Posted January 4th 2012 at 11:00 pm by
in Featured Contributor

A Conversation with Aditi Mehta

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The first media project you did was a photography project with kids living in a Baltimore housing project. How did you come up with the idea for the project, and what happened?

When I worked at Telesis Corporation, an affordable housing developer that was hired by the Housing Authority of Baltimore City to create a redevelopment plan for the Barclay neighborhood, my job was to facilitate community planning workshops.

It was important to us that we include feedback from residents into the plan. These meetings were held in an old church basement, and followed a fairly typical format. Architects presented a design board, participants responded one by one to the presentation, and I took meticulous notes to share with my colleagues.

While these workshops took place, the kids living in the neighborhood were always running around outside the church. I realized communication with them was missing and they too needed to be part of the planning process. The basement church meetings were not going to hold the attention of any middle-school student.

I turned to photography as a means to engage the young people in Barclay, and it worked. For six weeks, every Saturday, five Barclay adolescents came together to learn how to take pictures and discuss the images that came out of their disposable cameras. The children’s art spoke of violence, gangs, single parenthood, property negligence, but also showcased family networks, traditions, celebrations, and joy. They learned so much about themselves, one another, and their neighborhood.

Telesis too gained a new understanding of the area, and the children’s photos influenced the plan to include more recreational space and an intergenerational community center. At the final exhibition of their work, the young photographers stood proudly near their photos and shared Barclay with each person who attended the show.

Is it possible to listen to a place? How?

Places are defined by the people who live, work, and frequent them. They are a product of their past and are continuously changing. Therefore, I think to truly listen to a place requires understanding the past, hearing the present, and looking to the future. I believe you have to use your eyes to listen. Look around and reflect about what you see. Listening to a place also requires trust; you have to trust the people who know it best and they need to trust you.

City planners often work in cities and neighborhoods that they don’t live in. Has photography helped you find a way to be a ‘good outsider’?

I grapple with the “outsider-insider” issue every time I enter a place different from my own to embark on a planning project. I use photography to connect with the people who live in these places. Photos are a great starting point for conversation with someone you don’t know well or who doesn’t seem to have much in common with you. I never want to take photos alone because then I only see things from my perspective. Giving a camera to someone else helps me to see through that person’s eyes. I don’t know if this makes me a “good outsider” but I do know it helps me learn things about a place that I otherwise would not have known.

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