I used to work for an immigration lawyer. Part of my job was to gather information about clients’ lives and backgrounds to build their cases. I always remembered one time I was interviewing a client, and she was telling me the way they used to live in her small town in Guatemala.
She told me about family photo day, which was a much-anticipated event. Everyone in the family got dressed in their best, and went to meet the photographer at the park in town. Then they’d have to send the film away to be developed, because there were no dark rooms in this town. Once the prints were ready, the photographer would display them at the park, and you’d go pay the photographer and pick up your family’s portrait.
The Chattanooga Trust for Public Land team is always thinking of ways we can use parks to build connections among families and communities, and make Chattanooga’s parks more accessible to everyone. We’re doing that by building literal connections, in the form of bike trail spurs that link neighborhood parks to the South Chickamauga Creek Greenway and the Tennessee Riverwalk. But we also know that just building physical infrastructure isn’t enough: we also want to make sure that Chattanooga’s public spaces are welcoming, relevant, and truly serving the surrounding community.
Many families in the East Lake neighborhood have come to the U.S. from El Salvador and Guatemala. East Lake Park is actually Chattanooga’s oldest city park, and it just underwent a big renovation. So when we were thinking of ways to foster a sense of ownership among the park’s neighbors, we thought: family photo day! Getting the family together to have pictures taken in a park is something that’s familiar to many people from Latin America. As an immigrant myself—I’m from Chile—I approach this mission from a place of blending familiar themes and ideas from our communities’ cultures of origin.
So in early March, we hired a neighbor named Alondra Gómez to help organize an event and get the word out, and began working with Brooke Bragger, a local photographer, to set up an outdoor portrait studio on a Sunday afternoon in East Lake Park. Some families knew we’d be there and came out for the occasion, and other folks were just out for a Sunday stroll between church services and decided to sit for a portrait.
“I think there’s a lot of power in seeing yourself portrayed this way in a public space—and also, in people seeing you,” says Daniela Peterson. Photos: Brooke Bragger Photography
We’d planned to create a whole gallery of these images to set up at Book Fiesta, a big party that ELLA Library puts on in East Lake Park each April. I think there’s a lot of power in seeing yourself portrayed this way in a public space—and also, in people seeing you. We see you, and you belong here in this park, whoever you are.
These portraits were taken about a week before COVID-19 emerged as a national crisis. Now the fiesta is postponed until sometime in the fall, but we didn’t want to wait so long to share these images with the community. We’re definitely looking forward to showing them at the park, whenever it’s safe to gather again. But meanwhile, we’ve created a virtual gallery, so anyone can scroll through and see the faces of Chattanoogans who are proud of their park, who claim it as their space.
Daniela Peterson is senior advisor for community strategies in The Trust for Public Land’s Chattanooga office.