local Boys and Girls Club. After class I would wander the neighborhood with a box of portraits from 20+ years earlier, asking everyone I met if they could identify any of the faces. Eventually I found one of the people I had photographed years ago—it was eerie and thrilling to finally come face to face with someone I had photographed many times in the distant past and to see how her face had changed from a teenager to a grown woman over the course of time.
- Jamie w/ Dress, Pigeon Hill, 1988
- “That was my favorite dress—it was the only dress I had. It was not a happy childhood because of all the partying and fighting when dad was with Terry. That’s where I learned to pretend. It was so chaotic and bad that if anyone was around I’d smile. I’d say everything was perfect when it wasn’t. Terry would beat me if I went to the bathroom in the middle of the night—she’d beat me if I wet the bed.”
She helped me find others who in turn put me in touch with still others I had previously photographed. I have re-photographed over 75 individuals so far. Some still reside on Pigeon Hill, while others have moved to nearby apartments or trailer parks. Unfortunately, some are deceased or in prison or moved away and can’t be located.
- Jamie in Greene County, 2013
- “Many of the people I grew up with are gone or putting their kids through the hell they went through. Even though we don’t have much, it’s all ours. We worked hard—we earned it. For me there’s no more hiding, no more pretending. I was pregnant at 15 and I remember thinking about my daughter, ‘Jasmine will never have to hide her feelings.’ My kids learned to speak their minds. I’m very proud. Proud of my kids. Proud of who I am.”
The economic condition of many of these individuals remains poor, while others now live solidly middle-class lives. More than a few of the residents are firmly entrenched in the criminal justice system, usually for non-violent crimes such as lack of payment of child support or drug use—America has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world. Although these issues are addressed in this series, my main interest is in the faces themselves, especially when juxtaposed with the earlier portraits. One can see the effects of the passing of time and the ways in which life’s experiences (good and bad) are written into these open and expressive faces.
View online : http://www.jeffreywolin.com/