By Conor Fitzgerald
While killing time the other day, I happened upon Mike’s blog, “Albuquerque Bus Stops”. A friend of mine had shared a link to his post about “Change Bro”, Johnny Romero. It caught my eye because, having grown up in Albuquerque, and spent countless hours roaming Central and the Student Ghetto as a teenager, I was quite familiar with this character. But when I clicked on the link my jaw dropped.
Toward the end of last year and during the beginning of this one, I spent some time photographing people at bus stops in Albuquerque. While I was well aware that this was far from a novel idea, I was nonetheless surprised that someone else in the same city was making portraits of people riding the bus around the same time that I was. Around two years ago, I moved back to Albuquerque, after a long stint as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Central America. In San Salvador, the bus was my primary form of transportation and I often toted my camera, capturing the poverty-stricken urban scenes that abounded. Transitioning back to the United States was hard – I missed the vibrancy of the street and the warmth of the people in Central America. Refusing to submit entirely to the non-pedestrian lifestyle of my friends and family back home, I dusted off my dad’s old 35mm camera and started to wander the streets of Albuquerque. I was almost immediately drawn to the bus stops. I had forgotten how many of them – especially those along Central Ave. – buzzed with activity: working class folks waited patiently to get to or from work; the homeless took refuge from the elements; boisterous groups passed around joints and brown-paper bags. I had never focused on people as the subjects of my photographs and approaching strangers on the street made my knees shake, but, for whatever reason, I felt like I didn’t have a choice: I was compelled to try my hand at photographing the humanity that churned in Albuquerque’s bus stops.
Right away, I was struck by how approachable and friendly people at the bus stops were. Almost no one seemed to mind being photographed, and I greatly enjoyed meeting these strangers and making small talk with them while I took their picture. However, as time went on I started to question the motivation of my project. I didn’t have any malicious intent, but I began to realize that what I was doing was potentially exploitive. It was around that time that a talented artist friend of mine challenged me to go beyond simply taking peoples picture: “give them a print, tell their story, involve them in the artistic process”. It seemed as though the cart had gotten a bit ahead of the horse. Despite my formidable experience doing community-based work in Central America, I felt like a complete and utter neophyte, stumbling around on Central snapping photos, without any concrete objective. I’m still taking pictures but I have shifted away from just making portraits. I’m not entirely sure of the direction of my work, but I continue to feel compelled to capture images of human scenes and I want to explore different ways of giving back to the community where I live.
Needless to say, I admire Mike’s approach, taking the time to get to know the people he is photographing and telling their story. I feel as though he is doing a more thorough job of executing my half-baked plan. Along with being a talented photographer, Mike is a real ethnographer. I am happy and flattered that he invited me to share my experience making portraits at bus stops in Albuquerque and plan to join him on one of his future outings. In the few exchanges I have had with Mike, I have been struck by how warm and inclusive he is. It’s nice to know that such kindred spirits exist!