While I think there are more sophisticated and visually impactful ways to co-author documentary projects than the participatory model, this project was released in book form by powerHouse books earlier in the year, and it is definitely worth having a look at (again, the caveat that I think straight participatory projects are not necessarily the best compromise between charismatic visual language and democratic forms of narrative structure). I particularly like this page about the photographers who made works for the project on the Project Lives website, while the article from Slate by Jordan G. Teicher is a good overview:
“We roam around this spontaneous block sticking together as brothers. Yet we are cousins.” – Jared Wellington
During the Depression, New York City became the birthplace of public housing when it replaced unsafe tenements with towering apartment buildings to lodge the city’s poorest residents. Today, there are 403,120 residents in more than 300 housing projects, all of which are managed by the New York City Housing Authority, the largest such organization in North America. But over the years, funding shortfalls have put NYCHA into a desperate financial bind—it would take $18 billion to cover operating needs—and the apartments have fallen into disrepair.
“We believe that that negative portrayal of the housing projects accounts, at least in part, for the government rolling back funding since the 1970s. Our hope was that if the narrative of life in the projects could be turned back to the residents who live there, it could make an impact on government support and funding,” said George Carrano, who, along with Chelsea Davis and Jonathan Fisher, edited the book Project Lives, which was published in April by Powerhouse Books.
“My neighbors.” – Jane Mary Saiter
From the book, Project Lives. – Margarita Curet
In 2010, Carrano, a Bronx native and retired MTA employee, started the Developing Lives program, a series of photography workshops that, over the years, put single-use Kodak film cameras in the hands of hundreds of NYCHA residents—mostly pre-teens and seniors—and encouraged them to photograph their everyday lives. The program began at the Manhattanville Development in West Harlem, through which Carrano had walked daily on his way to work, and by 2013 had spread to 15 projects throughout Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. Photos from that program fill the pages of Project Lives.
“The only direction they were given was to photograph what’s important to them, to tell the stories of their daily life here,” Carrano said. “What came back was an incredible portrait of American life, both the exciting parts of it and the unexciting parts.”
But rather than photographing the busted toilets, broken elevators, and other signs of neglect that come along with funding deficits, as Carrano had anticipated, residents focused on their friends, their neighbors, and their homes. “That, I think, was the most surprising aspect of the whole project. You’d have expected to see examples of crime or disrepair and none of that came about,” he said.
“I think it goes to the values of the residents. They place a higher value on their sense of community, their sense of sharing with their neighbors than complaining about disrepair. It’s humbling,” Carrano added.
“I love how when I’m in the school, hallways are so quiet when I walk through it’s just great because you can just hear yourself think about how you are going to plan once you get in class. Just stay focused on what’s around you.” – Aaliyah Colon