Photographing Minneapolis one neighborhood at a time

Each year, Minneapolis neighborhoods host festivals, sporting events, parades, workshops and art fairs. The events are often well attended, held in beautiful parks with dozens of kids and volunteers scurrying about. But at the end of the day, as the tents come down and weary families straggle home, something’s missing. Where are the professional photos?

In an ideal world, there would be pictures of smiling faces from Windom on the sides of buses, framed photos of Lake Harriet in the Linden Hills Park building, and billboards advertising the riverfront parks in Downtown. Instead, neighborhoods often rely on amateur photography and donated pictures to document events – hardly enough to build a marketing campaign.

Susan Boecher, a photography professor for Metropolitan State University, Augsburg College and the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD), noticed this lack of professional community photography and decided to use her artistic connections to fill the void.

"I’ve always believed that photographers sort of have a responsibility to work within the community, give back to the community, things like that," Boecher says. For several years, she partnered her students with the Minnesota AIDS Project and Project for Pride in Living, a nonprofit organization that supports lower-income families. She developed curriculum for a course at Metro State called "Community-based Photography" and collaborated with organizations that dealt with social issues, such as poverty and immigration.

In conjunction with the Urban Coalition, Boecher helped her students at Metro State and MCAD examine the contributions of immigrants and refugees in the city. During the 2004 national elections, they documented the grass-roots efforts of the "Get Out the Vote" campaign.

Eventually, Boecher decided it was time to form her own nonprofit. The schools through which she taught community photography weren’t interested in continuing the project beyond three semesters. So, in 2006, Boecher founded OverExposure.

The organization’s overall mission is "to create partnerships between photographers, media artists, students and tax-exempt nonprofit organizations on theme-specific projects."

Boecher sits on the board with four other photography buffs, including former St. Paul Mayor Jim Scheibel, a fan of documentary photography and Boecher’s former student. From web development to funding, each member uses his or her personal connections and strengths to fuel OverExposure’s mission.

On July 1, the board launched "What’s New?" a two-year project that pairs local photographers with neighborhood groups in Minneapolis to document the changing demographics of their areas. Ten neighborhood associations signed on, for a donation fee of $200-$1,000, including Linden Hills. Each of the participating photographers will receive $400 to cover equipment and production costs.

Boecher predicts that artistic control could pose the biggest problem in the partnerships. Neighborhood association members are asked to provide their assigned photographers with contact and event information and explain how they would like their neighborhood represented. "Short of that," Boecher explains, "[photographers] have this list of data that they take with them, but then it becomes the artists’ vision in terms of how they define all of that stuff."

Because every neighborhood is different, Boecher and her team of snappers can’t guarantee that all of the pictures taken will flatter the community. "Accurate representation in some of these neighborhoods is not necessarily positive," she says. "I think neighborhoods using it to market their mission – I think that they would be lying to say ‘Everything is, like, really perfect here.’"

Boecher advertised for photographers on local online art forums and wound up with 25 applications, mostly young adults. "I find the majority of people who apply for these projects … have a real interest in art as kind of being a tool for education and to examine social issues," says Boecher. "All have an interest in kind of engaging a community and working with a community, and they have a heart."

Christina Clusiau, a young photographer who lives in Kingfield, worked with Boecher documenting the Urban Coalition immigration project and the 2004 "Get Out the Vote" campaign. She’s excited to participate in "What’s New?" because of the ties to the community. "It’s definitely something I’ve always wanted to do," she says, "To show awareness of certain issues through photography and use it as a vehicle for social change."

Clusiau is one of 10 photographers who will show their work at the end of the project. Boecher is in talks with Augburg College and the McKnight Foundation for gallery space and anticipates an early January exhibition. After that, the entire project will start again in the spring with a new batch of photographers and neighborhoods eager to use art as a means for change.

Reach Mary O’Regan at moregan@mnpubs.com or 436-5088.