Camden is — what? City residents tell their stories for a photo project displayed on abandoned buildings
Photographer Erik James Montgomery's ongoing series, “Camden Is…Bright Not Blight” aims to put new faces and vocabulary to the city’s story.
Ayinde Merrill remembers his first semester at Stockton University; he was hanging out with a guy named Chandler and happened to mention that he hailed from Camden.
The response? “R.I.P., man.” Rest in Peace.
Merrill, now 26 and president of Watu Moja (“One People”), a Camden nonprofit that connects Black and Afro-Latinx young people to education and social justice projects around the world, says his classmate’s response is a common one.
“The level of concern from people when you tell them you’re from Camden is baffling,” he says. “Like you’re living in Iraq or something. We have families. We have art. We have restaurants. We exchange sunflower seeds. All our neighbors know each other.”
Countering Camden’s grim reputation is one reason Merrill has shown up, on a chilly Monday night, at the photography studio of Erik James Montgomery, whose ongoing series, “Camden Is … Bright Not Blight” aims to put new faces and vocabulary to the city’s story.
Camden has about 74,000 residents, with more than one-third living in poverty, according to the 2019 Census. But the crime rate reached a 50-year low in 2020.
Montgomery’s Camden Is project, launched in fall 2020 as part of a $1 million Bloomberg Philanthropies Public Art Challenge grant, involves black-and-white portraits of city residents, each enlarged to 30x40 inches and printed on weather-resistant banners along with the phrase “Camden Is …” and the word each person supplied to complete it: “Camden Is … empowering.” “Camden Is … generative.” “Camden Is … underrated.”
A handful of the posters, along with sketches and photographs chronicling other facets of the larger project, called “Camden: A New View,” are on exhibit through Dec. 11 at the Rutgers-Camden Center for the Arts.
At a November panel discussion marking the exhibit, Vedra Chandler, project manager at Camden Community Partnership, an umbrella organization focused on revitalizing the city, talked about her hope that such images can change minds and ultimately shape policy — for instance, by curbing the illegal dumping that plagues parts of the city.
“We want to give people a new view of our city — something a little more accurate, a little more effervescent, a little more beautiful. We want to make sure people understand that this city is not a dumping ground. This is people’s home.”
Terina Nicole Hill sat beaming in the audience that night. She is the mother of the youngest of Montgomery’s photo subjects, now 3. His poster reads, “Camden Is … my name.”
“People say, ‘Why would you name your child after such a dangerous place?’” said Hill, who teaches fashion design at Mastery Charter High School. “I tell them, ‘Camden’s a beautiful place.’”
Hill hopes the photos will alter perceptions of Camden not only for outsiders, but also for those who live in the city. “I think it’s important for people who don’t leave their community often to see it for what it is: You do not live in a dump. You do not live in hell. See the beauty in what is, right now. You have power to change the way things are.”
For the project, Montgomery sought subjects diverse in ethnicity, gender, profession, and age. He captured Felix Moulier (“Camden Is … us”), a resident who bought the vacant, weed-choked lot next to his house and planted trees on it. He photographed Tina Baker (“Camden Is … legendary”), a 23-year-old dancer and model who prizes her resilience in recovering from a torn ACL in college. He pictured Brian Phillips (“Camden Is … God’s home”), coordinator of the Future Scholars program at Rutgers University, his palms pressed together and eyes angled prayerfully upward.
“Take a step forward, and a step to your right,” Montgomery said to Merrill on that Monday night in his studio at the FireWorks building on Broadway. Merrill struck a “philosopher” pose, chin dipped slightly, fingers touching his goatee, lips set in a sober line.
As Camille Wilson, 26, and Reet Starwind, 28, who also work at Watu Moja, waited their turns to be photographed, they bantered about the city they call home.
Merrill’s dad and Starwind’s dad played football together at Camden High School. Starwind’s grandmother taught Merrill’s mom in middle school. They’ve all heard stories from Camden elders about the city’s “glory days.”
These young adults insist there’s a renaissance — and they’re not talking about high-end waterfront development that obscures longtime residents’ views of the sunset. Instead, they mention vegan block parties and the October unveiling of a statue of Jersey Joe Walcott, a local boxing legend; they riff about the guy who sells bean pies next to Donkey’s Place.
The grant called for Montgomery to photograph 75 people, and he did that. But the artist, a self-described “overachiever,” is aiming for 100 and hopes to display all the portraits somewhere in the city next spring.
In the meantime, they remain in the wall-less museum of Camden’s streets, affixed to abandoned buildings on Mount Ephraim Avenue, Vine Street, and elsewhere, about ten addresses in all.
Montgomery hopes to bring Camden residents and visitors into conversation with the portraits. “A lot of people I serve will never go to a museum, but they will definitely walk down their street several times a day.”
The following morning, that’s exactly what happens on Mount Ephraim Avenue near Carl Miller Boulevard, where Montgomery’s next canvas is a cluster of vacant rowhouses across from Eddies II Liquor and the Chain Breakers Recovery Program. He sets up a folding ladder and fills his power stapler; he doesn’t use adhesive to hang the portraits, in case a building is sold or demolished in the future.
These houses once had bay windows. The glass is gone now, the doors occluded, the paint chewed by time. Montgomery attaches the new portraits — Wilson’s in the middle, with Starwind to the left and Merrill on the right — to the water-stained plywood with a fusillade of staples. Thwak. Thwak. Thwakthwakthwak.
When he’s finished, Wilson and Starwind (Merrill’s a graduate student at Penn and couldn’t make it for the installation) offer a round of applause. “Seeing all the faces reminds me it isn’t only one person’s journey to uplift Camden,” Starwind says.
A few feet from the posters, 52-year-old Elaine Weaver is waiting for a bus. She says she’s lived in Camden for only two years. What does she like about it? “Most people stick together.”
Weaver glances up at the trio of faces and phrases: ”Camden Is … deeply-rooted.” “Camden Is … ubuntu.” (Humanity.) “Camden Is … tribe.”