Mayor Elizabeth Wilson

Reflections on 2014

As PIP reflects on the past year and looks forward to 2015, we'd like to share some of our amazing experiences and thoughts.

It's been quite a year.  In January 2014, this project was in its infancy.  It was just an idea, bolstered by the enthusiastic support of those around me.  In late January, I headed down to Miami to photograph my first subject, Barbara Muhammad Scharief, the mayor of Broward county.  I was nervous, for this was my first portrait attempt and the success or failure of the project seemed to rest on the outcome of this initial shoot.

During a flight connection on my way to Miami, I ran into Congressman Steve Israel.  He is my hometown Congressman and the first politician I ran the project by.  His enthusiasm convinced me that my idea was worth pursuing.  Accompanying him was Congresswoman Nita Lowery and I also shared the outline of the project with her.  She immediately signed on and was delighted by the possibilities.  Okay, I thought to myself, how fortuitous!  Maybe this is an auspicious omen.  However, it was when I was seated behind Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz on my next leg to Florida that I really knew my stars were aligning.  She too agreed to sit for a future portrait.

The location Barbara Scharief chose was outside a diner where her father used to sell clothing to passersby.  It was also where he was shot and killed by a 15-year-old robber when Barbara was just a young girl.  In Barbara's own words, "the place reminds me of a time when life was good and my family was whole... I can visualize my father standing there selling clothes and giving out food to the needy people in that area.  He would say to me 'whenever you get to the point in your life when you can give something back, you should.'  This is the reason I am in politics now, so it's only fitting that this be the place we memorialize."

Because of the profound meaning and emotion of Barbara's chosen location, I wanted to capture her portrait with the sensitivity it deserved.  The diner (Jumbo's) was a slice of old Miami, circa 1960s, a throwback with  colors to match.  Actually, it's famous for being the first white-owned restaurant in Miami to break the color barrier by serving and employing African Americans.  On the day of the portrait, it was bathed in morning sunshine.  Folks outside the diner spoke to me about the significance of Jumbo's as a neighborhood hub with a comforting atmosphere and the best soul food around.

When Barbara arrived, she stepped out her vehicle picture perfect.  Her make-up was flawless.  I kept thinking what a poised and stunning woman she is.  I brought along a rose to be used as a prop to signify the memory of her slain father.  As I concentrated on the task at hand, we didn't speak much, but afterwards she treated me to breakfast and the conversation flowed.  We spoke at length about her rise in politics and her determination through the tough races.  When I left Barbara, I felt the first solid affirmation of my project in her dauntless spirit and generous heart.  What a great beginning!

I first met Rosie Mendez in 2009.  All politicians need photos for their campaign and she hired me.  Back then she struck me as the real deal––a strong woman passionately fighting for her constituents.  I remember how many volunteers came out to help during the shoot, people that she aided in housing issues, affordable health care, etc.  So I was particularly excited to include her in PIP.

Rosie chose the Williamsburg Houses, a New York City housing development, as her place of special meaning.  This was where she grew up as a first generation American.  For her, the Williamsburg Houses were a safe and clean place for a child to thrive, as opposed to the tenement buildings where many of her school friends lived.  She remembered how those friends would come over to her place for study sessions because it was warm and free of roaches and rats.  This made a lasting impression on Rosie and she never forgot how lucky she was to have a clean home with hot running water.

As a child, the paddleball courts across the street beckoned to Rosie.  Ever since she saw Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs, she wanted to play tennis but there weren't any nearby courts.  Paddleball seemed like the next best alternative.  So that's where we began setting up Rosie's portrait.  Her brother arrived in his Mets T-shirt (Rosie was wearing her Yankees jersey), and I could feel the sporting spirit between them, revived from their childhood matches on the court.

I was forewarned that their paddleball skills were not as honed as in their younger years and I might want to watch out as I jockeyed for a good photograph in their line of fire.  Art, however, takes precedence over prudence and as they began whacking the ball around, I got hit six or seven times.  Anything for a good shot!

In Rosie's own words: "The thing about sports in general is that they teach you the importance of having a competitive edge.  But I try not to go overboard either.  The point is to work hard but have fun while you're doing it.  Paddleball is actually a good lesson in strategy––where to place the ball, how to make your opponents run so that they get tired.  You want to dominate the middle of the court, if you can.  And if your opponent gets the center, you try to lure him to the margins.  These are helpful lessons, especially in politics."  Well, Rosie definitely plays an ambitious game, but at the end of a sweltering summer day, she still had an unconditional hug for me.  

I learned about former Mayor Elizabeth Wilson while on assignment in Decatur, Georgia.  I was intrigued by this 'local legend' who had played a pivotal role in the desegregation of Decatur public schools and libraries during the 1960s.  When Elizabeth accepted our invitation to pose for PIP, I knew I was about to photograph a Civil Rights icon.

On the day of the shoot, it was raining heavily (one of those drenching Southern downpours).  Mayor Wilson welcomed me into her home and we leisurely spent the afternoon together chatting about her life and accomplishments.  At age 83, she has achieved a great deal.  Born in rural Georgia, her parents instilled in her the importance of education.Even though she had to walk 5 miles to school as the white children jeered at her from the bus, she graduated from high school.  Her love of learning continued as a nanny.  As she watched over her charges while they studied their lessons, Elizabeth absorbed the knowledge along with them.  Later on, as a young mother, she helped desegregate Decatur's library by walking in and signing up for a library card.  This simple act of defiance was highly courageous with the height of Civil Rights violence raging across the country.

It wasn't the library, however, that Elizabeth chose for her portrait––it was her kitchen table.  Throughout the afternoon it became clear to me that her family is her most important accomplishment.  All her achievements in the social and political realm were done so that they might inhabit a more just and equitable world.  This great principled matriarch is first and foremost a proud and loving mother and grandmother.  She eagerly shared family photos and regaled me with stories, like the one about her son who was one of the first African American children to be integrated into the Decatur public school system.  Or how proud she is of her daughter who received a Ph.D.  And it was at their dining room table where the whole family would gather, enjoying her famous fried chicken, which she whipped up for me and which, I have to say, lives up to the legend as the best-tasting fried chicken in the South.  

Leaving her house, I felt blessed that I had opportunity to sit down and connect face to face, enjoying Elizabeth's kindness and hospitality over a leisurely afternoon as the rain fell in buckets outside.  I was inspired by her.  Women like Elizabeth are exactly why I conceived of PIP, to spread the stories of these remarkable trailblazers so that the following generation will have role models to look up to and emulate.  Gender parity in politics is on its way!