There is nothing particularly unique or emblematic about the West Side of Chicago. The significance of this work has little to do with the fact that Dr. King resided here for a short time, or that it nearly burnt to the ground after he was assassinated, or that it was once home to the most infamous housing project in the United States. It’s not the poorest, the oldest, the largest, nor the most African-American of African-American communities in the U.S. In so many ways, the West Side is typical.

Boy, Pool. © Paul D’Amato. Finalist, LensCulture Portrait Awards 2018.

And yet, nearly one out of five households in this area live below the poverty line. Sociologists have rates and percentages for measuring places like the West Side: percentages of families living below the poverty line; rate of unemployment; rate of violent crime; percentage of teenage pregnancy, etc. According to these metrics, the West Side is just like every other swath of poverty in and around every single city in the United States. We are all well aware of these neighborhoods because they exist everywhere around us. And yet, whether it’s the Lower 9th Ward, Roxbury, Watts, Ferguson, East St. Louis, or Englewood, people living outside these areas can skirt the edges; we are lulled into ignoring their existence. We are also led to believe that the only time these communities are in crisis is when something occurs that lands on the front page of the newspaper.

The real crisis, however, is ongoing. It’s one of acceptance—acceptance of the conditions, day in and day out, all year long. It’s something that journalists only occasionally pay attention to.

Man Looking into a Revival Tent. © Paul D’Amato. Finalist, LensCulture Portrait Awards 2018.

Yet, when I’m there, when I’m visiting someone I know, or simply stopping someone I’ve never met, something besides a concern for poverty takes shape. This is what I photograph. It varies from picture to picture. It can be about a kind of grace or beauty; or perhaps it is just about the opportunity to do something out of the ordinary—to create something that otherwise wouldn’t have existed.

When these subjects agree to be photographed, they stand for the best and only example of who they are. At that moment, they are the center of the universe, right here, holding still, right now.

Lillian. © Paul D’Amato. Finalist, LensCulture Portrait Awards 2018.

What follows—these photographs—won’t change these neighborhoods. But each of these interactions and the subsequent pictures can do something that statistics and sensational news stories can’t. They remind us that we are all connected, that the individuals in the images aren’t “they” or “them,” they are “he” and “she”—and they matter as much as any one of us.

—Paul D’Amato

This project was singled out as one of jury’s favorites from the Portrait Awards 2018. Discover 38 other inspiring projects from this year’s winners, jurors’ picks, and finalists!