by Nate Ilebode and Dana deLaski
Catchlight and ProPublica created this project, “In Those Pictures, You Can See the Community,” to commemorate the history & transition of Chicago’s East & West Garfield Park through a personal citizen archive of the past 55 years.
ProPublica and Catchlight teamed up with community members of Garfield Park, a historically Black neighborhood in Chicago, to rewrite the narrative of their neighborhood. The media had created an image of a neighborhood in decline due to civil unrest after the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. After a 2020 investigation, ProPublica found many other complex factors at play, and in 2021 Catchlight produced this project with the residents of Garfield Park.
The project was a community-based archive and visual record that showed a side of Garfield Park that hadn’t been seen in the media. CatchLight worked with residents to select, organize, and scan photos from their family and neighborhood histories, ultimately creating an archive of the neighborhood that illustrated Black joy and legacy. In addition, Catchlight Local Fellow Samantha Cabrera Friend, created new portraits of community members, linking the archive to the present day. Along with the physical archive, ProPublica published a multimedia piece to share the archive and accompanying story.
Organization Background: Catchlight is a non-profit media organization leveraging the power of visuals through various practices (art, journalism and social justice) to inform, connect, and transform communities.
Project Goals: Catchlight described the project’s goals as to “substantially correct the damaging storyline that for decades had shaped the perceptions of the neighborhood.” The hope was that current residents could see a previously unseen piece of the narrative of their neighborhood—one that focused on its beauty.
For years, the narrative of Garfield Park narrowly focused on rioting and civil unrest. This project aimed to show how other factors caused the neighborhood’s downturn: a long history of disinvestment, broken government promises to rebuild, widespread demolition that outpaced construction, and rampant real estate speculation by outsiders.
It did this by centering and commemorating the community throughout the process, both in the creation of the archive and after the project was completed.
Project Resources: East & West Garfield Residents contributed to a citizen archive. This highly collaborative project required time and resources from multiple entities. Staff time across organizations was the largest resource. The entities involved included:
- CatchLight Personnel included: CatchLight Local Fellow Samantha Cabrera Friend, Editing Fellow Max Herman, and Visuals Producer Jenny Jacklin-Stratton
- ProPublica Personnel included: ProPublica Reporter Tony Briscoe, Visuals Editor Jillian Kumagi and Art Director Lisa Larson-Walker
- Chicago Public Library team, including Stacie Williams (Division Chief, Archives and Special Collections) and Shilo Jefferson (Director of Legler Regional Library).
Along with the time spent producing the archive, there were several public engagement projects:
- CatchLight worked with Chicago Public Regional Legler Library to display the archive as an installation.
- Catchlight led neighborhood tours and after-school workshops for 4th graders to view the exhibition.
- There is currently an initiative to permanently install the archive in the Chicago Public Library’s Legler branch, in West Garfield Park.
Tools & Technology: Much of the physical material of this project came from scrapbooks, picture frames, and church pamphlets. The team scanned community members’ family photos and then uploaded the images to a digital asset management system.
Additionally, Catchlight Local Fellow Samantha Cabrera Friend used a large format camera to create modern portraits. These portraits link the past and present and show the legacy of the families who still live in Garfield Park. Framed prints and digital versions were given to the participants after the completion of the project.
- Catchlight’s Fellow led tours through the installation for 100 youths and adults.
- 72 additional youths experience the installation through after-school workshops.
- 87 people attended an online discussion with the journalists and joined a virtual tour.
The accompanying article originally published on ProPublica.org saw more than 8,000 views. While this is not a huge number, it was above average for Chicago and Evanston, signaling that it reached the right people.
More importantly, the qualitative impact of this project was significant. It was able to visually commemorate those who remain and their histories. It linked the community multi-generationally and created an official record in which Garfield Park residents could see their place in history. When Catchlight asked The Legler Library Director (where the exhibition was displayed) about the response to the installation, they said, “The kids were impressed. They talked about seeing themselves as a part of a bigger community, as a part of history.”
How it Happened
This project came about due to the need of wanting to preserve the history of the East and West Garfield neighborhood to help inform the people about who are the individuals in the community.
1. Thinking Visually
Catchlight is a visuals-driven organization and uses powerful visual language throughout the project. This included visual research—asking questions like “how has this community been visually represented in media in the past?”, and relating that history to images in the present using large-format photography. The documentation across time allows the viewer to feel that they can really get to know the community and its history.
2. Working Collaboratively
This project engaged the community at every level. Community members were co-authors, providing the images for the archive themselves. The trust had already been built within the community, as former ProPublica reporter Tone Briscoe had been working in the community for many years. Catchlight also collaborated with other entities to ensure the project directly impacted the community. They partnered with the Chicago Public Regional Legler Library—an active community space—for the installation. They held after-school events for 4th graders in the neighborhood. After the project was completed, framed prints and digital versions of the images were given to participants.
3. Creating Multiple Access Points
Photography is a medium that travels well, and because this project emphasized photos & visuals, Catchlight was able to adapt the work to different outlets for different audiences. First, there was the digital publication of the story on ProPublica’s website. There were also banners with images from the project hung around Garfield Park, with QR codes linking to the story. The partnership with the Ledger Library displayed the project in an active community space. Catchlight also hosted a virtual forum about the project for those in their journalism network.
What Could Have Worked Better
1. Spending More Time
Buy-in from multiple stakeholders was needed to complete this project, which required ample time. This was also not a typical reporting job—the process of researching community archival material and developing a new archive from that was not something Catchlight had a roadmap for. More time could have allowed for even deeper reporting, and more room to work out the kinks of their process.
2. Ensuring Approaches were Adaptable
Because this project was displayed in multiple formats on and off the web, there were unforeseen challenges with some display formats. Namely, installing the project in a historic library presented obstacles—the team had to get creative to see how they could display photos without breaking the protocols of the historic building (for example, they couldn’t hang photos on walls, so they hung them on windows). The project was also completed in 2020 during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, so the team had to pivot from indoor to outdoor events. Overall, the team learned the value of ensuring their approaches were adaptable, and not reliant on one solution.
To learn more, reach out to Jenny Stratton by email. You can also check out the following links.
- In Those Pictures, You Can See the Community
- Catchlight Website
- Catchlight Instagram
- Catchlight Twitter
- ProPublica Website
- ProPublica Twitter
- ProPublica Instagram