Since 1988, I have been photographing Pilsen, a Mexican neighborhood in Chicago. At first, I thought in fairly traditional documentary terms about photography and about what I was doing in Pilsen. That meant bearing witness to something that seemed socially significant, offering a transparent description of it, and being comprehensive. I started off photographing the Pilsen street gang, La Raza, only to later realize that the kind of drama afforded by hanging out with a gang wasn’t what I wanted for my pictures. It was too narrow and sensationalistic and not nearly as complex and nuanced as the day to day life of the larger community.
As I abandoned photographing La Raza, I also abandoned my documentary pretensions and assumptions. It seemed preposterous to me that I could ever say anything authoritatively about my subjects or the culture as a whole. Their experience wasn’t my experience – I could understand aspects of it, but I couldn’t speak for it. What I did know is that there are some places, not many, that have a kind of gravitational pull and I wanted to make pictures as close to the center as possible. It was at this point that the community opened up for me. I photographed on and off the street, letting the rhythm of each day dictate what I saw; trusting that I couldn’t take what the world wasn’t willing to give
Along the way I was often asked, usually by people outside of this community, what reason I had for going to a place that wasn’t my own or, more aggressively, where I didn’t belong. I ignored the critical discourse that suggested it was somehow immoral to photograph outside one’s own race, class, or community. I hoped to photograph from the inside looking out instead of from the outside looking in. I tried to be a part of the community but in the end, of course, I wasn’t. You can learn a lot when you are willing to be a stranger.
Paul D’Amato is a photographer, educator, and avid contributor to the photographic community. He is currently a professor at Columbia College in Chicago, IL, where he teaches full time in both the BFA and MFA programs. Having completed his Masters degree at Yale University School of Art, Paul has been the recipient of several grants and fellowships, including the Rockefeller Study Center in Bellagio, Italy; the Pollock-Krasner Foundation Fellowship; the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Subvention Grant; and two grants from the Illinois Art Council. His work is held in collections at the Art Institute of Chicago, IL; the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, ME; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY; the Modern Museum of Art, New York, NY; the Portland Museum of Art, Portland, ME; and Readers Digest, Pleasantville, NY, among others. His work has been featured in publications such as The New York Times Magazine, Readers Digest, Life Magazine, and Harper’s. Many solo exhibitions have been held at galleries and museums, such as the Howard Yezerski Gallery, Boston, MA; the Yossi Milo Gallery, New York, NY; and the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago, IL. Other group exhibitions have been held at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Portland, ME; the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, New Orleans, LA; the Photographic Resource Center, Boston, ME; and in Grand Central Station, New York, NY.