The Portfolio Entry #2

This recurring piece seeks to explore, examine, explain the most compelling and interesting images of the last fifty years. Some you may have seen, others will be new to you.

Hunter's Point, San Francisco 2008 by Alex Welsh

For the longest time this photograph sat in my Internet snatch folder and I couldn’t remember the story behind it. But it always stuck with me and I would return to it again and again, admiring its almost dream-like scenario. It is simply one of the most powerful images I have ever seen. I remembered that I must have caught it on some college photojournalist website or maybe it was the winner of some kind of documentary photo contest. Nevertheless, for the two years it’s been with me, I recognized its greatness and speculated on its creation. Is the kid on the bike a spectator or the arsonist who set the playground on fire? What exactly is going on?

Well after a Google image search, whereby I pasted the clip I had into the search engine (did not know you could do that) I’ve come to learn the story and, more importantly, the ace photojournalist that made the shot. Turns out the kid on the bike was just a spectator watching a playground burning. Quote photographer Alex Welsh via Verve Photo:

This picture was taken in the Alice Griffith ‘Double Rock’ housing projects in Hunters Point.  I was driving into the projects with a rapper from the neighborhood when I saw the playground burning, so I started shooting this boy on his bike watching it burn.

The photo is a part of a series on Hunter’s Point, an African-American neighborhood in San Francisco undergoing transformation and redevelopment. The series’ aim, per Welsh’s artist statement, is to [examine] “issues such as violence, poverty, and criminalization, but also the strength, perseverance, and hope of a community facing transformation.”

Obviously something like a playground burning is going to bring spectators, especially to an impoverished neighborhood watching one of their resources burn to the ground. Welsh explains that as the fire department extinguished the flames “a group of girls approached me to ask if there was going to be a new playground put in.  It was a bit heartbreaking, and so I told them that I was sure they would replace it.  They got really excited and started asking me what kind of things where going to be in the new playground, but I told them I had no idea.”

What makes this image so powerful for me is that sense of social abuse and decay, something I understood on a fundamental level about the photograph, even when I forgot the story behind it. The image is explosive (ha,ha) and you can feel the heat. The shirtless kid tells us that it’s already hot and this must be worsened by the fiery weather coming from the burning plastic playground. Surely there’s a toxic smell in the air–just look at all that heavy black smoke. The kid is caught just as he turns on his bike, perhaps to escape. The sliver of his face we see tells us about his fascination with this scene. Welsh’s cropping of the kid as he turns creates an interesting composition, a perpetual sense of movement, of turning away. The color scheme is also potent; hot and dry browns punctuated by beams of blue, and of course the orange fireball in center with woolly black smoke billowing upwards. The photo is seared into my memory by the fantastic event it captures, the grimy smoke, and that forever static moment as the kid turns away.

For more on Alex Welsh check out his website