Interview with Justin Maxon, 2012 Professional Winner

A multiple exposed image of a boxing match on the street between two friends. Boxing is a positive outlet for youth. The neighborhood is referred to as the “Madi Block” because Madison St. runs in the middle. It is one of the more violent areas of Chester. I was interviewing a man on this particular day whose brother, less then a year before, was shot in the back and killed running away from a Chester Police Officer. Justin Maxon

We are conducting interviews with all of our grantees over the year of the award. There is so much more to a photojournalism project than the selection of the final 10 or 15 images. It is work, struggle, disappointment and exultation over a long period of time until one can say that he or she has truly captured the essence of a theme or subject. With these interviews, we hope to learn more about the process and be granted a glimpse at the work in progress.

The first interview we conducted in this series is with Justin Maxon – this year’s Alexia Foundation professional winner. He also provided some recent images which appear throughout this interview. The captions are his explanations of the significance of the images to his project.

Alexia Foundation: How is your project coming?

Justin Maxon: The project is gaining momentum. Not only have I been working towards completing the proposed project, I have also been attending any event I find that speaks to the larger context of my work. Everything in Chester is intertwined, so that in the end it all speaks to the same thread of understanding.

From Chester High School graduation. It captures a significant moment for the young men and women, as the graduation rate in Chester is one of lowest in Pennsylvania at 44.83 percent. Justin Maxon

Alexia Foundation: What are your plans/vision for the project? How are you approaching the project? Why?

Justin Maxon: As my relationships with people in Chester have grown, so has my commitment to the community. I am working to create a multi-layered approach towards addressing the issue of violence in Chester. A portrait series and film is the first step, which will intertwine into the most important part of the process. I want to create an annual arts program for families involved in the project that will culminate in a community event and art exhibition. The program will bring together many local artists in Chester from various backgrounds, mentoring the participants on a weekly basis over a course of several months. The event will house my photographic efforts and the artistic expressions of the participants in an effort to speak to the issue of violence in a constructive manner. Many of the families have responded enthusiastically to the idea of an arts program. Due to lack of funds, there is not a single arts teacher in the local high school. There is a need in Chester for creative engagement.

In regards to the portrait series, I don’t want to go into too much detail because of the delicate nature of the issue. However, I can say this; I’m using a 4×5 camera to capture the families in their home environment, along with visiting the murder scene and photographing it. This provides a clear and present relationship between the families and crime scene, which is the last place that held the person who was taken. The images will rely on supporting material in an effort to construct a more adequate account of these crimes.

I’m also working on a film. I found this old style video camera and have been running black and white film through it. I want the film to be different than a standard documentary, something that that blends a more experimental approach with a story telling narrative.

At the scene of a shooting where two suspects were arrested. Two young girls stand close after walking out from the crowd to see if they knew the men. Justin Maxon

Alexia Foundation: What has been the most difficult aspect of your shooting?

Justin Maxon: Finding the families has been a challenge, but the biggest difficulty has been follow-through. People are busy, living in a community with obstacles I can’t comprehend as a photographer visiting.

Alexia Foundation: What has been your best moment so far?

Justin Maxon: A couple of weeks ago I was feeling disheartened, families weren’t consistent in getting back to me. Then, I met a woman named Sherice and she was my sunshine. She is soft spoken but a powerhouse of courage. She lost six members of her family from different causes over the last few years. She put forth the effort in helping out with the project by calling around and organizing a meeting with a number of other families. Her strength inspires me when I feel discouraged.

A local praise dance team performing at an outdoor church celebration. What is significant to me is that at the end of the performance, which is illustrated in the image, all the dancers fell to the ground at once, simulating the action of being shot. Obviously this demonstrates how violence has pierced the community, but more importantly it positively speaks to the issue through artistic expression. Justin Maxon

Alexia Foundation: How do you keep yourself motivated, keeping on pushing to capture more?

Justin Maxon: I don’t see it in those terms. People are opening their world to me, and I owe it to them to work as hard as I can to insure my efforts leave a positive imprint on their lives. We live in a world where imagery is in every corner of our lives and photography doesn’t hold the same power it once did. Everyone has a camera and everyone is a photographer. This requires a major adjustment in approach and motivation. It requires more than merely witnessing. Being an image-maker for me is the first step in a series that is necessary to determine the best mechanism for change. We must be as carpenters to a home and work our creations to the end, where they are habitable, and can see the smallest manifestation of our efforts. I want more than anything to create something real and tangible for Chester and this faith keeps my doubts at bay. Now I have the opportunity to manifest these thoughts and feelings that have been building.

Children racing down the street in the William Penn housing projects, which is notorious for being one of the most violent areas in the city. Justin Maxon

Alexia Foundation: Whose photographic work inspires you?

Justin Maxon: The work that inspires me now isn’t strictly photographic in nature. I search out work of photographers that transforms the photographic process, either through activism or subject participation, which increases the dialogue surrounding the issue and strengthens the impact. Jim Goldberg’s process equally involves subject participation as it does his imagery. Donna Ferrato has dedicated most of her life to the issue of domestic abuse and has organized a campaign with the mission of exposing and eradicating violence through awareness, education, and social action. There are many photographers today that are deeply committed to the communities and issues they document.