I am walking up Broad Street and making deals with myself: I have to talk to everyone I see, ask anyone who strikes my interest if I can make a portrait. I photograph a woman standing with a baby in front of a rosebush. I see another woman standing outside a beauty shop, curlers in her hair. She says, “No way.”
I turn the corner onto Homer Avenue and there is no one in sight. It is a Sunday afternoon. I follow the little street almost to the end and I see a man in his back yard, raking leaves. I walk down the driveway and introduce myself. He has just finished working and listens to me. I tell him I’m doing a project, making portraits, trying to address the idea that we, in this city, don’t really know one another.
He tells me he is very interested in this subject, puts down his rake, and agrees to be photographed. But he doesn’t want to be pictured in his yard clothes, so he goes inside to change. He emerges in a suit and tie – his church clothes, he says, which he took off only hours ago. His wife, who’s relaxing on the front porch, giggles at him.
His name is Wellington. We make some portraits in his front yard, but then a car pulls up and young people step out: his son, his daughter-in-law, and their new baby. Now Wellington’s wife, Vida, has gone into the house to change back into her church clothes, too, and we all stand under a tree, making family portraits. Everyone is laughing, and then our session ends. The family goes inside to put the baby down for a nap.
On another Sunday, I go back with prints. It is late afternoon; jazz music and the aroma of simmering food fill the family’s living room. Surrounded by African paintings and framed photographs, we talk: about the settlement of Liberia by freed slaves, about Wellington’s childhood there, and about his work at the Department of Environmental Management. We flip through photo albums and see the house in Liberia that Vida grew up in, the couple on a Caribbean cruise, a niece who was born in a refugee camp in the Ivory Coast, and has just graduated from medical school.
“When you came by,“ says Wellington, of the day we met, “I thought you were a salesman, selling something. And then you explained to me, ‘No, I’m not trying to sell something – I’m trying to do a story about people in the neighborhoods, and how people don’t talk to one another.’ That’s what caught my attention, made me want to listen to you, because what you were saying was something that is happening every day in our lives. This is a serious business.”
Wellington goes on, “My neighbor here: I figured that, since he’s African-American and his wife is – I think they’re originally from Haiti – we might get a little closer. But that didn’t help. I moved here 25 or more years ago, and we’re still the same. We still see each other at the front of the house, and say Hi, Hi,and wave Bye, Beautiful day, The snow is too heavy … talk about the weather and nothing else. And even at work – sometimes you work with the same person for years and they are still a stranger to you, because you are talking about work and nothing else beyond that. So you still do not have that human relationship with people. And that’s a very important subject.
“Most of the time people will say, ‘He’s a stranger,’ ‘She’s a stranger.’ But, as a human being on this earth, we shouldn’t be strangers. Because we all have one thing in common: we are human beings. And as we talk to one another, as we get to know one another, as we feel more comfortable with one another, then the word stranger starts to disappear.”