A photography installation exhibiting 206, 53-by-36-inch, black-and-white portraits of smiling Bayonne residents was plastered onto a wall in Bergen Point separating 8th Street from Route 440. The project is sponsored by the internationally recognized Inside Out Project, and curated by the Bridge Art Gallery.
It has been planned since the fall when Stephanie Petersen, a local photographer, set up a booth at the Bridge Arts Festival at First Street Park and at the Bergen Point Fall Festival for residents to pose for photographs. The collection of portraits, called “Faces of Bayonne,” is meant to show the city’s diversity by displaying faces, absent social and economic signals, side by side in frames of equal size.
The idea was hatched when Cheryl and Christopher Mack, who run Bridge Art Gallery, were watching a morning news program last year that featured an interview with JR, a French photographer and artist who started the Inside Out Project.
JR projects that gained international attention include a 65-foot photograph of a Mexican child overlooking a border fence on the U.S.-Mexico border, and a series of portraits on the Israel-Palestine border that depicts juxtaposed faces of Israelis and Palestinians of the same profession, ostensibly to emphasize the social construction of race or ethnicity.
Petersen, a professional photographer, is known in town for her public photography installations at a bathroom at First Street Park and 8th Street, where she plastered a giant photograph of the Bayonne Bridge and of a train pulling out of the light rail station, respectively.
“When you’re taking 200 photographs in one day, you don’t know what’s going to happen and who’s going to show up. I wanted to capture that person’s personality as much as possible,” said Petersen, who was careful not to take photos that looked appropriate for a drivers license or a mug shot. “I found I had to talk to the person to bring out their personality. I hope that I did that. For me, that was the biggest challenge, making people smile. Luckily, they were at a fair so they were already having a good time.”
Her favorite photographs were of a 70-year-old woman with rainbow-colored hair, nails, and makeup.
“She was an older woman who you didn’t expect to have rainbow colored hair,” Petersen said. “She really blew me away.”
Coincidentally, soon after, Bayonne High School history teacher, Gene Wood, reached out to the Macks to propose an iteration of the project that depicts students. Cheryl and Christopher liked the idea but wanted to broaden the project to all residents.
“If you could make a couple of hundred people in this town smile, that’s very important.” — Nancy Campbell
We’re all in this together
“I thought we could do it more than just students,” said Cheryl. “I thought we can do the whole community celebrating diversity in a larger way. Bayonne is a mosaic of different people, ages, ethnicities, cultures, and that needs to be celebrated. The citizens are what makes Bayonne really special.”
The project required volunteer work from members of the community. Through volunteering, Nancy Campbell, who met Petersen through a gym where she works as a group trainer, rediscovered her affinity for Bayonne, where she’s lived for 55 years.
“For a while I got out of caring about what was going on because I saw the ups and downs, being in Bayonne for 55 years,” said Campbell, who called her two days of volunteering the “best I’ve had in a while.”
“I just feel like it was such a good thing to bring the community together,” she said. “It was fun. If you could make a couple of hundred people in this town smile, that’s very important. Yeah, there’s bigger issues. Yeah, there’s potholes. There’s nice things you can focus on, too.”
“I want people to see how we were able to get a lot of people together, and we all made art together,” said Petersen. “People will think, ‘maybe I’m not an artist,’ but a group of people can come together to effect some kind of change. Now, when people see something that needs changing in town, they can do something about it themselves. This project isn’t to say we’re all the same. I’m saying we’re all together in this.”
For updates on this and other stories check hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Rory Pasquariello can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.