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Day 2: Downtown dilapidation and the ethics of photography in Petersburg

By Erica Shekell

As we approached Petersburg, Va., Freedom Rider Dion Diamond explained to us over the bus microphone that on our left was a new mall which had devastated the thriving downtown economy when the mall was built. It wasn’t until we saw the downtown that this meant anything to us.

The bus dropped us off across the street from the old Trailways station where the original Riders had stopped. Mr. Diamond led the group of us around the corner and down a long, sloping street. The street was lined with myriad small shops – wig shops, doll repair shops, ice cream and massage parlors, old department stores and a number of unique shops of very specific niches – and the majority of them were closed, boarded up, for sale or abandoned. Paint was peeling off the bricks.

We were almost the only ones walking on the sidewalks. Even the stores that seemed to still be surviving were closed at the time, perhaps because it was Sunday and Mother’s Day. Our group was so large that we overflowed off the sidewalk and halfway into the road – but it didn’t matter – we were in no one’s way because no one was there.  Several of the students commented that this street was one of the eeriest places they’d ever seen.

It was hard to believe that something so apparently vibrant had been so completely devastated. We couldn’t wrap our heads around it. Peter made the comment, “I can’t get over how a city dies.”

We understood then what the mall had done to what looked like an amazing and vibrant local economy.

It was strange when a lone pedestrian or a single car passed us. There were about 50 of us – “probably the biggest number of people who have been on this road in 10 years,” someone commented – and we all had cameras and video cameras. Many of us were in nice clothes. I felt that we were very conspicuous – that we were tourists invading a solemn place that ought not to be invaded or trivialized through photographing it.

I wasn’t sure if we were looking at the town correctly through our numerous lenses. Some of us were photographing it for its aesthetic and photogenic qualities – looking at it with the eyes of an artist – and others seemed to be photographing it from a photojournalistic standpoint – photos meant to reveal the truth and change it. A few students were posing for photos on a bench near a small tree, and I wondered if they were looking at the scene from the eyes of a tourist – one who sees it as a spectacle and wants to show photos of themselves there just to impress their friends – but I wasn’t certain if this is what they thought.

I wondered if it was right to treat the dilapidated downtown as this place of exoticism and mystique – particularly when it was not some fantasy or a museum display, but a possibly inescapable reality for real people. It made me question the ethics of our photography along the Ride and photography of such things in general.

Petersburg was a very different experience in that we weren’t learning just about a historical problem that has been already solved, but an example of a problem that will be our job to solve.


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5 responses to “Day 2: Downtown dilapidation and the ethics of photography in Petersburg”

  1. Christine Zeigler

    9th May, 11

    Amazing! My grandmother and mother were born and raised in Petersburg, and I never knew that the original Freedom Riders had gone through there. My great grandmother and one of my aunts worked at the tobacco that used to be there, one of the major industries of the city. When it’s shut down was part of the economic downfall of the city. I’m glad you all shared this, I feel like it’s apart of my family history now.

  2. Heather

    9th May, 11

    I think each of us must ask ourselves what part we play in the shift from a locally owned economy to one centralized by a few big companies. Are we are making choices that balance our own realities (limited or lowered incomes) with those of our community (sustaining the local economy)? Am I shopping at a big box store for convenience and price, but at the same time undermining the foundation of my local economy which I’m tied to in so many ways? Right now I’m thinking of all the local businesses I passed by this weekend on my way to Target that I could have supported with my dollars. Your reflections and images above give me great pause in my own choices, so I thank you for the mirror. I have much to consider.

  3. Rebecca Littlejohn

    9th May, 11

    It is so heartening to know you are thinking these thoughts and having this sort of meta-awareness about your experience! Looking forward to meeting you in Anniston!

  4. Dana

    9th May, 11

    I’m not surprised at the seemingly isolated communities that have lost their luster and vibrance. In these economic times, there are too many communities to mention, where you might see the same picture of what appears to be ghost town qualities.

    However, my thought after reading this posting, involved the statement “It was strange when a lone pedestrian or a single car passed us. There were about 50 of us – “probably the biggest number of people who have been on this road in 10 years,” someone commented – and we all had cameras and video cameras. Many of us were in nice clothes. I felt that we were very conspicuous – that we were tourists invading a solemn place that ought not to be invaded or trivialized through photographing it.”…..

    I was just wondering why there wasn’t any knocking on doors to speak with residents. I mean there were about 50 of you, so I don’t believe that you had any reason to fear anyone.

    The history of the people might be reflective in the environment on an economic level. But isn’t part of the journey a search for the remnants of the era and the impact it had on the people in those communities. I’m betting that more than 70 percent of the young people won’t know anything about the Riders. And I’d also guess that those of my age group (over 50 at least), feel that the historical changes that we witnessed in the 60′s and 70′s were for naught…. And just a note.. in black communities, you’ll find people at the churches. Next time… just stop by the local church and talk to the folks there!

    God Bless~

  5. Erica Shekell

    11th May, 11

    Thank you, everyone, for your thoughtful comments and for your praise. The Freedom Rider had lived in Petersburg, so we did have a local perspective (though I’m not sure if he still lives there – I don’t think he does), though I do agree that our experience and knowledge of the town would have been much greater had we been able to speak with people who have stayed in the community, particularly churchgoers. But again, thank you everyone for your wonderful comments, and I hope you continue to follow this incredible journey!