Growing up in Logan Square, 24-year-old photographer Deanna J. Smith has seen all the changes swirling around the neighborhood. But for her recent photo class at Columbia College that focuses on photography as a social practice, she wanted to see what the neighborhood looked like from other people’s eyes, like newer residents, older folks, and diverse creatives. And in a time when the world wants us to be apart, bringing together the local community through a common and accessible thread felt extra important.
Her photo project, called Through Your Eyes, was born October 24 and acted like a social human experiment. She placed 12 disposable film cameras at the Logan Square monument park in a box with simple instructions: Grab a camera, take pictures of whatever you deem beautiful or interesting in the neighborhood, and return them to the box by mid-November. While all the cameras were snatched up within a few days, the return was cut in half. At one point, the box disappeared. One person who took a camera had a spontaneous trip and accidentally took it with them. But Smith says that’s part of the communal process and she had no expectations of participation. By the date of return, she ended up with six cameras filled with about 144 pictures able to be developed.
“It’s all about the community and it’s outside of yourself,” Deanna says of what she’s learning in her photo course. “You want to be very aware of what relationships you’re working with, how you are making people feel.”
Her goal for the project was to not only see views from another perspective and shine a light on hidden gems in the area, but also create art accessibility for folks who might otherwise turn the other way. In giving people an easy tool, she hopes that documenting yielded juicy conversations about neighborhood representation and beauty. And for those who don’t have social media or smartphones—or want to try and take a break from them—the film cameras are a respite from the daily buzz, a nostalgic throwback to simpler times.
That’s part of why 35-year-old photographer and resident Bryan McVey decided to participate in Through Your Eyes. He remembers growing up using film cameras to document events like school dances and family activities. The photo project is a “nod to the nostalgia, which brings lighthearted and good feelings to people,” McVey says.
Smith’s project also caught his eye because it circled back to one of his own community photo works. In 2017, he started a crowd-sourced disposable camera project with similar instructions at the festival Burning Man. That year he got one camera back. The next year, he tweaked the rules and got two cameras. The third year, he added an incentive for a higher camera return: a free, mailed deep-dish pizza. That helped him get the most cameras back.
He hopes the Through Your Eyes project inspires people to get creative and that Smith keeps up the work to engage the community via documentation. “It’s fun, artistic, and there’s a low bar to entry,” he says. “It’s the kind of engagement we need. We are all looking for distractions, and point-and-shoot cameras are the easiest lens into somebody else’s eyes.”
Smith got the photos back Tuesday and says it was a successful first run. “The photos are all beautiful in different ways and really show the eye of the photographer and the essence of Logan Square.”
She plans to unveil a public installation with the results December 8 in the centerfold of the neighborhood. Pandemic or not, the square is a place for residents to be outside and host DIY art installations. Even as it gets colder, there is always action there. That’s why the photographer chose that location to set up the pictures, which will be double-sided laminated 8-by-11-inch prints hung on clotheslines between tree branches.
“This project is all about accessibility and I don’t want anyone to feel like they are not welcome to come and look at the images and participate, whereas if you have an installation in a gallery, that’s very gatekeeper-y for people,” she says.
For Logan Square locals, or for those who only know the area for its scenic shots—think boulevards, murals, the monument, or the Logan Theatre marquee—Smith’s project is a chance to see what else the neighborhood offers that you might not have seen before. I’ve called Logan Square home for about four years, and exploring it is still one of my favorite activities (even more so during the pandemic). Smith’s favorite staple is the supermercado Brisa Foods at the corner of Kimball and Palmer.
“I think it’s beautiful we have this coexistence of diversity in the neighborhood,” she says. “We have our Logan Square staples that people love to photograph, but there are little things that if you are part of this community might mean more to you than others.” v
Through Your Eyes will be on display indefinitely, or until the wind and snow take over. For those who are uncomfortable with going to the park, Smith will also display the final prints on Instagram as a virtual art gallery.