“All of our histories are complex—there is disappointment, shame, loneliness, and there’s also joy. I want all of it to exist, messily and awkwardly, in the photographs. Because that’s life.” – Katy Grannan, photographer
These words resonated soundly through W.E. Arnold’s mind when snapping candid photos on 120mm film, serving as a makeshift motto through his photographic journey. Arnold’s approach to photography is akin to stream of consciousness writing—a continuous flow of ideas uninterrupted by technical convention or apprehensive premonition.
Photography, at its core, is documenting a specific moment, sometimes striking and beautiful, other times painful and uncomfortable. Occasionally, it is memorializing a stranger’s laugh or a scenic stage of red mountains, other times it is a dilapidated building, or a man in the cold with a cigarette in hand. We have seen a recent wave of photographers aiming their lens at poverty from a privileged perspective, but Arnold contends that he is not some voyeur peeping inside a fleeting culture, but rather, a fellow member of the struggle looking to preserve what will soon be lost to time.
As he nears the end of his residency with the Second Sight Project—a community-based visual arts organization based in the blossoming neighborhood of Franklinton—Arnold is showcasing the last 13 months of his life. Strolling through the streets, engaging with strangers, he’s captured long exposure nighttime scenes, obscure neighborhood detail, and intimate portraiture. Here, we get a more closer look at the artist himself:
In an age of amateur photographers armed with smartphones, it’s not easy to rise through the ranks using antiquated equipment. Why is shooting 120mm film important to your vision?
120mm (medium format film) allows for more detailed images to be captured. Somehow the capturing of ‘more information’ translates to me as showing more respect to the subject matter, and project overall. Not to mention the additional layers of technicality that comes with the usage of medium format imagery. It doesn’t slow you down as much as say large format, but it does still require you to be on top of your game in order to capture the image as intended. I aim to capture images that are technically sound, while remaining profound and intriguing—this medium format allows me to do that.
You say you guide your hands with your mind’s eye when out on a shoot. Could you extrapolate on that a bit?
In simplest terms, I’m referring to imagination and intuition. I believe it’s pivotal to remain open to what you encounter while you’re out shooting, and cautious that straight technical thinking can sometimes diminish such creative efforts. When I head out, camera and film in-hand, I have a very loose idea of what I’m shooting that day. People on the street, shadows at 5 p.m., whatever it may be—I stop it there. I never attempt to pre-generate images that I want to capture. I simply engage the experience and capture frames while enjoying the ride, and those ever present accompanying emotions.
What inspired you to capture these subjects and these areas in the first place?
I grew up in Springfield Ohio, an environment very similar to Franklinton, especially in the early ’80s. So when I became a resident artist at Second Sight Project last April, I wanted to capture the rapidly changing neighborhood I was now a part of. So I set out to do just that:
Seen as a resident, accepted as just another guy trying to get by. I didn’t attempt to interrupt people’s day while out on the streets; if they clearly had no interest in engaging I kept walking. However, quite often I would get approached asking for a light, a smoke, a spare buck, and questions of, “what I was out taking photos of?” All I had to say was, “the neighborhood is changing fast and I want to capture it for what it is now, including its residents,” and nearly every time that began a 15-20 minute conversation with people out on the street.
Why photograph poverty?
Poverty has surrounded me for most of my life, from food stamps and free lunch at school, to struggling for basic necessities at home. Growing up, our lives were submerged in a volatile atmosphere swirling with financial concern, undiagnosed mental health issues, and substance abuse. Despite such hurdles, our parents still taught us right from wrong, made sure we went to school and did our homework. Whether intentional or not, this adversity provided a space for empathy, compassion, and understanding to blossom. The rough neighborhoods, negative influences, and undesirable situations brought with [them] a larger view of the world, and in turn, a positive life experience that guides me to this day.
Fear tends to frame our perception of neighborhoods that have a reputation for being dangerous, however exaggerated that illusion. What many see as dangerous, others see as home. This body of work challenges who we think of as our neighbors through capturing moments of humanity and cultural significance both unique to Franklinton, and yet so very common across America.
As the cycle of gentrification changes the face of neighborhoods, I aimed to capture an authentic exploration of a community “in transition.” The imagery invites the viewer to experience the beauty of a place most have little desire to venture to otherwise.
Have any of your subjects seen the exhibit?
Yes, a few of the subjects in my current work have seen the installation, all of which have enjoyed the end result. I remain confident that any individual who participated will be proud to see their image, as I did exactly what I told them I was going to do. Capture them, as they are, displaying the images in a gallery telling the story of Franklinton as it sits today amidst constant change.
We see more and more commentary about the sensitivity of capturing people and things in blighted areas. How do you tackle that potential criticism?
Gentrification, poverty, and homelessness aren’t new problems, and neither is photographing areas affected by such social issues. What is unique is that I was able to approach the community as a fellow resident, and from a place of similar lived experiences, allowing mutual respect and understanding to guide conversations. The atmosphere of such a setting allowed for more revealing and personal images and stories to be captured. I was a neighbor—I looked like them, I talked like them—they let me captured them. Together, we are poverty.
No.13 Obscured by Clouds will be showing at The Second Sight Project in Franklinton. For more information, visit secondsightfranklinton.com.