James O’Neal was inspired by Gordon Parks to make photography his profession.
Marlo Thomas has compiled a book, “The Right Words at the Right Time,” in which well-known people tell how their lives were changed in a moment by just the right advice at a critical time. Photographer James O’Neal could have written one of the entries in that book.
Growing up in the 1960s in Philadelphia, and Greenville, South Carolina, O’Neal had few black role models.
“Bill Cosby on television was about the only black face I saw in the media,” he says.
But during the course of a civil rights demonstration he met photographer Gordon Parks, who told him to “throw images, not bricks.” Parks also gave him a copy of his book, “A Choice of Weapons,” which told how Parks used his camera as a tool for social change. O’Neal was inspired to make photography his profession.
Susan Boecher, a photography teacher at Augsburg College, Minneapolis College of Art and Design, and Metro State University, also came to believe that photographic images can be used to “enlighten, educate and engage the public to pressing social issues.” She developed curricula for community-based photography classes, usually connected with a social theme (AIDS, immigrant and refugee communities, homeless shelter residents) and culminating in public exhibitions or community forums.
Because she saw the need for a permanent organization, in 2005 Boecher founded OverExposure, the first Twin Cities media arts organization whose primary mission is to use photography to build community. In April 2006 the IRS granted OverExposure official tax-exempt status.
This July, OverExposure launched its first independent project, “What’s New?” a three-year undertaking that sends photographers into 10 Twin Cities neighborhoods to document the diversity, changes and challenges of urban life.
O’Neal, meanwhile, had established a career as a freelance photojournalist working for such newspapers as the Philadelphia Inquirer and the New Observer, and making documentary trips to Jamaica, Britain and West Africa. In Ghana he collaborated with his wife, Hamline University anthropology professor Kathryn Linn Geurts, taking photos for her book, “Culture and the Senses: Bodily Ways of Knowing in an African Community.”
Boecher announced her project on the University Neighborhood Network, held two informational sessions and secured participation from 10 Twin City neighborhoods, including St. Anthony Park, where O’Neal was assigned.
In the initial phase of the project, photographers, helped by neighborhood organizations — such as the St. Anthony Park Community Council — will document “changes and challenges created by growing diversity.”
Augsburg College will host an exhibition of the photos at the student center gallery from November 5 to December 5, and the work will also be shown at West Photo and the McKnight Foundation in 2008. Boecher is also in talks with the Minneapolis Public Library about a showing.
O’Neal applied to be one of the photographers and was chosen on the quality of his previous work, the depth of his experience and his interest in the project. He wanted to get involved with the neighborhood on a grass-roots level, explore his adopted city (he has lived here for four years) and continue his commitment to using his camera in the cause of social justice.
The St. Anthony Park Community Council, in return for its donation to OverExposure, will receive copies of the photographs to use for a year. Executive Director Amy Sparks says the council will have to see the pictures before it decides how they will be displayed and used for discussion.
The council suggested that O’Neal concentrate more on south St. Anthony Park because it is less well-known. “There is more hidden activity in this area than most people know,” Sparks says.
Council members took O’Neal on a tour of the community and continue to talk with him, but they want to give him a wide range of artistic license to capture the images he feels are important.
“I can see that there are clear lines of differentiation in this neighborhood,” says O’Neal, “but it is hard to get a visual image of those differences. It’s a residential community, yet it has the largest industrial concentration in the city. There are old houses and new lofts, resident and transient groups, professionals and blue-collar workers, but it’s difficult to show these contrasts in a photograph.”
O’Neal is also working on another project documenting the changing forms of faith in Minnesota, with photos of the Ethiopian Coptic Church on Minnehaha, some snake charmers, Aztecs and even some underground churches.
Other neighborhoods participating in the first phase of “What’s New?” include Dayton’s Bluff in St. Paul, and Bottineau, Corcoran, Jordan, Linden Hills, Longfellow, Marcy Holmes and Ventura Village in Minneapolis. For their services, participating photographers receive a grant and professional credentials that include exhibition and publication credit.
Boecher hopes eventually to include every Twin Cities neighborhood in the “What’s New?” project but realizes that’s a huge goal. Nevertheless, she’s committed to using photographs as a tool to help community organizations “strengthen neighborhood identity, promote greater understanding among diverse groups, build cultural pride and help avert possible cultural misconceptions.”
In the future, she would like to help photographers teach classes to diverse populations so that they, too, have a chance to “throw images instead of bricks.”
O’Neal welcomes suggestions for photographs. He can be contacted at www.culture-sense.com.