Interview with David Schalliol

SRO is pleased to be back for the 2011-2012 school year. To start this year off, we have an interview with our current showing artist, David Schalliol.  Be sure to check out our Exhibits Schedule for artist information and upcoming exhibit dates. Keep checking the blog for more interviews, highlights, events, and general information!

A Ph.D. student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago and the Visiting Assistant Professor of Social Sciences at the Illinois Institute of Technology, David Schalliol’s interests span urban sociology, social stratification, visual sociology, culture and the sociology of education. He is currently focusing on the role of inequality in the construction of the built environment through his project, Isolated Building Studies.

Explain your feelings about Chicago. Tell us how this may differ from the South and West side of Chicago and why are you interested in continuing to work in such dilapidated parts of the city?

 I’ve happily been in Chicago for nine years. I’m finishing my PhD at the University of Chicago and have been teaching as a visiting assistant professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology for about four years. I grew up just outside of Indianapolis, and living in the Midwest was probably a factor in where I selected a graduate program. However, I was looking for a program that emphasizes interdisciplinary study as well as a focus on urban issues, and the University of Chicago’s Department of Sociology has a strong tradition in both fields – it was a logical choice to sort of settle there. Chicago has stayed true to its urban connection as one of the birthplaces of American sociology.

Personally, for me it’s a great city. It’s become my adopted home; it’s a vibrant city, it’s negotiable – it’s easy to get around in. That said, socioeconomically it may be a different story. One of Chicago’s big downsides is that it’s one of the most segregated cities in the United States on most any demographic you want to focus on. So, if you look at the South and the West sides compared to the North side of town (not to say places outside the South and West sides do not have their areas of concentrated disadvantage) the vast majority of said disadvantage is on those sides.

I live in Hyde Park and, thanks to the university, the area has survived as a stable community in an economic sense over the period despite the relative collapse of surrounding communities. It’s the traditional northern story of what happened to those areas: industrialization, red lining, all sorts of other kinds of racial issues and the problems that plague most cities in the northeast and Midwest with industrial heritages – Chicago has those same issues. As those jobs left the city and as racial tensions developed in the way they did, what we saw were basically white people fleeing most of the communities on the South and West sides. Additionally, federal programs, for instance, the way that they chose to put housing projects in concentrated areas that were already economically disadvantaged, fed into those existing dynamics on the South and West sides of the city.

I’ve always been interested in the dynamics of inequality. I’ve had personal experiences that have connected me in one way or another to the issues, whether it be when I was in high school I spent a lot of time in sort of a neighborhood dissimilar from my suburban life – and that was an early, powerful experience. More than that, I’ve always had an interest in bigger social issues and the policy arena that deals with those issues; and I’ve always wanted to do work that would in some way speak to those in some way – perhaps by raising awareness and then either through or in addition to working on solutions to the dynamics of inequality.

In interviews in the past you’ve mentioned your desire for your photos to have political or community-changing impact; what is it you would ultimately like to see come of your photos? How do you feel toward the progress that has been made in your communities of focus?

At this point I’m doing work that’s more documentary than advocacy oriented, but there are ways that documentary work in a way becomes advocacy work. The way I see my role at this point is investigating the relationships at play in Chicago and that can lay foundation for other kinds of policy solutions. I’m not looking to get into politics, per se, but I’m young. In an immediate sense I’d like there to be attention drawn to these issues even if it’s helping to reinsert a narrative about the complications of investment and divestment on the South and West sides of the city. I see that as being advantageous. I think that in the long run, if I were to think what my ultimate goals were, I’d say true community redevelopment in which all parties are satisfied. Often what we see in redevelopment scenarios are those who previously lived in the community don’t have the opportunity to return, and that’s problematic. As neighborhoods’ economic fortunes change I think there’s a way to structure that so that those who are already there can stay and enjoy the fruits of a revitalized community.

