Spotlight On Lexey Swall

 

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LEXEY:

First, let me thank you for asking me to be a part of your blog. I am 
truly honored.

This picture was taken while doing a profile on Rev. Joe Williams. He's 
a pillar in the black community in Naples. He is the pastor of Triumph, 
the Church and Kingdom of God in Christ, one of three historically black 
churches in Naples- it was part of the series I did a year before on the 
three churches in honor of the 100th anniversary of the NAACP. The 
reporter, Katy Torralbas, and I decided Joe was worth his own story. He 
has raised children, grandchildren and, now, his great-grandchildren in 
the house he bought in River Park community in 1961. River Park is the 
first area of Naples where the black community was able to buy property. 

I have covered River Park extensively through various daily and long-term 
stories during the past eight and a half years that I've worked at the Naples 
Daily News. I had never thought of putting all of these assignments together 
in as a cohesive collection, but I realized after doing the story on Joe that a 
portrait of the community had emerged in my archive. Since this realization, 
I've created a spot on my website about River Park and when shooting there, 
I've shifted my thought process to think about the neighborhood as the subject. 
It's a work in progress at this point. It's not something I devote all of my time 
to, but over time, I want to reflect all aspects of this community.

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TID:

How does this image fit in with the River Park story?

LEXEY:

Joe is a main character in River Park. He's one of the few elders left 
in the neighborhood who has been there since the beginning. He's kind 
of the watchman, the overseer. I think of him as a front porch pastor. 
As people walk or drive by they always wave to him, or people randomly 
stop by to ask for advice. One day while sitting in his front yard with 
him, a group of girls walked by, and turned and stopped to wave him 
over to ask him a question. 

One of the girls was pregnant and asked Joe if he thought it was ok for 
her to have an abortion. He told her no. He said if she didn't want the 
child, someone else would want to love it. As far as I know, she didn't go 
through with it. He is a voice of reason in the community and a source of love.

TID:

Now, onto the image itself. Tell us how this image was 
made, and what challenges you faced?

LEXEY:

This image is of Joe and two of three of his great-grandchildren who 
live in his home. Joe's granddaughter, Shaniqua, was the boys' mom. She 
was killed in front of the boys by her friend's ex-boyfriend. The same 
day, the boys came to live at Joe's home. Shaniqua also grew up there.

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When we decided to do the profile on Joe, I didn't necessarily think 
through all the scenarios I could photograph of him. It pretty much 
turned in to days and days of shooting one scenario. Him, sitting out 
on his porch or in the front yard. That's really the majority of his 
life. I kept going back to the office telling my editor that I wasn't 
sure what I was getting because every day is the same. Sometimes with a 
story, I can plan strategically which days to shoot pictures by finding 
out when stuff will be going on in the lives of those I'm covering. It 
was impossible to do that with Joe because he didn't really plan 
anything but church on Sunday. So, I would just drive by his house when 
I had time. It felt a whole lot less like I was doing a story, and more 
like I was just hanging out. I would sit with him for hours. Sometimes 
in silence. Sometimes talking. I decided that was ok. It was more 
important to be comfortable in his space and get to know him, than it 
was to make a photo.

That said, when I did shoot pictures, especially on days when he sat on 
the porch and not in the yard, I felt pretty confined to the area where 
he was. If I went across the street, or too far in to the yard to 
shoot, I didn't think the a moment would translate the way I wanted. 
So, I would sit and hang out on or around the porch and wait for 
something to happen.

That's how it was on the day I shot this photo. Thankfully, with the 
boys around, it allowed for some spontaneity. I was looking for 
something that showed Joe's character or said something about his life. 
Whether it was how gentle he could be with the boys, or something about 
him being the watcher of the neighborhood. The boys were in and out of 
the house, playing in the yard and hanging with Joe as they waited for 
their other brother to come home from school.

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This image shows Joe exactly as he is: sitting on his porch, watching the 
neighborhood with a phone in his hand in case he gets a call, or needs 
to call the police if trouble starts. Also, it shows the boys watching with 
him. I love how Eric, at left, is peaking out and Charlie, right, looks like 
he's so cool, like he owns the place. I felt like this picture showed Joe's 
influence on the boys.

Spending days with Joe reminded me to slow down and just be patient. 
But, more importantly, I think it reaffirmed the importance of just 
being with the people you're telling stories about. I know so many 
things about Joe's life and how he feels about love and family. I'm a 
better person for it.

TID:

This picture is part of a larger project, can you talk 
about your approach, in general, to working on this
(and with this - long-term projects in general)

LEXEY:

This picture is part of a larger project now. But, when I shot it, I 
didn't realize I would be compiling all of my images from River Park to 
create a larger piece. Since then, I've been trying to figure out how 
to go back to River Park with an approach that will add to what I 
already have. I've photographed marches in the streets, funerals, 
church services, features, arrests and other situations — all for daily 
assignments or stories over time in River Park — but there are 
inevitable gaps when I look at the River Park story as a whole. Even 
something as simple as images from various times of day. When shooting 
stuff for daily assignments, they are rarely from night time situations. 
But, if you're going to do a story about a neighborhood, it's an obvious 
question — what does it look like at night? What events take place at 
that time? I need to look at the neighborhood as a character, and the 
people who live there are the distinguishing qualities of that character. 
This is my challenge now.

