For the past few months photographer Jack Alterman has been photographing residents of the East Side neighborhood, inviting passersby into his pop-up tent where they pose for portraits. What started as a side gig helping another artist turned into a full-fledged passion project, with Alterman heading out to the East Side every Saturday and Sunday to photograph the people who call it home. His exhibit, East Siders Matter, will be on display on the fence surrounding Fraser Elementary school (63 Columbus St.) starting this Saturday, Oct. 24. He hopes that it will stay up for a while.
“People would just open up,” says Alterman of his subjects, who ranged from ages five to 85. Alterman’s only requirement was that a subject lived in the East Side (i.e. no tourists or South of Broad-ers allowed). A lot of people he met would come back to him a few weekends later, bringing new friends with new stories.
And the stories? One man in a wheelchair, who lost his legs to diabetes, told Alterman that he’s only homeless in the sense that he doesn’t have a home — his neighbors take care of him. One couple moved to Charleston 30 years ago — the man from Jamaica and the woman from Barbados — and they’ve been here ever since. One man moved here from Savannah after Hurricane Hugo. He wanted to learn the city’s history so he followed alongside carriage tours taking in as much information as he could. He now tells people all about Charleston.
“People care that you’re interested in them,” says Alterman. He mentions the East Side’s history of violence — the exhibit, after all, will be displayed during next week’s Trident Tech-sponsored Eastside Community Spirit Week — and Alterman says that while violence in the area has gotten “much much better,” there are still reminders of the area’s tragic not-so-distant past.
One of the most recent incidents was just last May when five-year-old Tyriek Gadsden was shot in the back on the corner of Mary and America streets. Gadsden was paralyzed from the waist down. Images of Gadsden today, recovering in a wheel chair, show a young boy smiling and waving, but, still, permanently paralyzed.
The area’s violence isn’t Alterman’s only concern. The school fence that he’s displaying East Siders Matter on isn’t even open. “Where do these kids go to school?” asks Alterman. With people coming into the East Side to view the exhibit, Alterman hopes more people will get a sense of the thriving community, comprised of church-goers, college students, and people whose families have lived in the area for generations. “There was a time when people wouldn’t even get out of their cars on the East Side,” he says. He hopes this exhibit will show how times have changed.
Alterman says that the exhibit has “no marketable value” and that he doesn’t plan to sell any images, although he’s open to giving the pieces to people who want to take home a very large portrait. Each black and white image will be 40X50 inches (about 3.3X4.2 feet) and displayed on vinyl so that they’re weather-proof.
After collecting over 50 images Alterman began to think about displaying the exhibit in a gallery, but then he realized he wanted the art to be more accessible to the public, especially the community in which the images were taken. Alterman’s vision for the project is growing — he collected some video interviews along with the photographs — and he hopes that one day his portraits or maybe even other art will spread through the East Side’s streets. “We’ll see how it’s received,” he says.
Head to the first event of Eastside Community Spirit week, held in celebration of the community’s heritage, this Saturday for a Stop the Violence, Continue the Love run/walk starting at Mall Park at 8 a.m. Hosted by the Eastside Neighborhood Association, this gathering will be a rally in support of ending violence and promoting healthy lifestyles. Spirit week kicks off on Trident Tech’s campus on Monday with a display of visual arts (in addition to Alterman’s photos) on the campus courtyard, along with a presentation of the Cigar Factory History by the Lowcountry Digital History Initiative. Check our calendar of events for all Spirit Week activities.
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