South Side salvation Photographer Megan Doherty captures Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood
Week after week, photographer Megan E. Doherty accompanied Brother Jim, the humble and last remaining member of a Catholic ministry called The Brothers and Sisters of Love, on his rounds of underprivileged neighborhoods on the south and west sides of Chicago. Brother Jim, a sometimes controversial figure, once found himself in the crossfire between two rival gangs, an incident he survived unscathed — some say miraculously. Gang members on the South Side, who witnessed him risking his life as young men were shooting all around him and at one another, took it as a sign. He became known to some as Superman. In the Chicago Tribune story “Brother Jim: They call him Superman” (Dec. 10, 2004), journalist Rex W. Huppke reported that when asked by local gangs about why he risked his life that day, Brother Jim replied, “Because I care about you.”
It is perhaps easy, but also unfair and untrue, to characterize areas with high crime and poverty rates as war zones. In a war zone, there are survivors, and then there are people like Brother Jim, who are trying to make a difference from the inside out. Doherty met Brother Jim after hearing a former gang member — an acquaintance of Brother Jim’s — give a poetry reading at a book event she attended. “Before reading what he wrote, he told us this whole story,” she told
Pasatiempo. “He said that he had been a homeless drug addict, that he was living on the street, that he was in and out of jail, and basically had hit rock bottom. One night he had this religious experience where he felt like God was talking to him, and he turned his life around at that point. When I was listening to him talk, it felt like the hair was standing up on the back of my neck. After the event was over, I went up and introduced myself and told him the kind of work I had done before and the type of work I was hoping to do more of in the future, and he immediately said, ‘You need to meet Brother Jim.’ ”
Brother Jim had been in the seminary and was intending to join the Columban Fathers, a society of missionaries. “As part of his training, to get a taste of what the life of a missionary would be like, he spent some time working with Brother Bill in Chicago,” Doherty said. “Brother Bill was also a layperson, not actually a religious brother. Eventually, Jim realized that he could serve God and serve the poor as a layperson, that he didn’t have to be a priest to do God’s work. He’s an advocate for the poor. He is a presence. He reflects God’s love back to them. He never judges people. He also never proselytizes or tries to convert them either.”
Brother Jim was Doherty’s introduction to the Back of the Yards neighborhood, so-called because of its proximity to Chicago’s Union Stock Yards. For the past three years, she’s been documenting life among the people that call Back of the Yards home. Back of
the Yards, her documentary photographic series, is on display at Photo-eye Gallery in Center’s Project Grant
Winners Exhibition. The show is in conjunction with the Center-sponsored Review Santa Fe, an annual festival of photographic arts that takes place this year from Nov. 2 through Sunday, Nov. 6. The two-person show features works by Center’s 2016 Project Launch Award winner, Russian photographer Elena Anosova, and Doherty, who won the 2016 Project Development Grant for
The development grant is for works in progress in fine art and documentary photography, along with photojournalism.
Doherty turned to professional photography after a career in academia. “I recognized that tenure is a dying breed and there weren’t as many opportunities as there used to be. I thought, this is that chance where I can start all over from scratch and do something. If I could pick anything at all, what would it be? That was photography. I bought a camera and started teaching myself how to use it.” Doherty is mostly self-taught, but she got an apprenticeship with documentary photographer Jon Lowenstein, working with him in his South Side studio. He convinced her to take on a project of her own. She said, “Well, you know, I do know this guy. He’s a street preacher. Maybe there’s something there.”
Doherty’s black-and-white photographs are luminous images that capture moments of sadness and joy, providing a perspective that doesn’t emphasize poverty or the high crime rate, though those circumstances are evident. Instead, her project is centered on the neighborhood’s people and on evoking a lyrical, poetic sense of place. Spring, her leading image from the series Back of the Yards, shows a porch scene shot from a distance through a small field of dandelions. “I was basically lying on my stomach in an abandoned lot filled with trash. It’s not objectively beautiful, but you can find the beauty that’s there if you care enough about the people there and the community.”
Doherty avoids sensationalism in her imagery. Gang violence is a reality in the places where she does her work and it doesn’t go ignored. There are images of gatherings at gravesites, a domestic scene of a father under house arrest, but there’s also the presence of Brother Jim throughout, a tall white man in a mostly black neighborhood who became, for many, a healing, hopeful companion. “There’s a lot of really great, good, important work that’s much more explicit about violence and the hard realities that people live with, whether in terms of the subject matter or how they frame the shot, or simply in terms of the processing,” Doherty said. “They’ll make it very high contrast so it’s an in-your-face, attention-grabbing thing. But that’s not really the aesthetic I was going for. I didn’t want to have that effect on the audience. I wanted to pull them in by how beautiful these people are and by how beautiful the community can be, even though most folks would think there is no beauty in Back of the Yards.”
Doherty’s black-and-white photographs are luminous images that capture moments of sadness and joy, providing a perspective that doesn’t emphasize poverty or the high crime rate.