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Photographers who are working at newspapers should try to view their 
community or subsections of the community in a longterm way, even if 
they're just shooting a daily assignment. Sometimes, without perspective 
it's hard to do this. That is the beautiful thing about spending as much 
time as I have in Naples. I've been able to gain perspective on the community. 
When I first started my job at the paper, my mind wasn't open to a possibility 
of telling an overall longterm story about River Park. Who knows, maybe it 
wouldn't have worked out if I had known it from the beginning. I have been 
able to form bonds with people in River Park that maybe that could only have 
happened over time.

TID:

What are some lessons you learned throughout this project,
and what has surprised you?

LEXEY:

Something I've learned is you never know who is going to be the voice 
who vouches for you later. I did a photo column once on the ice cream 
man who has been driving through that area for years. I rode in the 
truck while he was going around the neighborhood and a few years later, 
when I was doing the story on Joe, one of the girls I had met through 
the window of the ice cream truck recognized me when she came to see 
Joe. Because of that chance meeting before, I think she was more at 
ease with me. The ice cream man has also happened upon me in the 
neighborhood since that time, and because of our positive interactions 
and the community's trust of him, it helps them trust me.

Every relationship is important and deserves respect.

Be patient. This should be the mantra of the photojournalist. I knew I 
needed patience even before this project, but I'm constantly reminded.
I try to leave myself open to any possibility, so I haven't been surprised 
by too many things.

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TID:

Have you ever experienced any resistance to working
on this project within the community, and if so, how did
you handle it?

LEXEY:

I always got the impression that people in the community accepted that 
Joe was worth a story. He is an important and a positive force in the 
neighborhood, so, it was okay that I was there with him. When people 
asked what I was doing they nodded like they understood when I told 
them. And they all said, "he's a pillar." So, there was no real 
resistance with the story about him.

That didn't always translate into letting me photograph the people 
surrounding him in his life. His quasi-former-son-in-law lived with 
him, as well, at the time. He would play cards or dominoes in the back 
of the house, and he never really was okay with me taking his photo. 
Never hostile or upset I was there, but seriously camera shy. I always 
hoped I could wait him out and eventually, it would be okay. But, that 
didn't really happen. There were a lot of people like that. That 
doesn't mean I've stopped trying.

TID:

What has surprised you that you didn't realize before by 
documenting the community?

LEXEY:

One time, a girl told me that if she ever saw white people drive 
through her neighborhood in River Park, she thought they were 
there to buy drugs. I don't know if what she is saying is true, but 
that was her perception. It made me wonder what people thought 
of me every time I drove in to the area.

I suppose this answer kind of goes with your last question, as well. 
I've learned that I need to throw preconceived notions about how 
people will react to me out the window. I used to think, "man, 
they're going to wonder why a little white girl like me wants to 
come in and ask all kinds of questions about their community." 
I had a preconceived perception about what THEIR perceptions 
of me would be. Does that make any sense? The point is, people 
were open with me — more so than I thought they would be. 
There are people I've talked to in River Park who I never ever 
thought would give me the time of day based on the fact that 
I'm a journalist and that I'm trying to cross cultural lines. It 
sounds silly considering how diverse the country is. But, Naples 
is economically segregated in a way that cuts a division between 
races. This division made me think maybe people would be 
skeptical of me. But they were open and willing to talk. Conversely, 
I've covered people in other communities who I thought would be 
completely open with me and would allow access, yet they are 
seriously paranoid about exposure have been more than happy 
to tell me to take a hike. 

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One time I was covering a drug bust in the neighborhood and I received 
a lot of verbal hostility from people as I photographed those who were 
being arrested. It's understandable, but I just continued doing my job 
and tried to talk with the people who I recognized. That was years ago, 
long before this project was even a twinkle in the eye. If I had to 
cover the same thing now, now that I'm more recognizable in the 
community, I often wonder how people would react to me.

I think the more time I've spent there, the more people are okay with 
me being around when things aren't going well. I've invested the time 
during the happy occasions, so I hope many know I'm not just there to 
exploit their struggle during the bad.

TID:

What did you learn about yourself in this process?

LEXEY:

I think I learned that I'm pretty shy about shooting. I notice it 
more when I'm covering people who are from different cultural 
backgrounds than my own. Not that I am MORE shy with people 
from different backgrounds, I just NOTICE it more in myself. I 
realize that there are still times, even after being in this profession 
as long as I have, that I'm timid about raising the camera. I really 
hate that about myself. Seriously. But, I've had to really learn to 
listen to my gut and watch for visual cues of comfort in people 
I'm photographing. I don't know if this sounds rudimentary, but 
it's my experience. 

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Lexey Swall is currently a photojournalist at the Naples (Fla.) Daily 
News. Prior to that she worked as a photojournalism intern at The Star 
Tribune in Minneapolis, Minn., The Star-Ledger in Newark, NJ, The Los 
Angeles Daily News and at her hometown newspaper, The Bakersfield 
Californian.

Swall graduated from San Jose State University in 2002 where she 
received a Bachelor of Science degree in photojournalism with a minor 
in women's studies. She also received an Associate of Arts degree in 
journalism from Bakersfield College.

Swall has garnered awards from POYi and BOP, including an honorable 
mention as Best of Photojournalism 2006 Photographer of the Year (small 
markets) and several Florida state journalism competitions. She is an 
alumna of the Eddie Adams Workshop (2001) and was a finalist for the 
William Randolph Hearst National College Journalism Competition (2001).

You can view her work at:

http://www.lexeyswall.com/

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Next week on TID, we'll take a look behind this image from Brandon Tauszik,
who documented the last days of Harold Camping's followers who believed
the rapture would occur in May:

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want to know more about, contact Ross Taylor at: ross_taylor@hotmail.com.

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