I do not think photographs alone are doing this, but that’s why I say we have this idea of opening up a discourse regarding these issues. I felt like being on the South side that I had this really great opportunity to go out and photograph areas that other people weren’t. And it’s just a basic reminder that this should be part of the landscape in a way that’s not simply reading about, for example, wherever the shootings were last night or where the feature piece about an organization doing something good in a bad part of the city was located. Instead, I’m hoping to bring some mundane aspect of the communities into the public eye by showing what housing looks like, what churches in these areas look like. Showing those daily aspects of life could fill in some public info of what’s going on in these areas. It was a personal motivation to make sure that material was up there.

When I first began taking photos in Chicago it was right at the beginning of the housing bubble. What we were seeing was a lot of demolition and speculative development occurring; the speculation possibly looking for public funds with programs designed to pay private market rents for people who qualified for subsidized housing without public housing. So you might build a development like that, but there was a lot of other construction occurring at the housing margins. And part of my interest was photographing what was there because so much of it was getting demolished really rapidly. We were losing beautiful 1880’s buildings and other important, at least formally important community buildings. I wanted to document some of these things before they became eradicated.

As housing market peaked and collapsed, it’s become a different story where foreclosure is more prevalent alongside bank ownership. There are more and more of these open and derelict buildings, so it’s been awful to watch the ebb and flow of the market take its physical toll, of course in turn having a tremendous social impact on the community. People are paying attention to these photos and as this issue has become more well known; other people have stepped up and started taking photos, writing articles, things like that.

What research was done in determining which buildings to photograph for the Isolated Building Studies? When did you decide this would become a project of focus? What inspiration was drawn from your other photography projects or educational past?

It’s a funny project in the sense that it started out as exploration. One of the reasons I love photography and sociology is for getting to know places. So what I’d do, I’d drive around the city, bike around whatever, and just look to find places I hadn’t been before. Once you drive around long enough, patterns start to appear, and this is just one of those things that popped out to me. I started taking a few photographs of the isolated buildings, and I thought it was kind of interesting.

I started getting positive feedback about the project from photo communities, and so I started thinking about it more. I started thinking about what I could be able to do with photographic project that I was hoping could move beyond the typical evidence-based approach that maybe one might take in a traditional sociological study or where one uses photos as evidence of something to be able to approach this as a documentary project, but to also think of it as something that could be different from that. Ideally, I wanted to engage a concept of a visual argument answering how I could structure images as objects in relationship to each other or to raise awareness of issues in a viewer as they engage the project. It was really an experiment to see where I could go with that, and I started teasing out other sub themes, thinking about representing movement- transportation, things like that. In a good number of images you’ll find a good number of elevated rail lines in the background or old freight lines as a way to symbolize or bring other aspects of the community into the image without directly brining people into the image.

How many buildings have you photographed altogether?

Right now I have 575 buildings I photographed, isolated buildings. It’s a lot of buildings, but it’s not a ubiquitous phenomenon, but certainly there are elements of it in which most cities have faced. Philadelphia, for instances, started out looking really different but ended up with some of the same similar manifestations. The physical characteristics of the cities all make them unique and the experience of this unique, but in Chicago, it has its own character and I think that it is a surprising number of buildings, but surely there are thousands of them.

What are these buildings that you’ve found?

I haven’t looked at specific places of buildings’ location, but I have checked the construction dates on a few. I’m advantaged a little when I say I know the history of the city and history of these buildings.  I know a little about the buildings simply based on the neighborhood and what I know about its place in the city. Some of the history has been helpful. I see correlation with my other projects. On one hand, Isolated Building Studies, while it’s about history and resilience along with decline, it really emphasizes the building that’s standing there as the thing that remains; my other projects are sort of taking what’s on the side. It’s looking at the building that didn’t survive and what’s happening in their place – or, in the few buildings that have survived, looking at what people are sort of reclaiming.

How have community leaders perceived your work once you have shared your photos with the public?

