Collaborative History

Uptown16From 1973 to 1977, I photographed the people of a neighborhood in Chicago called Uptown. The project was a self-assignment but many of the photos I took there were later published by the Chicago Tribune. Then the images laid in a drawer for almost 40 years.

I recently rediscovered them and posted them on my photo blog, BobRehak.com, not to be confused with this blog at Robert Rehak.com. The response has been overwhelming. BobRehak.com has received 1.5 million hits in the last month. I say that, not to brag, but to introduce the subject of this post, collaborative history.

Many of the people in the images have written to tell me more about their circumstances and growing up in one of Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods. I’ve heard from policemen, firemen, teachers, social workers, residents, widows, gang members, writers, historians, shopkeepers and more.

Dozens of people have sent me valuable information that is helping to deepen my understanding of the neighborhood as well as the social and economic forces in play at the time. To put this into perspective, the year I started photographing there, the big news stories were “OPEC Oil Embargo” and “Watergate Tapes.” The embargo quadrupled gasoline prices in a year, threw the country into recession, and caused inflation to skyrocket. The tapes brought down the Nixon presidency within two years.

Lesser stories, including the struggle of working class families to make ends meet among these circumstances, got lost in the fog of time. Now, with the help of the Internet and readers, I am piecing their stories back together again. I hope to have a book ready by the end of the year.

When published, it will be more than a portfolio of my early documentary photographs. It will be a collaborative history of one of Chicago’s most fascinating neighborhoods, made possible through the spread of social media on the Internet. As readers see themselves in photos, they spread the word to their friends who are in other photos. Then they write me with the stories behind the photos.

While the stories I’m discovering do not all have happy endings, they do have important lessons. I learned last week of the fate of a gorgeous young woman. I wrote about her, “If she hadn’t been in Uptown, she could have been in Vogue.” She died young of HIV.

I also photographed a family with three kids. Two of them were in gangs. They always had cigarettes danging from their lips because it made them look tough. According to the widow of one, both moved to Alabama to escape the gang culture in Uptown, but then died from esophageal cancer in their mid-forties.

Yesterday, I was contacted by a Chicago firefighter after I posted a picture of his station house. He informed me that his engine company was the busiest in America during the decade of the 1970s and early 1980s. This helped put the slumlord protests that I photographed into perspective.

I’m finding many life lessons in the emails I get. I doubt the inventors of the Internet had collaborative history in mind when they designed the medium. But the social networks that the Internet spawned have created a tool to do just that.

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