Mobility and Freedom: My #OUTBOUND Talk, November 5, 2016

A few weeks ago, I was invited to participate as a featured artist and speaker in OUTBOUND, a two-day event organized by Spoke magazine on November 4th and 5th.  It was billed as a pop-up art gallery comprised of work by local artists exploring themes related to mobility, community, and the future of Philadelphia, and a pecha kucha event — rapid-fire presentations delivered by an assortment of speakers (visual artists, urban designers, architects, data geeks, and more) about the intersection of art, design, social justice, transportation and futurism.

Photo highlights of the gallery opening can be viewed here.

Below is the full text of the presentation I made to a packed house (the final version was edited down a bit because of time constraints).

Good evening.  My name is Tieshka Smith and I’m a Philadelphia-based photographer, blogger and activist.

Before I begin, I want to express my heartfelt gratitude to Spoke Magazine and the MOTO Designshop for organizing this important and timely conversation.

I’m glad to be a part of this event, particularly since I’ve only been in Philadelphia for a relatively short period of time. I see it as a privilege to stand in the gap in these spaces on behalf of people who have, for whatever reason, been here longer, either as native-born or transplants.

My body of work aims to challenge the status quo and preconceived notions of decision makers, influencers, those with economic, political and/or symbolic power who make all kinds of flawed assumptions about the people I photograph, as they go about making choices, advocating for, or intervening on behalf of the same. I know that my work will be welcomed in spaces where often times the subjects themselves won’t be made to feel welcome.

I don’t concern myself with whether or not any of this happens inadvertently.  When reality shows us time and time again that we’re falling woefully short in meeting the mobility needs of marginalized groups, intent means little.

It’s my experience – and the experiences of many of the people I photograph – that many (not all) of the existing programs, structures and attitudes regarding mobility – the ability to move or be moved freely – that are developed, preserved and maintained, benefit a select few to the detriment of many.

That’s a problem.

And after witnessing this for so long, I got tired of it and wanted to use my camera to speak on it.  And speak on it I have.  As it relates to mobility, I have photographed people all over this city, waiting at bus stops and train platforms, walking, biking, pushing carts I’ve seen a lot and heard a lot.

To summarize:  Most of the people I’ve encountered and heard from are tired of being invisible, taken for granted, having their real life concerns, hopes and dreams distilled down to arid, intellectual debates, being cited as statistics that underscore the pressing need for grants and funding for development projects that never directly benefit them, and most importantly, being erased formally and informally once those projects come to fruition. Just like those who have position, symbolic and/or economic power, they want the right to move and be moved freely and they want to exercise those rights with little or no impediment.

Today, I invite you to imagine what our world would look from a mobility standpoint if we began to do the hard work of challenging our own assumptions about marginalized people and mobility and how we – inadvertently or not – impede the paths of people who want to move or be moved freely.

Maybe we assume that people of color and/or limited means don’t ride bikes or only see bikes as things to steal, so what’s the point of making bike sharing or at the very minimum, bike racks (the nice ones), accessible to people in certain neighborhoods?

Maybe we feel that they don’t feel pain as much as we do in their efforts to be mobile, so we ration out just enough health care that addresses a limited range of physical conditions while ignoring the connection between these conditions and limitations to their ability to move or be moved freely.  They have bad backs, bad feet, poor vision, inadequate access to healthy food and fresh air and clean water. Who wants to move or be moved when that’s their reality?

I think of my late friend Howard in Germantown, who, over the last year or so of his life, struggled to get around because he could hardly walk.  He couldn’t tie his shoes and had foot issues that went unaddressed.  Despite that, he walked the best he could to get from point A to point B. I wonder, had he had someone make the connection between his health challenges and mobility, would Howard had more vim and vigor to walk more – or maybe take up biking or some other alternative form of moving around – and found the motivation to get other areas of his life together?

There are a lot of assumptions – good and not so good – that we make – inadvertently or not – that fuel our beliefs and decisions and actions, and now’s the time for us – meaning those of us with time, talents and energy – to make critical adjustments to our existing thinking and understanding.  When we – ostensibly intelligent people gathered in these rooms – are presented with new evidence and perspectives of others who want and deserve, as much as we do, the right to move and be moved freely, we should make necessary adjustments. That’s what smart people do.

And now is a good time to begin doing this hard work, since today is Day 5 of a transit workers strike against the Southeastern PA Transit Authority aka SEPTA, who, I understand, once had a slogan, “we’re getting there.”

Our faulty and unchallenged assumptions about people and their real needs create and sustain a culture of low expectations, marginal quality, inequity, chaos and mistrust…this is something we must work on now. The time is now because what we’re faced with is unsustainable.

It’s not enough to aim for just getting there, limping and stumbling along when we could have done more to move decisively and confidently.

Thank you.

Here are descriptions of the two photos that I submitted as part of the pop-up gallery.
Bike, 2012 – This is a street photo of a black man walking a bike along Wayne Avenue in the Germantown section of Philadelphia.  It was in front of a commercial property that was vacant for a least a year before it reopened as a laundromat.  The juxtaposition of both invokes questions of race, class and the future of commerce and economic viability in a historic community that has struggled to reinvent and reinvigorate itself without displacing longtime residents, who, for the most part, tend to be black and low-income.
Boys on Bikes, 2016 – This is a street photo of a group of black boys with bikes, standing in front of a deli on the corner of 49th and Baltimore in the Cedar Park community in southwest Philadelphia.  I oftentimes photograph black men and boys in neighborhoods that have or are undergoing a gentrifying process to call attention to how they are often times wrongly seen as or wrongly perceived to be nuisances or problems to be eliminated or erased, despite the fact that the photographs clearly indicate that they are not.
What do you think?  Let me know in the comments.

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