“I’m not doing what everybody else does. What I do is a passion. People respect that. And I respect them by keeping it loyal. I respect the grounds they stand on. Knowing what to cover and not.”WYDEEN RINGGOLD
This series of interviews is a part of an ongoing dialogue and serves as an entry point into a project H. Herukhuti Williams and I have been developing since 2017: a collaborative book project titled Chester: Staring Down the White Gaze. At the epicenter of this critical collaboration are two sets of images: the work I completed as a photographer and journalist covering the city of Chester, Pennsylvania from 2008-2016, and photographs from my childhood archives. Using the latter, we built a visual glossary of white racial tropes to unpack my relationship to whiteness. We use this framework to reconsider my work in Chester and other contemporary and historical local media coverage of the city, to elucidate the ways the white gaze reflects its own values when reflected off of the bodies of Black people.
The book is also a collaboration of artists from the city who tell their own narratives, including Desire Grover, illustrator; Wydeen Ringgold, citizen journalist; Leon Paterson, self-taught photographer; and Jonathan King, activist and educator. Throughout the book, the co-authors are in conversation about my images through handwritten text that analyzes, critiques, questions, contextualizes, and interprets the nature of the white gaze that is placed on their community.
This interview, conducted over the phone, is a collaboration between Herukhuti, Wydeen Ringgold, and myself. Together, Herukhuti and I formulated questions that I asked Wydeen during our conversation. Every co-author in the book has been interviewed for the SoFA Journal as a method to more deeply explore some of the themes present in the book that did not fit inside.
Justin Maxon: How do you describe yourself?
Wydeen Ringgold: I describe myself as a reporter. I try to get information to people about what’s going on as far as the activities in the city, also learning and studying what’s going on, so I can better understand myself and how to stay loyal.
Justin: Why did you want to be a journalist?
Wydeen: Well, it goes back to when I was young. My mother lost our pictures. My childhood pictures are gone— when I was a young boy, with all this hair, bright-eyed sitting on the bed. There was one picture I remember: I was a baby and Mom had me on the bed. I only got two pictures, maybe three left. I wanted to keep memories alive from that point on. I wanted to keep up on everything with photography. I picked up the camera to see how things work. I wanted to learn something different.
Justin: What happened?!
Wydeen: My grandmom’s basement flooded. My mom told her she put them down there. Also, a lot of pictures got stolen from other family members in other states.
Justin: How did that make you feel? Not having those pictures?
Wydeen: It’s crazy; it hurts. Cause you know, I can’t go back and look at myself and try to determine and understand things through a picture. So I want to create more memories. I wanted to pick up a camera to help other people make memories.
Justin: That’s beautiful. All these years, I never knew that.
Wydeen: Also, I had a thing for fire trucks, and police cars. So I always chased them to find out where they were going — long before I even thought about picking up the camera. The camera just became my eyes at one point.
Justin: Why did you do that?
Wydeen: I was a fan, just going everywhere they did, just trying to understand them. I just had a thing for them. It was a challenge trying to keep up with them on a bike. You try to guess which way they went geographically. Say there’s two ways you can go— it was a challenge for me to find the best route. Because you can’t keep up with them with no bike. And I ain’t had no scanner then. So it was like, which way did they go? Like, ok, there’s another one coming. I can hear them, but I don’t see them. Ok, they over here to the west, trying to pinpoint the sound. I always wanted to be one too.
Justin: How did they see you?
Wydeen: They love me. They always shout at me if they are on a job and I’m there, or they go to a call and got their siren on and they see me, they shout my name. If they see me at the scene, they will come over and talk to me. They say, “Man, you might as well just fill out the application and come join. We need more.” Some people say, “Dang, how do you know so much about them or know about their work?
Justin: Do you think they respect you because you paid attention to them? Is that part of why the camera is powerful, because there’s a certain respect you’re giving them?
Wydeen: It ain’t really about the camera on that one. It’s just me being a person. Me being me: just thorough, and standing up for the people. They thank me for the information. The instrument is just an instrument I use to capture memory. That’s what I will leave behind.
Justin: How long have you been doing it for? When did you start?
Wydeen: I started back in 2009. There were a lot of shootings back then. In 2010, with the state of emergency (1). So I thought, man, I need to come out for this. So I started recording shootings, fires and accidents. 2010 is when I started to get noticed.
Justin: At that time you started your own news site, right?
Wydeen: Yeah, it was called Bird’s Eye View News. I was always there. I was even there sometimes before the cops arrived. They were like, damn, he was there before us. So, I started the website so people could look for information, stuff that they missed. They could have been out of town. Or they might have moved out of town. Now they can still see what’s going on. Because the local news companies don’t know a lot. They just know what is told to them. Me, I know it!
Justin: How many times did you post a day?
Wydeen: I was posting every day. All day. I don’t even know how many times. They would say, you know how many times he posts a day?! I get a lot of love. People always tell me, keep on doing what you are doing. You just have to have respect when you are doing it.
Justin: What stories do you remember covering most?
