“It’s always good to know where you came from.”LEON PATTERSON
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 collaborative book project 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, Leon Patterson, and myself. Together, Herukhuti and I formulated questions that I asked Leon during our conversation. Every co-author in the book has been interviewed for SoFA as a method to more deeply explore some of the themes present in the book that did not fit inside.
Justin Maxon: How would you describe Chester to someone who’s never been there before?
Leon Patterson: It’s a dangerous place; somewhere where you don’t want to go. It’s everybody against everybody. It’s nobody trying to see nobody get nowhere. These kids don’t have nothing to do. They sit outside or they go to the parks and watch drug dealers be idiots. And then they grow up and act like them. What’s wrong with Chester is the police and our politicians don’t care. They made the city this way. They got rid of everything. They closing our schools. We don’t have no recreational centers. Our city’s got one swimming pool, and it’s only goes to five feet. These kids don’t have no summer activities. It’s ridiculous.
It wasn’t like that in the nineties. When I was growing up. We had everything. We had summer games. We had basketball league. We had stuff to do. We got to learn and get to know people. We was in the marching group. Had the Boys and Girls Club. Everybody knew everybody. Today, if these kids do something and you say something to them, their parents cuss you out. It wasn’t like that back in the day. If you did something, somebody told your parents, and you got a chest high for it, period. That is why these kids do what they want. Not only that, back in the day, we had love, loyalty, and respect. We loved our parents. We respected our parents. There are certain things you knew just not to do.
Back in the day, you might have one bad kid out the whole house, but now every kid in the house is bad. And then with this virtual school, that’s making it even worse. These kids aren’t going to know nothing. So how you expect a kid that don’t know nothing to do something? That don’t make sense.
Justin: Is your description of Chester similar or different from the way the news media represents Chester?
Leon: The news media represents Chester like it’s nothing but a violent city. The only time you hear about Chester is when somebody gets shot. They don’t talk about Chester, period. They talk about what’s going on, but they don’t talk about what’s really going on. You got these kids out here that’ve been on probation for years. Delaware County has a 98.9% conviction rate? You go to the courthouse and nine outta ten, yo ass get convicted. They tell everybody, “If you sign right here, you can go home today. And not only that, all you gonna be on probation is for a year.” They don’t know they just signed their life away. I got a year of probation in 1996. I didn’t get off it until 2019.
Justin: So fucked up! Big business.
Leon: The media’s corrupt. That’s what they do. They gotta hold you. That’s why these kids act the way they act. You get into a situation, where you out on the streets, and you got bills. You in jail, and you got bills. You come home, and you got bills. They only give you so much time to pay it, but you really can’t. So, it’s either, I go to McDonald’s, do these little jobs, and make these little checks every two weeks. Or if not, I gotta go out on the street and get it the best way I know how, just to keep my freedom. Either way you screwed. It just boils down to the point where, you going to jail, just put it that way. As soon as you signed that probation, you stuck in the system for the rest of your life. After a while, I just stopped caring. I stopped going to see them. Every time they come lock me up for 30 [days]. Oh, well. Nobody sees what they doing to these kids. They make it so you fail. They make more money off you in jail.
Justin: How do you feel like photography has helped you?
Leon: It helps not think about the way corporate America’s doing the world. Like corporate America sucks. They make it to the point where you do or die.
Justin: Do you consider yourself a photographer, an artist or something else?
Leon: I consider myself a photographer. I like to take pictures and use them for different things.
Justin: What things do you like to do with them?
Leon: Put them on t-shirts and I just started to learn how to rap cards.
Justin: What kind of t-shirts?
Leon: It’s a clothing line. I’m teaching my son how to make clothes.
Justin: That’s great. Where can I see this?
Leon: Well, as soon as I move into a house, and I can get my printing press back up and running.
Justin: Awesome. I want to see them!
Who do you photograph and why?
Leon: I photograph my family, and people in general. I take photos of all types of stuff. Sometimes random pictures.
Justin: Why do you take pictures of your family?
Leon: I take pictures for memories, so you can look back on time and you’ll know what you was doing at certain times of your life.
Justin: Why are memories important to you?
Leon: I like to remember things that I did, and you learn from your mistakes. The things that you’ve been through teach you about the things that you’re going to go through.
Justin: Do you feel like photographs help with that?
Leon: You look and notice when things weren’t wrong. You can remember your kids. I got pictures of all my kids when they was first born. I got recordings of my kids when they was first born. So I could show it to them when they get grown.
I took photographs and noticed how I was living, and it made me change a lot of things that I was doing wrong. Like not cleaning up, and just laying stuff around and being a hoarder.
Justin: Oh, so you noticed in your photographs that you were a hoarder?
Leon: Yeah, like you just got stuff everywhere. It was like never ending. I can’t stand that. I wasn’t brought up that way.
Justin: So, what has motivated you to document your family with your camera over the years?
Leon: You be here today and gone tomorrow. I grew up around a lot of deaths. Like a lot of people get killed. My friends, family members. I come from a dangerous city.
Justin: I mean, even now you mentioned, you just lost how many people close to you?
Leon: Eight people over the last year.
Justin: Wow, my heart goes out to you.
How does a photograph help you remember your loved ones?
Leon: The good memories. Like you could still see it, man. Remember that time… when you was there and when y’all was taking pictures, what y’all was doing at that moment, it could have been a birthday party or a reunion.
Justin: So, it’s about holding them in your mind for longer.
