Recently, Philadelphia-based photographer Zave Smith has undertaken an ambitious self-directed project documenting life in the neighborhoods of his beloved city. He calls this expansive project MYBKYD (or My Backyard). A historic city like Philly is rich with stories, and Zave has taken it upon himself to bring the stories of those living and working in its vibrant and iconic neighborhoods to the public.
Zave was first inspired to start this ambitious project during the initial lockdowns of COVID-19 pandemic as people were just cautiously starting to return to work.
In the spring of 2020 during the covid lockdown when commercial photography did a “Houdini,” I became antsy sitting at home, and decided to do something that I had not seriously done since college: street photography. I wandered various neighborhoods around Philly and photographed the people who were starting to go back to work. These photographs became a series called, “Back To Work,” they are some of my favorite images of the last few years.
A few years later and with the imminent dangers of the pandemic-era behind us, Zave decided to revisit the project. He knew he wanted to transform this nascent idea into a substantial project, so he teamed up with his friends at Philadelphia design agency Xhilarate to do just that.
I shared a few of these images with my friends at Xhilarate, Michael McDonald and Russ Napolitano, they said, “These are great, we need to do something with them.” Xhilarate is an amazing strategic branding, design, and content creation agency whom I have a very close relationship with. Russ and Michael gave me a lot of inspiration and guidance. At first, we did not really know what MYBKYD was going to be.
Although the goals and design of this project is ambitious, Zave’s intentions are straightforward. He admits, however, that it took some reflection to develop the idea into a cohesive vision.
It took a few shoots and a lot of discussion to refine the purpose and to develop the look and the feel of this project. I also received a lot of feedback from Rough Cuts, a Philadelphia based filmmakers meet-up.
The simplicity of MYBKYD is, perhaps, why it is a compelling project. It is a down-to-earth endeavor to tell the stories of the people in one of the USA’s renowned cities.
Our goal with MYBKYD was to create a collection of stories about the people who help make Philadelphia such a vibrant place to live, work, or visit. We structured the site by neighborhood with six diverse places to feature in each area.
There was a sense of fate to how the project came to fruition. The pieces of the puzzle started to fall into place and their creation began to take shape.
Michael pulled out a website that he had designed for another project that had died and said, “We should use this material on this already branded site, “MYBKYD.” This is how My BackYard came to life.
Zave and the team at Xhilarate also recognized that developing high-quality and interesting content alone wasn’t enough. The MYBKYD website is an essential component of the project. It is the portal for transmitting these images and stories to the world. As such, Zave and the team recognized that the website had to offer visitors a uniquely compelling experience that brought the vibrancy of the city streets and markets into the digital domain.
We realized that for this project to work it was going to have to be immersive, a combination of compelling stills, interesting video interviews, amazing design, and great copy.
MYBKYD has a broad scope in more than just the content that Zave intends to document. With ambitions to create a multifaceted project incorporating a dynamic web platform, written copy, still images, and video interviews, Zave is envisioning an ambitious yet humanist portrait of his beloved city.
Zave has photographed the streets and markets of Philadelphia often while working in the Lifestyle specialty. Although this was his first venture into street photography since his college days, his love for people, as well as his naturally friendly disposition, made it easy to get back into old ways.
We needed to learn how to quickly interview a very busy person in a chaotic environment and how to handle shooting in some lighting conditions that are less than optimal. But, I am very lucky that I develop a trusting and emotional bond with people very quickly. I think this is because I am a genuinely curious person who loves hearing people’s stories. Empathy alone does not create a portrait. A good portrait also must be a strong visual experience.
This kind of Social Documentary and Portraiture photography is based on immediate connections with people and adaptation to often unpredictable and diverse lighting conditions.
As a portrait photographer who often shoots on the go, you must quickly figure out the story that you are trying to tell. Then you must figure out how to frame your subject in an environment that supports the emotional or narrative story you are trying to create. You also need to figure out how to use available light or light the scene to create a sense of time, mood, and to direct the viewer’s eyes to what you want to talk about.
