Getting to know the neighbors

Julie and Mark Swenson are part of a neighborhood photography project.

Julie and Mark Swenson are part of a neighborhood photography project.

PHOTOGRAPHY | Sheila McLaughlin

I had a problem: I didn’t know where to borrow a cup of sugar.

I’m an artist who has lived in the same flat in the neighborhood for 20 years, but I hardly knew any of my neighbors.

Those who lived above had moved away. Same for those next door, across the street and around the corner. I saw some of the neighbors who remain; I looked into their windows; I parked my car in front of their homes. But to see them isn’t to know them.

Camera in hand, I set out to change that. Earlier this year, I began photographing the people in my immediate neighborhood in an attempt to weave together a community through photography. The conceit was simple: I approached people on the street and asked to come into their homes and photograph them.
With surprisingly little hesitation, they’ve said yes. It turns out that I am not alone: Living in a city surrounded by people is isolating for many. We are crammed up against each other by concrete, but might as well have rivers and mountains between us.

My project documenting — and attempting to change — this shared experience is called simply “Neighbors.”


Our neighborhood has evolved dramatically during the last two decades. Once a predominantly black part of town, the Western Addition has been gentrified and de-gentrified with the Bay Area’s dot-com boom and busts. Now it’s filled with a racially eclectic mix of young people who can pay high rents, plus people like me who stay because of rent control and a few veteran owners who have lived here since the 1970s.

Since beginning my project in March, I’ve captured subjects living along Bush, Sutter, Post and nearby streets. Through my lens, I’ve discovered artists, a juggler, even men prancing about in flamingo outfits. I’ve documented people and their pets, murals scrawled on rented bedroom walls and an immigrant with a giant American flag draped above her bed. One couple who had invited President Obama to their wedding posed near the framed letter of the White House’s gracious decline.  

They are intimate moments both ordinary and extraordinary.

I’m shooting with color film to best capture the full spectrum of our neighborhood. Film demands a careful and slow approach to the picture-making process; it is expensive, increasingly difficult to find and slows everything down — which seems to me a perfect antidote to the hustle-bustle of the city.

The photographs, along with short biographical sketches of the subjects, are posted on a blog and shared with all participants — the first stitches of our new community quilt. Neighbors post the images to their Facebook accounts. Comments pile up. Social networking is functioning as it was designed: to connect people. An online and offline community is forming simultaneously.

I began this project to express my own sense of isolation, then ended up not only documenting that emotion, but altering it in the process. The estrangement that once gripped me — as I passed by people on the street and neither of us said hello — has waned. It has been replaced by waves of acknowledgment and friendship. My project has spurred dinner parties, lunches, teas, a camping trip and invitations to board game nights among those photographed. A number of participants are now organizing a neighborhood potluck; the photographs will be projected during the gathering.

You can see more of the “Neighbors” project here. If you’re interested in participating, I’d love to meet you and discuss it over a cup of tea. I can bring the sugar.

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