Published on July 16th, 2013 | by Kate Albert Ward3
A Window into Tacoma in 253 Images
Photography by Jesse Gardner Michener with her original captions.
Jesse Gardner Michener leaned across the table and asked our server at the Red Hot, “I’m working on a project called Tacoma253. May I take your picture?” Consent in hand, she started adjusting her camera and almost nonchalantly inquired, “What makes you happy? Or what is the secret to happiness?” Our server, Melissa we later learned, looked surprised as she quickly responded, “My husband and I were just talking about this over the weekend!” She told us a little about her life as a mother, a wife, and an employee– all of which she loves– before she said, “Happiness is that moment when I’m alone, when I have some space to remember who I am.”
All the while, even as she maintained eye contact and fully engaged in the conversation, Michener snapped away with her camera held at chest level, subtly capturing her subject in a natural and unguarded state.
This episode I had witnessed is like many that have happened over the past couple of months as Michener has been working on her photography project Tacoma253. The project was inspired by Michener’s deep love for her hometown and the photography project Humans of New York by Brandon Stanton.
Over the course of six months, Michener will take 253 photographs of people and places throughout Tacoma, culminating in an exhibition at the Broadway Center for the Performing Arts during their annual Fall Free for All event. Also supporting the project, Michener has received a Spark Grant from The Greater Tacoma Community Foundation.
Michener had originally planned on asking a variety of questions, but she kept returning to questions about happiness.
She found that the question quickly engaged her subjects as they explained what they believed, often allowing for a depth of revelation not typically shared with strangers. Michener is fascinated by the dichotomy that the response to this compelling query offers; as her subjects share about what they know of happiness, they often also reveal the challenges and trials that have led them to their conclusion.
As Americans, we cite the pursuit of happiness as our right, often making it the core and foundation for our life stories. The spaces where our lives unfold gather stories like dust, covering all surfaces with the detritus of past and present, happiness and lack thereof.
Michener hopes that her project will ultimately uncover the relationship of places to the memories that linger there and bind us to those locations.
Glimpses of Michener’s own joys and tribulations are not missing from Tacoma253. Michener photographed a few sites that conjure memories from her childhood such as No. 25: Thirty-six. A Tacoma native, Michener can’t help but associate certain spots with the things she experienced there. What may look like an innocuous patch of grass to you or me, reminds her of when she was sexually assaulted at the age of six. For Michener, this is also a place of forgiveness.
“It’s important to tell the stories,” says Michener, “Even the difficult ones.”
Michener sees a parallel between her own life and that of this city, both of which been made stronger through hardship. She feels that we as a city have come to value calm waters as we collectively look towards the future.
Michener started her project fairly close to home, capturing areas she frequents and people she regularly sees, and is about one fifth of the way through the 253 photographs that will finish her project. Michener acknowledges that this number does not mean that the story is complete, nor will it give an exhaustive view of life in Tacoma, but she aims for the project to “pay homage to Tacoma as its own character in our bigger, collective story.”
As she moves forward, Michener plans on expanding the project outward to areas that are less familiar to her to show the diversity of Tacoma’s people and locations.
Approaching a stranger can feel like a risk, but Michener feels empowered with camera in hand. “I had to jump in a tank with sharks within the first couple of weeks as the staff photographer at the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium!” exclaimed Michener as she explained that her camera allows her to do what might otherwise be too frightening.
Michener’s photograph No. 6: Vietnamese Chef at Pho King exemplifies the power of the Tacoma253 project. Though a regular, Michener had never been back in the kitchen when she approached her subject. She asked about happiness and, through gestures and some help from an interpreter, she gained a glimpse of the chef’s life.
It is all too easy to go about our day with tunnel vision, remaining selectively aware of what is going on around us and all the people who touch our lives. Tacoma253 can open our eyes to the people who give substance to our city’s landscape through undulating narrative.
Michener hopes that Tacoma253 will be a project where community members will engage and participate in the conversation. You can do this on the Tacoma253 facebook page or by visiting the project website.