Wydeen: The state of the emergency. When the Police got fired on the east side of Chester, the SWAT team came trying to lure the guys out of the building. Damn, Jus, there are so many! Like, over town when they were giving out food to the homeless. There are car chase shootings, when a car is shooting and another car is chasing it.
Justin: Why do those stories stick out to you in your mind?
Wydeen: They don’t happen every day. They are rare. People normally only see them in the movies.
Justin: So what are some of the challenges that you faced?
Wydeen: Knowing what to record, knowing what to step up on. It’s about being aware of yourself. Some people don’t like you to keep covering a city that’s violent and territorial. Some people don’t want to see anybody make it. Everything is repressed. It can just come out of nowhere. It could be someone you love and the next minute they feel some type of way. Or the authorities feel like you are getting in their way. It’s about slowing down on responding, trying to delay your response because getting there before the authorities, you could be a target. The police might think you know more than what you know. I told you I was rapid. My thing was, if I get there before them and I could help, I would help before I record.
Justin: Really? Wow! What were some things that you did to help?
Wydeen: Any type of assistance; like if I had to do CPR, give a person water, or sit there with them and wait for the ambulance to come. I would jump in a creek to rescue someone if I had to. I trained myself to assist the person who was injured before I started recording. It’s not right to start recording if someone is down from a shooting and sitting there dying. That ain’t done! That’s disrespectful.
Justin: Was there any specific situation that you did that?
Wydeen: Oh yeah, a couple of accidents; I had to pull someone out of their car; another time I had to jump in the car and put it in park to catch it from rolling back and hitting something else. There was a burning building and people next door didn’t know it was on fire, so I banged on their door as hard as I could to warn them. One of them was missing a shoe to their pair and I was like, no you need to come on, the house is burning up!
Another time, there was a police chase coming from 15th Street and Township Line Road. It was a Dodge Magnum and a training officer chasing him. When the Dodge Magnum went through the light, the officer tried to yield but was unsuccessful and crashed into two cars. One car was coming east on 9th Street and the other was coming from the north on Highland Avenue. All three collided and the Dodge Magnum just went on through the dust and the debris. The Police cruiser caught on fire. We tried to get him out. When we ran to the car to open his door, it went up and flames pushed us all back. Eventually, he got out of the car and the fire was extinguished. He was alright, a little sore. The Dodge Magnum went towards 3rd Street and crashed into a flower pot. He was coming down Highland too fast, he turned the corner too fast; it was a wide turn and he hit the flower pot, jumped out and ran.
Justin: Wow, you are like a citizen journalist slash superhero!
Wydeen: That’s when ESU [Emergency Services Unit] came out. I basically did what they did. ESU was rare. You only see that in big cities like New York City. That’s how bad Chester was that they needed an ESU.
Justin: You were doing all this without getting paid?
Wydeen: No. I was only rewarded by you. The lens you bought me and the book that’s coming up.
Justin: How does that make you feel that you did all that work and didn’t get any pay?
Wydeen: It wasn’t about that, it was what I wanted to do. That’s what I was into. I created my own path.
Justin: That’s respect!
Wydeen: Something’s going to happen regardless, at the end of the night. Someone’s going to pick up [the story]. I ain’t worried about that. I’m just running the ball, ain’t looking back.
Justin: That’s beautiful. You did things people get paid to do, right, but you did it for your community.
Wydeen: Right. I wouldn’t be any different. I try to inspire other people to be their own person. Not try to be everybody else; not be somebody else that’s on TV.
Justin: How do you feel covering the news of Chester as a member of the community?
Wydeen: I feel good. I feel great!
Justin: How do you feel about people who are not from Chester deciding what the news in Chester is?
Wydeen: They just are people looking in.
Justin: Do you think there is a difference in how you cover the news versus how they do?
Wydeen: They don’t cover it how we cover it. They come to us for footage and information. How we do it is authentic. We are from here. This is the homebase, this is the capital right here. They are coming in, they are driving in—we are already here. We respond from in here. You respond from out of here.
Justin: How do you think that affects the coverage?
Wydeen: They want to sell it. We are not trying to sell nothing here. We are trying to tell the truth so we can get some help.
Justin: That’s beautiful. They are trying to sell something while you are trying to make it better.
Is there anything you would like the local news to cover in Chester that they aren’t already, or that they don’t cover enough?
Wydeen: They don’t cover enough. They don’t cover the everyday, but if someone comes to shoot up a block party, you know they will come. Or if someone’s cat started a house fire, and when the house blew up a basketball flew out, went into a basketball court, and made a three. It might sound funny, but that’s when they are going to come. They are looking for the unusual. They are looking for things that go into a movie.
Justin: How does that affect how people see Chester when that’s all they cover?
Wydeen: They’re not constantly coming in to report. They are just looking for things to sell. They don’t care what’s going on. They just want a particular thing. The news is news. There are people who live around the corner from something and they ain’t even know what happened.