I’m not at the point where I’m presenting this material to leaders. I’m certainly involved, but probably the main way officials in the capacity of local government would make a connection with my work would be in relationship to historical preservation efforts. I work with a number of not-for-profit organizations in the city who do work brining attention to environments as preservation.

I may document buildings, and those become included in a contemporary documentation of the quality of buildings in communities. It might be a historic building survey of a community; it might be going out and visiting specific buildings and looking at what is particularly noteworthy for social reasons or for physical attributes. In that way, people in specific, I suppose bureaucratic, elected positions, would be interfacing with the work in that way.

There is other research I’ve been involved with that will ultimately directly engage policy makers, and it’s work that builds off of photography, but it’s different work that will be discussed. Other projects may be related to policy makers, although we’ll be presenting it in academic journals rather than directly to policy makers, but it will inform the policy debate about the frameworks that are utilizing theories of social reform.

Perhaps it is safe to say many do not regularly venture into the communities you photograph outside of their residents; how have citizens in the different parts of the communities reacted to your presence and work?

 People do not usually visit the South and West sides specifically. One of the things that pushed me to do more work on the South and West sides, other than simply living where I do, was that when I would look at photos of city of Chicago online, they were dominated by photos of what was going on on the North side and Hyde Park and very few other neighborhoods, instead of what’s really going on in the whole city.

The city has done a good job of highlighting specific attractions in communities all over the city, but there’s always a little bit of a backlash to that. Every once in a while you’ll see something on the city’s website about something in a neighborhood with a public commenter warning visitors not to go, but chances are things are going to be fine. People don’t go to those places, they don’t know what the place is like and I think that prejudice continues to be pervasive.

I’m always aware of my outsider status, most of the communities I stand out in as a Caucasian guy pulling up in a Volvo, and I stick out; there’s no doubt about it. Clearly I’m an outsider when I’ve got my camera and my tri-pod and I’m not used to being seen on their block. I try to talk to people, and usually I have very positive conversations with people, and I tell them what’s going on, what my interests are and what I am doing; people are pretty receptive. Not to say there hasn’t been problems, but secondarily there is the question as to who I am. I may be well received, but I may not be great for someone if they think I’m doing investigative work and so I think there are reasons for someone to be wary of me. I understand their concerns, and I would be equally suspicious in their shoes. To see some guy taking a photograph of a building on my block would make me wonder what was going on. I don’t think it’s unusual to be a concerned citizen, so I try to be really straightforward with what I’m doing. I don’t hide what’s going on or try to be quick to avoid detection. I try to be deliberate, purposeful and open with what I’m doing because I think it demonstrates I’m not trying to pull someone over on someone- that’s not my intention at all. I’ve had times people have asked me not to photograph something, and I haven’t. I’m not sure why they don’t want me to take the pictures; they could be concerns about my possible bad intent and again, I understand that. While it’s fully within my legal rights to stand on the street and take a photograph of something, but it doesn’t mean I have to. It doesn’t mean that I’m going to stop working in these communities, but I think it doesn’t mean I need a good reason to be doing that, that I’m not intentionally brazen in the face of them.

Where is ”Isolated Buildings” headed in the future? Do you have plans for other projects? 

I’m still actively involved in the project. Working on other projects has slowed down my focus on this one, but I’m still working on it and go out occasionally when I’m not traveling to shoot – and there are a couple buildings I like to photograph at different times. I’m just continuing the build the project. I’ve got other things going on, and I’m not looking to take Isolated Buildings beyond Chicago. I think of that project as being about Chicago-land, about a study of a place. When I’m out other places I do take photographs of buildings that are in similar situations – I’m sure there are places even in Lubbock like Chicago that have been demolished or lots not built on yet – but it seems different than the work I’ve already done in Chicago. Elsewhere, to me, it’s a totally different project. Similar issues, but different cities, so I’ve just honed in on the Chicago aspect of the project there. At some point I may connect some dots with my other projects, but it’s all still in the works.

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