The Other Side of “Paradise”, photo essay by Marianna Glynska
Reaching paradise (with different approaches and interpretations of its meaning) has become an ultimate goal of an afterlife in every religion. But can paradise exist here, on Earth, or is it lost forever? No matter what a person might or might not believe in, there is this constant search for higher quality life, the unexplainable need to believe in something better, in life with no violence, no hardships, but with the possibility of reaching true happiness, physical and spiritual fulfillment. That belief can be the driving force for some people leaving their countries and searching for better destinies, for their lost paradise. There are certain affluent countries on the map that embody that paradisiacal notion. One of such countries for the majority of people is the United States of America, a country built by immigrants, country of affluence and possibilities for true happiness and self-realization. While it all might be true, one constantly forgets that there is always a different side of a coin, a side that is not much talked about. Being a creative person, I’ve always been interested in exploring that other side of a coin, that other side paradise.
I first came to the USA in 2009 as a Fulbright fellow to study photography. But besides studying visual arts, I also kept my eyes open and tried to explore the country, myself as a foreigner, prejudices, lives of immigrants and of people living in what was called ‘disadvantage areas’. Before going to Texas to study art, I’ve spent almost a month in Philadelphia doing a pre-academic program and taking some classes at Drexel University. During our orientation program we were given suggestions about best places to eat, to visit, etc. and at the end of the presentation we were told that we shouldn’t go to one area outside the campus as it was too dangerous. I could understand that the instructors were worried about us not getting into trouble, but…. I’ve decided to go there anyway, just to explore the neighborhood. And, of course, I took my camera (my best friend) with me. To be on the safe side, I’ve also asked one of the students from Africa to accompany me. He agreed, and so we went to research the area.
I guess people warning us not to go there had some grounds for saying that. Remembering all those words about the possible dangers of just being in the neighborhood, I felt slightly worried. I could instinctually sense that I wasn’t welcomed there. People shied away from me and looked suspiciously. As one could expect the buildings weren’t pretty at all and the area looked very differently from those nice territories with beautiful parks and neat building. Broken windows, suspicious people, no parks, a lot of garbage… It was like suddenly walking into a different country, country of broken dreams and expectations, yet with people like us doing daily things, walking, cleaning, sitting on the porch… While I was there, I had mixed feelings of sadness, curiosity, worries and simply delight in watching those people (I’ve always been interested in studying the human nature). The children like the majority of kids were open and curious, some of them posed for the cameras while others looked bewildered; some adults shut the door or suddenly started closing the window while seeing me with the camera. They seemed so scared as if I were carrying a gun. And people didn’t smile; they seemed tired and lost in their thoughts. Are they doomed to live on the margins of poverty? Do they have a chance of escaping that neighborhood? Do they want to escape it? Are they the ones who’ve tried and failed and whose dreams of finding a paradise sank into oblivion? I didn’t know any of the answers, but I was curious to get to know at least something.
Suddenly, while walking along the street with my friend, I saw an elderly African American man sitting on the porch. He seemed so serious and lost in his thoughts. I wanted to take a picture of that porch but suddenly heard: “No pictures”. He closed his face with the hand obviously waiting for me to pass by. It’s quite a common situation, as a lot of people don’t like to be photographed. But I’ve never encountered people being scared of the camera so much. And then, instead of passing by, I stopped and said: “Why are people so scared here? Why do they look at me as if I were walking with the gun? Why are they hiding?”
It was a long and very interesting conversation. “Because quite a lot of them do illegal things here. And by the way, he said, if you were my daughter I would never ever let you enter this area”. “Is this really so bad and dangerous?” I asked. “More than you can imagine”. “Why aren’t there police officers?” I continued. “They don’t want to risk their lives and come here only when something’s bad has already happened. It’s like a closed circle. People don’t have jobs, as the majority of them are uneducated because they can’t afford college. Most young people drop out of school and start working as money is needed to survive; then they realize that they can get more money by doing illegal stuff. Nothing is here to occupy the children during free time; parents not being able to constantly watch them as they have to work and, thus, kids are left on their own soon realizing that money rules everything and they need to get it somehow”…
Very common problems, like in every country around the world. Maybe there’s a way of escaping this closed circle, and some people manage to do it. But for the majority of people, it isn’t as easy. That paradise somehow becomes unreachable, maybe because they want to find a shortcut to it, maybe because they don’t believe in it or maybe because they’ve tried once and failed. Who can know for sure?
“You can take a picture of me now”. The man was slightly smiling. Suddenly I felt such kindness illuminating from him, such sincerity you can hardly find nowadays. Some people continued looking at me hostile, some were indifferent, some emanated kindness and sincerity, some – hatred and suspicion… The life, with all its ups and downs, stripped of pretense and outer prettiness was just flowing. Cats were peacefully sleeping, the sun was shining, different people were walking by, thinking about the future, disappointing, hoping for something better, losing that hope… and just waiting for what another day will bring.
(by Marianna Glynska)