The things they do put on the news, there’s nothing good. So people move out, people migrate to different states. People don’t want to live here. Your kids can’t play. It makes it look bad. You know what it does to the history that’s here? It just ruins everything. It makes it look like a war zone. Like nothing else ever existed here.
Justin: It wipes away history?
Wydeen: Yeah, William Penn discovered the first land here. It’s the first city of Pennsylvania. We had a lot of schools here. Martin Luther King came here, he did his seminary. He marched here too. It was an original tourist destination. People would come here to take pictures of historical sites.
Justin: What have you learned about yourself in covering the news and Chester?
Wydeen: What I learned about myself, I’m a leader. I try to inspire people to be themselves. If everyone is themselves, if someone can pick up a camera and inspire another person to pick up a camera, or another person to become an author, out of all the people left, there would probably be only two shooters.
I might cause there to be a lot of reporters in the city in the future. Someone might want to be a cop, someone might want to be a firefighter or a paramedic. Someone might want to do what I’m doing, but even better.
Justin: That’s beautiful. It’s about giving people the opportunity to see the things they can become.
Wydeen: Yeah, exactly. But honestly I’ve taken a step back on reporting now, and I have taken breaks before in the past. Every time I take a break, I try to revitalize my vision or approach, because you can’t always keep the same way.
Justin: Why are you taking a break now?
Wydeen: I’ve been doing it for a while now and I’ve been going through things in life. I’m going through things that I repressed a long time ago and I’m trying to face them. I’m not the type of person to give up. And also, I gotta make money too.
Justin: I’m sorry to hear that my friend, I hope things get better for you.
How have members of the community responded to you as a journalist?
Wydeen: Like a celebrity. People come up to me and say, “Aaaah, ain’t you the boy… ain’t you the boy… be safe, be safe… man, I like your work, keep up the good work. I love you.” They see me in traffic, they be at a red light, they could be on foot, and they will just wave me down.
Justin: When you talked about respect, you respected people and they respected you; how does collaboration play a role in your work as a journalist?
Wydeen: The respect thing is about me being me. I’m out the way. I’m not doing what everybody else does. What I do is a passion. People respect that. And I respect them by keeping it loyal. I respect the grounds they stand on. Knowing what to cover and not. You can get hurt out here doing what I’m doing if you don’t keep that respect. This is a dangerous job. You’re running into the line of fire on both ends. The police and the gangsters. Everything I do is dangerous. Delivering pizzas is dangerous. Sometimes I don’t even understand, that’s why I keep going and going and going, but I try to learn as much as I can.
Justin: Yeah, sometimes we can’t always know what it is we are doing, but we just gotta do it.
Wydeen: I’m just doing my own thing. I’m just looking for land. I am scared that if I turn around, I might lose where I’m at. Like, wow there’s something over there. Damn, lets go over here, but hold up, I don’t want to get too far because I might lose where the hell I’m standing. Because it’s so dangerous. Let me look to the east, to the west, north and south, oh, alright, now I can go out.
Justin: These are life strategies.
Wydeen: There has gotta be some land over there because there is something that’s growing. There’s something cultivating over there. The sun is out.
Justin: I love that visualization.
One last question: what recognition, positive or negative, have you received for your work?
Wydeen: The positive recognition is that people look up to me. They won’t tell you that, but some people look up to me because of the bravery they see. I’m being honest, I’m not putting this work out there just to make something. This is real. The positive recognition is that I feel good to walk around freely and people recognize me as being a good person. They recognize me as being positive. I’m breaking through the concrete with this one. I’m coming out of the concrete on this one.
Justin: You made this all happen on your own!
Wydeen: Yeah, I never went to school. I just started reporting what I saw and what I knew.
Justin Maxon (he/him) is a visual journalist, arts educator, and social practice artist. His work takes an interdisciplinary approach that acknowledges the socio-historical context from which issues are born and incorporates multiple voices that texture stories. He seeks to understand how positionality plays out in his work as a storyteller.
Wydeen Ringgold (he/him) is a citizen journalist and first responder, who was a local news anchor in Chester for years. He started his own Facebook News site called Birds Eye View in 2009, which he eventually passed on to another local citizen. For years, he lived in proximity to a police scanner, following first responders as they arrived at various events in Chester. He would post live updates of the events to his Facebook audience. Chester citizens would look to him for news.
**If you are interested in learning more about the book project, we have completed 5 previous interviews for the SoFA journal from the different co-authors in the book: Leon Patterson, Desire Grover, twice, and H. “Herukhuti” Sharif Williams, twice.**
The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a publication dedicated to supporting, documenting and contextualising social forms of art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal takes an eclectic look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions and the public. The Journal supports and discusses projects that offer critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.
Created within the Portland State University Art & Social Practice Masters In Fine Arts. Program, SoFA Journal is now fully online.
Conversations on Everything is an expanding collection of interviews produced as part of SoFA Journal. Through the potent format of casual interviews as artistic research, insight is harvested from artists, curators, people of other fields and everyday humans. These conversations study social forms of art as a field that lives between and within both art and life.
Sponsored by the Portland State University Art and Social Practice MFA Program