Leon: Yeah. And then I can show it when they get older. Like what you was doing at five years old, This your first cry, this your first…
Justin: When you’ve shown that to your older kids, what’s been their response?
Leon: “Wow. I didn’t know. That was me, that’s how I looked when I was a baby.” “Yeah. That was you. These are the things that you did when you were small. Just how bad you was!”
Justin: And that brings you closer?
Leon: Yeah. My kids like to take pictures. That’s all they do with their phones is take pictures.
Justin: Why do you think they do it?
Leon: I show them different things that you can do with it. Like you can post it, you can make art with it, you can decorate your room with it. I be doing all types of stuff with my kids. Kids can’t go outside these days. Kids gotta stay in the house. You can’t have them in the house and have them bored too.
Justin: What has it been like getting to know your family through your camera?
Leon: I just like to show people good memories. When I have my camera it’s exciting for the kids because they know I’m taking pictures. When I don’t have my camera, everybody is not paying attention, they doing their own little thing.
Justin: It brings everyone together in the moment?
Leon: Yeah. Everyone poses for the camera. Everybody is present with each other. Everybody is doing different things, like some people put up fingers, some people smile, some people make funny faces. People know when the camera comes out
Justin: What’s something that you’ve learned about your family that you only learned by photographing them?
Leon: Certain kids only do things with certain kids. The relationship that they have with their siblings. The way they hug each other. The way they act towards one another. You can see like this kid runs to this kid or that kid runs to that kid.
Justin: Does it have to do with personality types, too?
Leon: I guess it’s their age. The little ones stick with the little ones, the middle ones stick with the middle ones and the older ones.
Justin: When you’re taking photographs what are you thinking about or feeling?
Leon: Peace of mind. It gives me things to think about. I take pictures and then I look and be like, why did I take this picture? I analyze it. I take pictures of just the sky. I take pictures of trees. I take pictures of animals. I just like to take pictures. I like to take adventures. I walk through woods, in my own world sometimes. I just like to explore and look around, see what I can find. Sometimes you just forget about all your problems, focus on something else and not always be angry. Certain moments give you a peace of mind so you can have some type of happiness in your life. There is always something going on. There’s always an issue. Never a chill moment. It’s like once something happens, it’s just a series of things that follow; like we are going through a situation now: we are in a hotel, my truck is down, my hours are getting cut at work. Never a dull moment.
Justin: Taking pictures is a break, a pause.
Leon: Yeah. It makes you feel free.
Justin: So there’s some control in it? How do control and freedom work together for you?
Leon: Control and freedom. You can do what you wanna do, how you wanna do it. Everybody’s telling you what to do, but ain’t nobody helping you do nothing. It’s like therapy. It takes your mind off. Sometimes when you’re taking pictures you gotta focus. You gotta make sure that the setting on the camera will allow you to take the picture you want. There’s no one to boss you around, telling you, you shouldn’t have taken the picture that way, or you shouldn’t have done this.
Justin: So what are you looking for when you’re out taking pictures?
Leon: I take pictures so I can remember where I’ve been, things I saw. And if you blow the picture up, you can see stuff that you didn’t see in the moment. Like walking through the woods, you blow the picture up, you see different animals. You take pictures of trees, you blow it up, you see different kinds of little bugs.
Justin: That’s interesting. I love that idea of seeing the little things you miss in life.
How has your family reacted to being photographed and to you as a photographer?
Leon: My family at first didn’t like it at all. They used to hide from the camera. But after years of doing it, they just don’t care anymore.
Justin: What’s it been like showing your family the photographs that you’ve taken?
Leon: Oh, when I show ’em the pictures, I like to see their reaction. Especially pictures that they don’t know I took. Like when I first caught my step-daughter, Jasmine smoking weed. I took the picture and she didn’t know. She tried to lie to me, telling me she never smoked before. And I had to show her!
Justin: And wait, what did she say?
Leon: “You always taking pictures.” I said, “Don’t worry about it. That’s just what I do.” She was surprised that I caught her in a lie.
Also, showing my daughter her face when she found out she was pregnant. That was hilarious! It was when we found out at the hospital that she was pregnant. We had to figure out how we was gonna go home and tell her mother that she was pregnant. And as you know, her mother always got an attitude and act crazy. [Laughs] She had a surprised look on her. She was surprised because the day that I caught her, I was supposed to be at work.
Justin: What’s one of the most memorable photographs you’ve taken?
Leon: The most memorable photographs I took were when I was in Jamaica. It was my first time in a different country. They live totally different from us. Over there, I had no worries. Here, I worry all day.
Justin: What type of photographs have generated the most interest within your family?
Leon: The kids and baby pictures. They get to see how much they have changed throughout their life. It’s always good to know where you came from. If you know where you came from, it teaches how to respect life better. When we were kids, we had nothing. So that’s why I try to make sure my kids have everything they want.
Justin: So, the camera has helped. It made you realize what you do differently.
Leon: It helped me do things differently.
Leon Patterson (he/him), a community photographer, who has photographed his life as a member of the Bacon family since 2009. He has no formal training in photography. His training is experience. His archive of images is in the thousands, moments featuring the history of his relationship to the family: birthdays, Christmas mornings, the birth of his children, the daily moments of connection between him, Dinah and their children; all exquisitely captured.
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 positionally plays out in his work as a storyteller.
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.
c/o PSU Art & Social Practice
PO Box 751
Portland, OR 97207
Sponsored by the Portland State University Art and Social Practice MFA Program