The towering red brick islands of Stuyvesant Town; the geometric blocks of the Williamsburg Houses—affordable housing in New York City is so often pictured from the outside, a series of buildings around which crime and despair and poverty abstractly swirl.
It’s a fraught system, and a changeable one. Yet while city government and advocacy organizations negotiate the need for progress against the scarcity of finances, one thing remains constant: these buildings are places that people call home.
However, media coverage of the projects “was handicapping every effort to make things better,” says Jonathan Fisher, who in 2010 came on as the techno-communications chief of the New York City Housing Authority. Headlines painted a grim picture of public housing. “Public Housing Repairs Can’t Keep Pace With Need,” wrote The New York Times. The New York Daily News: “NYPD busts lively heroin-crack business in Crown Heights housing project.”
Fisher voiced his concern over the public image of the projects to George Carrano, a colleague from Fisher’s days of working for the MTA. After retiring from the transit authority in 1999, Carrano had immersed himself in photography. In 2010, he founded the nonprofit Seeing for Ourselves, which gives underserved populations cameras with which to document their daily lives. It was Carrrano’s idea to bring a series of participatory photography classes to projects.
Project Lives, the resulting collaboration between NYCHA and Seeing for Ourselves, aims to “enable the people most affected by the terrible image of public housing—the people who live there—to take control of their narrative and tell their own story,” Fisher tells CityLab.
To do so, he and Carrano worked with the photography instructor Chelsea Davis, who taught the first class of 15 residents from the Manhattanville Houses in the fall of 2010. Over the course of two and a half years, around 200 residents from different developments participated in the program. Each was given a single-use Kodak camera; tens of thousands of photos were taken, and 84 of them were collected into a book published last fall. A selection of images are currently on display at the Hunter East Harlem Gallery, as part of the “Affordable Housing in New York” exhibit, on view through May 15, 2016.
The program participants ranged from the elderly to young people barely into their double digits. (When given the cameras, Fisher says, the first question from many in the latter category was: “But how do I delete the pictures?”)
Nothing specific emerges from the photos; there’s no agenda or thesis. “We didn’t know what we were going to get,” Fisher says. He, Carrano, and Davis undertook the project knowing that conditions in public housing were fraught, yet “there wasn’t a single image that conveyed anything negative,” Fischer says. Developments were rife with chipped paint, water leaks, slow elevators. But “that did not define the lives of the people who lived there,” he adds. “They wanted to show their homes, and the lives that they are proud of.”