“I like taking photos because I can find new things in the neighborhood.” This quote, by a young photographer, hangs amidst an exhibition of photographs on the ground floor of the Indiana State Museum. The PETAL project — Photographing Eastside Transformation and Legacy — is a work facilitated by Theater of Inclusion and commissioned by the Super Bowl Host Committee as a way of documenting the Legacy Project on the Near Eastside.
The Near Eastside Legacy Project — a constellation of efforts aimed at revitalizing this long-struggling neighborhood — helped win Indianapolis its bid to host the Super Bowl. Theater of Inclusion’s PETAL Project became part of this initiative last summer. TOI’s Rebecca Hutton and Dante Ventresca worked with a dozen neighborhood teens through a process that used photography to engage the young artists in an ongoing dialogue about themselves and how they relate to their community.
This process exemplifies the art of social engagement practiced by TOI. “We’ve constantly explored how collaborative structures play themselves out in community. And how you develop a response to community needs through dialogue,” says Ventresca, who has worked in partnership with Hutton for the past 12 years. In the case of the PETAL Project, this meant listening to young people and creating opportunities for them to express themselves through photography, writing and public discourse.
“What was really important to us was that these young people had a chance to reflect on what they wanted their own legacy to be,” says Hutton.
From the outset, TOI made it clear to the Super Bowl Legacy Committee and the Arts Council of Indianapolis that while they wanted a show that would conform to professional exhibition standards, the process involved would transcend the products.
Ventresca describes TOI’s process as “inquiry-based.” In working with the teens he says, “I realized these kids wanted to have a conversation. They wanted to talk about a safe place to live, to talk about their lives, to put their lives together, to talk about the relationships they want to have and how that’s place-based in their minds.”
The kids were equipped with small digital cameras and encouraged to take lots of pictures, often of the same subjects. Hutton says this amounted to a lesson in perspective. “There’s room to explore and it’s not wasteful to look at things from different angles. You can acknowledge you didn’t see something somebody else did.”
Hutton says that, in many ways, photography served as the project’s “MacGuffin,” a pretext to get the kids actively engaged with where they live. None of the kids, for example, had ever set foot in the new Indy Food Co-op’s Pogue’s Run Grocer. They didn’t know if they were allowed to enter the brightly painted building, or what its rules might be. “They were intimidated by this space,” says Hutton.
This led to the kind of group discussion that Hutton says formed “the heartbeat of the project.” The kids, says Ventresca, “see their geography from the standpoint of access and permission.” They were struck by the discovery they were welcome in the new grocery store.
On another day, the kids were encouraged to talk about what they wanted their own legacy to be. Hutton says they agreed they wanted little children in the neighborhood to feel safe outside, walking on the sidewalk.
“There was this moment,” she says, “when everything stopped and I asked, ‘Well, who are those little kids afraid of?’ And you saw a light bulb go off. These teenagers knew the information, but they hadn’t figured it out. They said: ‘They’re afraid of us.’”
Hutton then asked the kids what they could do about this. “Not the right answer, but what can you really commit to doing?”
The kids decided they could smile at the little ones and make way for them on the sidewalk.
“That goes to the heart of our work,” says Hutton. “Which is you can’t focus on changing the world. You have to focus on what you can commit to doing every day. Let’s peel off the gloss and the slogans and right answers and ideals and say, ‘This is really simple but I can do it every day.’ Let’s see if we can get to a place we want to go, rather than just talking about the place we want to go.”
Ventresca adds: “The community at large is hungry for ways to affirm that what they do does count. We created this space for those kids to occupy and they made something with it. The evidence of it is in this collection of extraordinary writings and photographs. Art takes us back to the beginning and asks us to start over again.” The PETAL Project exhibition is open through March 25 at the Indiana State Museum.