As part of a series of occasional articles about new and interesting things that Towsonites are doing, here’s a Q&A with John Patterson of West Towson, whose Uncensored City blog recently won a top prize in The Baltimore Sun’s Crabbies contest. The blog uses striking photos to represent life in Baltimore.
Tell us about your background
I was born in 1963 at Bon Secours Hospital in West Baltimore, but grew up across the city line in Westview. I sometimes can’t believe I was alive during such tumultuous times in Baltimore. It makes me want to go back, with a camera, and photograph it all.
I think I’ve always had a desire to document the world around me. As a teenager, I got a part-time job as a reporter for the Catonsville Times. And later, at the University of Maryland, College Park, I was managing editor of the campus daily, The Diamondback. In addition to journalism, I studied a lot of black history. I found myself almost obsessively drawn to the stories of injustice – many of which were playing out on the streets of Baltimore City.
In the years since college, I’ve worked as a writer and creative director at advertising agencies, in both D.C. and Baltimore. But I’ve never lost my desire to tell stories and document what I see.
When did you start The Uncensored City, and why did you start it?
I’ve been a writer for most of my life, but I’ve always had a curiosity about photography. In 2011, I bought a camera and started teaching myself. By 2013, I felt confident enough to launch The Uncensored City. It fed my desire to document real life. And life doesn’t get more real than what you’ll find within the city limits. There are scenes of joy and sorrow, sometimes on the same block. For an artist, the subject matter is endless.
I decided to label the page “uncensored” because I wanted to give myself the freedom to photograph exactly what I see. I didn’t want to be confined to shots that only painted the city in a favorable light. I feel a responsibility to be honest and depict the totality of what I see.
What are you trying to convey in the images?
I want people to see the city for exactly what it is: A complex place filled with complex human beings. It’s easy to think of Baltimore in only one way. But I take thousands of photographs, and with each one I try to paint a bigger picture than exists in the minds of many.
That said, the page continues to evolve as the city evolves. I used to focus almost exclusively on candid street scenes. Today, I shoot a lot more rallies and protests and vigils. Some are in reaction to the policies of President Trump. Others focus on police violence, or the murder rate. I think one benefit of Trump’s election is that more people are exercising their democratic right to protest. I’ve seen folks who would never have taken to the streets holding signs and marching for so many different causes. I find it inspiring to see democracy on display. And I like to use my camera to document their passion.
Is your intended audience the people in the neighborhoods you’re shooting?
My audience is anyone who’s interested in Baltimore, and in what’s really going on. I shoot in every neighborhood in the city, but I’m not trying to reach any one neighborhood. That said, it’s amazing how often the people I photograph find themselves in the photos.
In the back of my mind, I also hope that those in the greater metropolitan area will see the photographs and feel more connected. They might not want to see, but if they do, I want to show them.
And then there’s history. I like the idea that my photographs could be among those discovered by historians years from now. I like contributing to that narrative.
How much time do you spend on it in a given week?
I try to shoot at least four times a week, depending on the season. When it stays light later, I’m able to shoot more after work. This is the worst time of year for someone who relies on daylight. Once I’m out, I’m generally shooting for about three hours.
How do you approach your subjects? Do you tell them about TUC or just shoot and move on?
It depends what, and who, I’m shooting. Until recently, most of my photography has been candid. In those circumstances, I try to make myself invisible. I want to capture reality, not influence it. I’m also an introvert by nature, so it’s kind of natural for me to hang back and just photograph what I see.
With protests and vigils, I can’t hide. I try to get as close as I can to the people who are putting themselves out there. They’re usually happy to be photographed. Happy that someone is paying attention.
Do you ever feel uncomfortable taking the shots, either because they’re too personal or you’re nervous the subjects will react badly to being photographed?
I do feel nervous when they’re not sure what I’m doing there, with a camera. It’s not easy to quickly explain the role of a documentary photographer. One man followed me throughout Highlandtown until finally confronting me. We talked for a while and he eventually asked if I would take his family portrait. On other occasions, people have thought I’m a cop. Given the level of tension between communities and police, that’s not a perception I embrace. But surprisingly, I’m not questioned very often.
And yes, there have been times when I haven’t taken the picture for exactly the reasons you cite. I’m afraid they’ll react badly. Or I’ll intrude on a personal moment. I try to look at the circumstances. For instance, I was at a candlelight vigil recently to raise awareness of gun violence in the city. I was taking a lot of intimate, personal portraits that night. Then I noticed one of the women so caught up in the emotion of the evening that she started to cry. I believe she may have lost someone close to her from gun violence. I hesitated, but then shot the picture. Because she was there to tell a story. And I was there to document it.
Do you shoot while walking around or from your car or both?
I used to shoot more from my car. It enabled me to cover wide swaths of the city in one outing, and be largely unseen. But today I mostly shoot on foot. I’ll drive to an area, and walk for hours. It’s great exercise, and you see things on foot that you’d never spot from a car.
What are some of your favorite shots and why?
My favorite shots are those that make you feel something.
In the course of a week I was able to document the vandalism and eventual removal of all the Confederate statues in Baltimore. At one location, near the Baltimore Museum of Art, an artist had replaced the statues of Lee and Jackson with a paper mache statue of a pregnant African-American woman with her fist in the air. As I was photographing it, a similarly dressed African-American woman walked up to the base of the statue, and raised her fist in solidarity. I literally lunged forward to take the picture, nudging someone out of the way. But I’m so glad to have captured that brief moment, which might otherwise have never been documented.
Another series of photographs that sticks out in my mind was taken during the weekend of the first Baltimore Ceasefire, last August. I spent Friday afternoon capturing a few rallies throughout the city, of people who were trying so hard to do something about the horrific murder rate in the city. The next evening, feeling like I had reasonably captured the event, I was sitting down to dinner when I saw a post on Facebook from the Ceasefire organizers. Someone had been shot an hour earlier, and they were asking the community to show up at the murder site.
I headed there immediately, while the fire department was still cleaning the blood off the sidewalk. I took a photograph of a young firefighter washing away the blood with water pouring out of an orange traffic cone. That was just something I’d never seen before. It was so graphic, and yet, I wanted people to really see the consequences of this violence. Soon after that, the community gathered for a lovely prayer vigil. I captured some emotional scenes that night, including a group shot of Ceasefire participants who stood together with heavy hearts, but a steely determination to not give up.
What else should people know about this project?
Just know that I’m only one person. And that I don’t pretend to represent the totality of Baltimore. There are many great photographers in town, each with his or her own background and biases. I’m just trying to contribute to a larger understanding of the city.
On a personal level, I’d also encourage anyone who has a passion for something to follow their heart and explore it. Especially people in my age group, who might feel like it’s too late to change who they are. I never imagined that I’d be doing what I’m doing with photography. I just started doing it. And it’s been so rewarding.
The Towson Flyer
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