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Tufts University Student on Assignment in Uphams Corner

Tufts University student Zhuangchen Zhou is on assignment.  With heart and passion embedded in photography, he is getting to know  Uphams Corner with camera in hand. His project is a little tougher than simple point and shoot photos of the people who live, work and travel here  He is hoping to photograph them in authentic settings including in their homes.  And he is looking forward to riding with the police.



Zhuangchen Zhou, nicknamed JJ, loves photography and wants to practice it professionally but Tufts doesn't offer photography is a major.  He's decided to study International Relations and use that as a bridge to the future. 

I (Nancy Conrad) met with JJ for a couple hours last Friday and we horse-traded. I told him everything I knew about Uphams Corner and he told me everything he knew about his camera.

Zhuangchen ZhouAs assigned by his professor, JJ's class project is to photograph the people of Uphams Corner - the ordinary people - walking the streets, patronizing the businesses or waiting for the bus. Over and above people in the public arena, JJ is looking for a chance to photograph the families of Uphams Corner in their home settings and to ride in a police cruiser.


Humanizing the People

Uphams Corner has had a "bad / dangerous" reputation for many years, one that continues to hang on even though crime is down.  That makes people "out there" - outside the boundaries of Uphams Corner - suspicious of our community, fearful even.  If I'm a person who "wouldn't go to Uphams Corner if you paid me," how do I imagine the faces of the people who live there?  What do I think life is like there?  Is someone waiting for me around every street corner to rob me, assault me, sell drugs or steal from me? 

From the moment JJ contacted me all the way through our several hour meeting, he was gracious, pleasant, friendly and really wanting to make his project work. But from the get-go, he used the term "humanize" to describe what he was doing.  His goal, he said, was to "humanize the people of Uphams Corner." 

That expression just didn't sound right.  "Humanize?"  Why did he need to humanize the people who live here?  I am quite sure, he wasn't using the term "humanize" disparagingly. Yet, something about our community was causing him to think he needed to do that - needed to humanize them, as if they weren't human, at least not to others.

JJ said he was aware of Uphams Corner's poor reputation but he said, "I haven't found it that way.  My friends at school are concerned when I come here. I've been here for the last month, several days a week and I feel comfortable."


Who are the REAL People of Uphams Corner?


His assignment to photograph the "real" people of Uphams Corner, what did that really mean?  And how was he approaching his work?

Wanting the exchange to go well, I prepared a list of resources JJ might find useful. Amazingly, he already knew many of them.  Clearly, he was not maintaining a safe distance from the people, businesses and institutions here. 

In the conversation, I talked about some of the people I thought gave a face to Uphams Corner.  "One of the more interesting characters is a guy named Clarence," I said.  "He can often be seen out on Dudley Street panhandling for change.  What's really interesting about him is that periodically, he lets out the most amazing and intense bellow, sounding like a fierce animal or maybe a fog horn and you can hear it for blocks." 

JJ's immediate response was surprising.  "He wears glasses, doesn't he?"  That was an endearing moment. Yes, Clarence does wear glasses.   That JJ would be able to conjure an image of Clarence so quickly based on my micro-description said a lot.  Clearly, he is getting to know the people of Uphams Corner, not by reputation, but rather by how they look, how they sound and how he relates to them as he assumes the trappings of being here often and experiencing our world as we are. 


Familiarity and Attitude Transition

Divisions are created when someone looks, acts and sounds different from "me" and I have no idea what to expect  The tendency always is to be suspicious.  Initial defensive attitudes can take a long time to break down.  When repetition without reaction allows the mind to start filtering out the previously disturbing images that have now become more common and predictable, the barriers begin to fade into the forgotten.  When something, usually random, allows me to get to know the "outsider" personally, interpersonal distance collapses.

A recent study conducted by Harvard University, reported on in the Globe, addressed this very topic. Mexican immigrants staged at commuter rail stations along the Worcester to South Station rail line provided a break in the normal images and expectations provided to the "regulars."  The immediate reaction was a rise in the level of concern and bias.  However, over time, attitudes attenuated and improved. 

The study showed that "mixing with people of different ethnic backgrounds can influence social acceptance, at first for the worse, but then for the better"  As the daily appearance of the individuals seemed to become more normal, the attitude of the regular riders changed from antagonistic to more accepting. 


The Role of the Camera

Uphams Corner in the midst of Boston, a United Nations of people, is a collection of Cape Verdeans, Hispanics, African Americans, Haitians, Asians, a few American whites and more.  To the people outside our community, we don't look "normal."  "And, besides, it has a terrible reputation."

Perhaps JJ's camera has a role here.  If outsiders are unwilling to come to Uphams Corner to experience our community, could JJ's camera bring the community closer to them?  Could JJ's camera help "humanize the community" to the outside world? 

"JJ,"  I said, "Please don't use the word 'humanize.'"  He understood, he said, and would say something else. 
  • I'm telling the Uphams Corner story through photography
  • I'm relating to the people of Uphams Corner through my photography
  • I want to understand more about the lives of the people in Uphams Corner
  • I love Uphams Corner and I want to share it with the world

Looking in at the Zoo

"JJ," I said, "Please don't become the photographer looking in at the people of the Uphams Corner Zoo."  Given the extent to which we are a United Nations-like community, JJ could use "representative" photography to show who we are - just like a zoo -- one elephant, one tiger, one rhinoceros, one hippo and one giraffe.   That would just about cover all the ethnicities, right?  One Hispanic, one white, one Cape Verdean, one Vietnamese and so on. 

First step, I said, is to establish a relationship between yourself and your subject.  As you walk down the street, find something about the people here that is a thread between you.  Establish empathy and trust - first. Then take your photo.  Those will be the real people of Uphams Corner.

Despite my admonitions about the "outsider attitude,"  JJ didn't seem too concerned.  He said he really enjoyed what he was doing.  He liked the neighborhood and looked forward to finishing a top-notch project for his professor.

JJ appears to be the kind of ambassador our community needs.  Welcome, JJ!  And good luck with your efforts.


NOTE:  Anyone who lives in Uphams Corner and wants to share their family life with him or any other aspect of normal life in Uphams Corner, don't hesitate to contact him. 617-775-6954.  But do it soon.  His project is due into his professor on April 18.


Posted: March 31, 2014     Nancy J Conrad


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