Will Steacy’s project, Down These Mean Streets, is the culmination of a series of “night walks” made by the photographer from a variety of regional airports to the financial centres of nearby cities. Steacy’s work confronts the economic hinterlands, abandoned places and “peripheral” resident populations seemingly forgotten or ignored by mainstream American politics. His work features alongside that of contemporary American photographers Jeff Brouws and Todd Hido as part of And Now It’s Dark, a strand of Diffusion, Cardiff International Festival of Photography 2015, which runs from 1-31 October. We speak with Steacy about his practice.
A: You have said that the psychological core of your series Down These Mean Streets lies in its ideas of fear and abandonment. Did a particular event inspire these dark images of the streets of America?
WS: In 2008 I began a project called Down These Mean Streets in which I walked at night with a large format view camera between the airport and central business district of American cities. This work examines fear and the collapse of the post-industrialist inner city, as years of neglect have left our cities with limited resources to repair themselves and as a result have caused neighbourhoods to crumble. America has turned its back on cities with no local economy, a public education system that barely meets requirements, a low income housing nightmare, few options for proper nutrition and health care, as violence and drugs reign, making survival a number one priority.
This work comes from many different places both political and personal. As a child I grew up a block away from a big crack corner in Philly. I grew up getting mugged and beaten up and my house was constantly broken into at night; mostly crack heads grabbing what they could to get high. And this is where my fear of the night began. I remember as a child lying in bed all night scared that someone was going to break in any minute. And so for me there has always been something about the night, a world that does not exist during the day. The photograph-making process has always been something in which I try to push my limits to the absolute extreme.
By working at night I wanted the visual elements of the night and all that the night encompasses to be a major component of the work. I wanted to create a body of work that simultaneously documented what these places look like and that also addressed the conceptual nature of fear. I think the night is when we are most afraid of our cities. My walks are dangerous and at all times I am watching my back. This tension is crucial to the work, my own discomfort and fear are a part of the process as I want my audience to be afraid and aware of their own fear. I believe that fear is one of the main factors that has contributed to the current condition of America’s inner cities. We have become so preoccupied with homeland security and protecting our country from foreign forces that we have lost sight of what it is we are for fighting for – ourselves. By addressing the loss and despair that prevail in our urban communities my aim is to reveal a modern portrait of the American inner city.
A: The violent narratives that underpin much of your work, witnessed in images such as Memorial, Philadelphia which document the African American experience, are socially relevant and very topical in light of recent events. Is there a conscious political motivation behind your work?
WS: All of my work is highly political and for good reason — our daily lives are all defined by social and economic policy. When it came time to make a book of the Mean Streets project it was important to me that I tell the story properly, and this required that I explain how and why things look the way they do in my photographs. The photograph is only a small part of telling this story, so I decided to make a 175 foot long collage composed of 100 photographs from the Mean Streets series, juxtaposed with newspaper and magazine clippings, journal entries, maps and assorted other material referencing American society, to tell the story of the American Dream through the eyes of the forgotten, those who have been left behind in the ashes of the Great Recession. A failure of political leadership, a failure to pursue the best interests of the American people from the bottom up, and a failure to address issues and solve problems at their root has robbed a nation.
A: Down These Mean Streets has a specifically American resonance but Diffusion Festival attempts to showcase works that can be applied to life in Wales. How do you think your work transcends geographical contexts, making it as relevant in Cardiff as in the USA?
WS: For the past 10 years my work has explored various chapters of contemporary social and economic issues that concern the character and identity of America. It has examined resiliency within fallen city infrastructure, the abandonment of inner cities, health and food options in relation to socio-economic status, and most recently I documented the newspaper industry as it struggles to remain viable in the digital era.
Since all of my work is about America and I have never been to Wales, I do not think I am qualified to speak about what is relevant to the people of Wales. But I will say this, America is the richest and most powerful country in the world and the impact of its actions are far reaching and extend across the globe. I think that within the past century most industrialised nations have experienced a similar course of events due to economic transitions from the farm to the factory, a shift from manufacturing economies to consumer and service economies, and the aftermath of the global financial crisis. I think America, Wales, China and the rest of the world will be united in their struggle to cope with massive unemployment, ballooning social expenditures to care for the sick and elderly, and an inability to make good on pension, social security and public sector promises as a reduced workforce no longer provides the tax revenue that local and federal governments require to fulfil their societal obligations.
A: There is a journalistic strand running through your work. Would you say that your practice reconciles photojournalism with a more psychological, narrative-based vision of the world?
WS: I am a descendant of five generations of newspapermen and that journalistic “question everything, trust no one” view of the world runs deep in my blood. I think that our society’s transition into a digital era has had a profound impact on all industries and photography has certainly seen its fair share of change within the past decade. That said, as the ways in which we see and interact with the world and our surrounding environment change, so does the medium itself and the labels we use to classify imagery.
I honestly have no idea what to call myself or know what category my work falls into, I’m not really concerned with that, I just want to tell a good story. But what I do know is that technological advances have afforded us a gluttonous and seemingly infinite amount of information available at our finger tips, specifically photographs. Yet with that wealth of unlimited visual imagery continually updated and refreshed, there is a great poverty in our ability to perform serious looking and visual contemplation. The photograph has become a devalued currency and is no longer worth a thousand words. The image today is disposable. This terrifies me and everyday I do my very best to run as far away from this as I can. I place incredibly high standards on the visual storytelling techniques I practice and I demand from myself that if a story is worth telling, the entire story from beginning to end must be told.
Diffusion (Cardiff International Festival of Photography) runs from 1-31 October at Ffotogallery, Cardiff. For more information, visit diffusionfestival.org.
Discover Will Steacy’s work at www.willsteacy.com.
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1. Will Steacy, Satellite Dish, Detroit, 2009. Courtesy of the artist and Diffusion Festival.