Camden has something to say

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“A lot of times people talk about self-esteem as internal, but we also need to talk about positive self-imagery.”  

What does positive self-imagery mean for a city? Well, for some places such as Camden, New Jersey that phrasing means everything. 

The above quote came from Erik James Montgomery, a Camden resident who is featured as a photographer with A New View – Camden’s latest project titled “Camden Is Bright Not Blight.” The project’s main goal is to ultimately change the view many tourists may have of the city of Camden, and instead turn negative connotations into positive images for that section of NJ as a whole. With more than 65,000 people traveling in and out of the city on top of the 77,000 residents, this new initiative will create an impact for a large amount of people. 

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This new artistic venture for the city kicked off in 2018, when the City of Camden, Cooper’s Ferry Partnership, and Rutgers-Camden Center for the Arts submitted a proposal as part of a grant request to turn dumping sites into public art spaces. Then, the next year, Camden was named one of five cities nationwide to win a $1 million Bloomberg Philanthropies 2018 Public Art Challenge grant. 

“For the city of Camden, the challenge that we chose was illegal dumping which really is an expensive problem for the city,” says Meishka Mitchell, Vice President of Cooper’s Ferry Partnership. The problem, which can cost the city 4 million dollars annually was going to be resolved through six vacant locations throughout Camden hosting dynamic art installations and programming as part of A New View – Camden. However, once COVID-19 hit, those plans had to be put on hold until spring 2021. “In the meantime, we’ve been using this opportunity to continue to bring awareness and attention around illegal dumping, but to also send a message that Camden is not a dumping ground. Part of one of the goals for the overall project is to change the perception that people have about the city of Camden, which we believe helps to re-enforce why people think that they can come in and dump,” adds Mitchell. 

For the “Camden Is Bright Not Blight” campaign, Erik James Montgomery produced 20 boards featuring photo portraits of various Camden residents of all ages and backgrounds along with their personal quotes about what “Camden is…”

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“My project is directly involved with Camden residents so, my scope was to photograph 100 Camden residents,” explains Montgomery.”The youngest one I photographed so far was actually named Camden like the city, he just turned two years old. Then I have everybody from CEOs to politicians to artists to people who are in recovery. It really paints a nice, panoramic picture of what Camden represents. I went out, and I started reaching out to people who I already knew in Camden and the beautiful thing about Camden is, there’s really no six degrees of separation—there’s really only one degree. So I would ask do you know somebody that I need to talk too? That was such a blessing, because not only did it help me produce the body of work that I needed to create, it also helped me understand the city on the people’s level as well.” 

Montgomery’s installations are now placed throughout Camden on wood boards found covering vacant properties. The installations were put up earlier this month, and will remain on display until October 2021. Montgomery is also founder of the EJM Organization, a non-profit that teaches at-risk youth the art and business of photography, and his passion for change shows through his work. 

“I really want people to know that Camden is as Walt Whitman said, invincible, and not how some people see it as invisible,” says Montgomery. “This project will help foster a more healthy sense of positive self-imagery. If you’re not in the city, you might think blight, drug-addiction, crime— things of that nature. But with this story and these images, it’s really showing other degrees and angles of our stories. Camden is made up of a myriad of stories, and when you pull them all together it makes a beautiful mosaic that we are now seeing through this project.” 

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Mitchell, who also was born and raised in Camden holds a similar sentiment when changing the view of a city that holds so much more than what people expect. Inside each home on every street holds people who care deeply about their city, and now have the artistic power to prove it. 

“People who are from the city are too familiar with the reactions that we sometimes get from people who are unfamiliar with the city when they learn that that is where we’re from. Because of the negative stereotype that has been consistently portrayed in the media, being part of how we’ve been able to change that narrative has been really important to me and for Cooper’s Ferry. All of the work that we’re doing is trying to engage residents as part of the solution to the public and communities and to build pride among Camden residents. This project really touches on all of those things, and not only are we beautifying a neighborhood, we are really portraying a unique message that we want the world to hear.” 

To learn more information, visit anewviewcamden.com

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