My love for low light photography and street photography draws me into the night, camera in hand, consistently. The aim is always to brush up with Brassai and show Oakland’s nocturnal aura. Paris isn’t Oakland and Oakland isn’t Paris. The sleepy romantic secrets of Brassaï’s Paris are far from Oakland’s open air creative culture, its “on fleek” style, and its hyphee movements.
On Friday, December 2nd, 36 people lost their life in a deadly fire at an artist live/work warehouse space know as the Ghost Ship in Oakland’s Fruitvale District. A night of celebration turned tragic at the warehouse when a fire broke out trapping dozens inside. This set documents the community’s overwhelming sense of loss and their need to express it.
Oakland’s Chinatown is all about getting a bargain on fresh food. Close enough to the Port of Oakland and Oakland’s central produce market, you can’t beat the prices on fresh greens, pork, poultry, or fresh sea food (from cat fish to eel).
Lately I have been preoccupied, pondering why photography seems to gravitate to these ethnic enclaves. One can read Chinatown photographs as a kind of internal travel photography that at some level objectifies the subjects it captures. Weary of enacting the colonial gaze, I battle with my desire to shoot as an outsider.
This shot illustrates the anxiety I articulate above because I wanted to make a portrait of this friendly pop-up fruit seller as she seemed friendly enough but every time I pointed that lens at her she raised her hand as if saying hello, but blocking her face on purpose. After the fourth click I realized that was the shot: her clean, tidy fruit set up waiting for the next customer to sell her handful of goods. I like the shot because it was clear it was ok for me to take the shot, but it needed to be done on her terms, stripping away the power of the camera and a potential colonial gaze.
I began this series because more and more, this corner of Oakland is becoming dear to me and I fear that it is only a matter of time before the sea-change that is rapidly transforming the cityscape also claims Chinatown for the sake if new luxury development. It’s only a matter of time, thus the Chinatown Hustle series seeks to document its working life and people.
Oakland has a long, deep tradition of activism. From the Black Panthers to the Black Block of the occupy movement to the most recent Black Lives Matters movement,
strong advocates for common humanity make Oakland home. As an observer of the city’s movements for the last decade, Pancho stands out as a figure reminiscent of Mario Salvio who doesn’t hold back to speak truth to power. He carries a flag imprinted with a globe because universal human rights is his cause.
On this day he was happy to meet Bobby Seale, who graciously granted I take a portrait of them together. I meant for this shot to have historical significance as it shows the penthouse that Huey P. Newton lived at when we was finally exonerated from attempt of murder charges in his infamous 1968 case.
Pancho reminds me of one of those prophets in Biblical time whose commitment to truth and justice defines his conviction to refuse excess, rely on the bare essentials to finds rightiousness. I love that the camera reveals these figures to me as I realize that without it I would miss the Ghaindi’s and King’s around me.