To develop the stories of each neighborhood, Zave had to immerse himself in the environments and spaces he wanted to share with the world. He had to do more than just arrive and take photos as would any tourist. He had to observe and explore with patience and care for the history of the spaces, as well as the diverse experiences of those living and working there.
I start by just exploring, walking around each neighborhood, shooting a few stills, and getting a feel for the place. This is true even for areas that I know well and have shot in before because intent and context matter: they affect style and approach. Then I would start to single in on the places that I found interesting and that I wish to feature. I try to pick out a diverse representation for each neighborhood to feature. I would then approach the store manager, restaurant owner, or institutional leader and see if they wish to be a part of MYBKYD.
For the most part, Zave found that business owners, employees, and residents were receptive to his project. Without the clout and presence of a major publication or institution behind you it can, at times, be difficult to motivate people to take time out of their day. People are very busy themselves trying to get by. Yet, this is the City of Brotherly Love, after all, and most of the people he asked consented to be interviewed and participate.
Working on bustling streets and crowded markets is as invigorating as it is challenging. The energy of crowded streets and markets is not without some inherent difficulty for any photographer. This dynamic is, however, more often than not, the subject of street photography. When it comes to video, on the other hand, this same environment presents a range of complications. As a professional photographer, first and foremost, Zave had to surmount a learning curve to overcome these technical issues when capturing audio for video interviews.
We started shooting in the Reading Terminal Market, a very crowded and noisy place. To be honest, when I came home and reviewed the first two interviews, I thought I was finished, that this project would be impossible. The audio was very noisy and unusable. A friend of mine, Nix Justice whom I know via Rough Cuts, suggested I try Adobe’s Podcast Voice on the audio. It did an amazing job of cleaning up the sound. Over time, as we learned to master these skills, our storytelling also improved since we were able to focus more on the narratives and the visuals.
Although Zave had collaborators and help from friends and peers within his community, he did all of the heavy lifting and day-to-day work on his own. He recognizes that this was a limitation that, at the same time, allowed him to connect with the people he met and interviewed.
We also had logistical challenges. With no assistants, we had to be very thoughtful about what gear we would need to achieve what we wanted while being practical about how much we could carry.
There is, however, simplicity in working alone despite the challenges. Oftentimes, limitations are an opportunity for new creative possibilities.
I think, because it was just me on the shoots, our subjects were not worried, distracted or intimidated by all the activities of a normal crewed video shoot. This helped create a sense of intimacy and helped the interviews feel very authentic and a bit sweet.
Despite Zave’s decades of experience as a professional photographer, this kind of ambitious and open-ended project has pushed his career in new directions. It isn’t simply a cliché that true professionals and artists continue to learn throughout their career.
One of the biggest lessons learned was how hard it can be to shoot and the volume of B-Roll you need for a project like this. After creating these stories for MYBKYD and a few other recent projects, my comfort shooting both video and still images during the same shoot is much greater. I now look forward to these types of assignments.
Furthermore, this project has been an opportunity to connect with people from around the city. The businesses and people working them, providing services, entertainment, and gathering spaces day in day out to city residents are the lifeblood of urban environments. Zave has had the opportunity to meet more than a few exceptional individuals throughout the development of MYBKYD.
I fell in love with Arch Enemy Arts gallery the minute I stumbled across it. They feature artwork that is like nothing I have really encountered before. At first, the gallery owner, Lawren agreed to an interview, then disagreed, then agreed again to participate. After our interview she called and begged me not to use it. We decided to film her again in a different outfit, but even though she agreed to participate she felt uncomfortable being on camera. It was a long shoot. A few weeks later, when her interview went live on our site, she called me and told me how happy she was with it and how glad she was that I put up with her hesitations and created a video that reflected both her and the gallery in such a sweet, positive, and honest light.
Through patience and commitment to his cause, Zave has found that the human connection reaps great rewards. This connection between people within the community is, after all, what MYBKYD is all about. With his lens focused on the daily life of people within Philadelphia’s neighborhoods and the spaces that draw Philadelphians together, Zave continues to bring the stories of the neighborhood to the public. With three of the seven neighborhoods documented so far, his work isn’t finished yet. There are still more stories to tell.
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