Call me naïve, but I think that photography can make this world a better place.
And no, I’m not just talking about the professional helicopter-hanging, war-zone trudging photojournalists, but photographers of all walks of life including the amateurs, the complete beginners and you. Yes, even you.
Selfies aside, photography is a process that invites us to observe our surroundings, question what we see, and ultimately helps give us a better understanding of the world. It also allows us to express ourselves, it adds an aesthetic quality to our lives, enables us to share our experiences with others and with a little luck, promote change (if in the least, within ourselves). I believe this wholeheartedly and it’s one of my personal motivations behind doing photography workshops around the world.
There are also many amazing projects dedicated to using photography for change; from large organisations like Photographers without Boarders and Help Portrait to the 24-Hour Project to small, pay-it-forward type initiatives and individual projects, one of which I want to talk about in particular today.
Not long ago, I received a message via Instagram from Nick Marzano briefly explaining a project that he was doing to help the homeless community of San Francisco and asking me whether I could help him spread the word. Now, the photographs that he attached were somewhat weird. But the good kind of weird, the kind that draws you in, arouses your curiosity and makes you want to find out more. And that is exactly what I did.
So, what’s the project all about?
Cleverly named ‘Mission Gold’, which references the Mission Neighbourhood of San Francisco and what Nick refers to as the 24-Carat motherlode that he himself has mined from the street to create this project, it focuses on the entrepreneurs that live and thrive in the shadows of Silicon Valley.
It’s about sidewalk salesmen, modern-day shamans, alien archeologists and can recyclers, beautifully put together in a collection of 4 zines that aim to:
“…inspire people to pay attention to what’s unfolding on the streets around them; to shine a light on the livelihoods of those too often overlooked, and reconsider what is classified as trash and what is seen as treasure.”
Intriguing wouldn’t you say? I definitely thought so, which is why I interviewed Nick to hear about the project from him personally and be able to share it with you.
Christelle Enquist: Was there a particular moment that triggered the idea for mission gold?
Nick Marzano: The inspiration for Mission Gold was originally the incredible raw energy on the streets of San Francisco, made even more dramatic by the divide between the tech and the homeless communities living in the same neighbourhood. Originally, I intended to write a novel that included this colourful cast of characters I was walking past every day. I started taking photos and interviewing people I met as research, and then the research became the project itself. In the end I had this very large archive of words, audio, images, and publishing it as a magazine sold on the street seemed the best way to put it back into the world it came from.
CE: Samuel Aranda, whom we recently interviewed, says that the future of photojournalism lies in collaborative works, was this the case for this project? If so, who were the people involved?
Nick Marzano: There have been many people involved. All of the photography, raw material, the writing…I did all of that. But friends of mine and other creative people, have certainly helped me curate it, shape it and turn it into an actual printed magazine. My friends and wife who are creative people, helped me make decisions, edit some of the copy, choose which stories to put in and take out, which is hard when you are so close to the story.
Also, the beauty of the internet and this modern age is that you can connect with people from all over the world and through a series of coincidences I met Pedro Sanguine who actually lives in Brazil. He became very interested in the project and helped me with the art direction of the magazine.
CE: You spent 2 years wandering the streets for this project and I’m sure you have many personal stories and experiences as a result. Is there any one that stands out in particular?
Nick Marzano: San Francisco is a mystic city, and I have met several modern-day shaman’s living on the streets. Their magic, poetry, and other-worldly communion is fascinating to me. It’s these super natural encounters I remember most vividly and feel like the purest gold of all that I’ve collected.
I also remember the work of Javier, a refugee from Yucatan, Mexico. He showed me an entire block of the Mission where he had drawn with chalk, flowers, temples and other imagery inspired from where he came from. And I remember thinking to myself how many days and days of work he had put into creating this. That imagery of Yucatán really stuck with me.
He takes enormous pride in where he lives which is just a tent on the street, but all around the tent is the most beautiful artwork which he created for the passers-by, the public, anyone who is willing to appreciate it…that complete selflessness was something that was really humbling and profound.
CE: What were people’s reactions on the street upon receiving the first copies for them to sell?
Nick Marzano: Oh, they loved it!
When I took them down to the 16th street Bart station and showed the people whose stuff was in the magazine, they were so excited about it. For them it was wonderful to be featured and acknowledged because what they do is very real…they are street retailers, that’s how they see themselves, they’re not just selling junk, they have a business to run. That was something that was really exciting for me and exciting for them: to see their trade, their livelihood elevated and recognised, they really like it.
The other part of this project was thinking about how I was going to distribute this magazine, and I actually looked into the formal channels of doing it and thought “this is never going to happen”. So, I also ended up partnering with the Coalition on Homelessness here, who are an amazing organisation doing community aid work. They have an office up in the Tenderloin, a very rough neighbourhood right in the middle of San Francisco with a lot of crime and poverty, and these people are on the frontline on helping them out. They publish a newspaper called the ‘Streetsheet’ that’s 2 USD and the vendors who sell the newspaper get to keep the money for themselves. So, I partnered up with the coalition to do the same with Mission Gold. The recommended price is 10 USD and if they can sell it for that they can keep it.
CE: The copies you sell online via the mission gold website, does that money get donated as well?
Nick Marzano: TheTipping Point is another NGO in the city and any profits I make on the magazine, beyond the print costs, goes to the Tipping Point community.
CE: How much have you raised so far?
Nick Marzano: That’s a good question! I would say, including the fundraising event that I did and the copies I gave away for others to sell, about 3,000 USD, maybe more.
CE: What advice would you give to people who want to start their own personal photographic projects?
Nick Marzano: Be patient and enjoy the process. Celebrate every small step forward as a major victory, that way you’ll keep up a positive momentum. If you enjoy what you’re doing, that manifests in better work – at least for me.
CE: Have you got any other projects on the horizon?
Nick Marzano: The next project on my horizon is publishing Mission Gold Issue 002: MAGIC – “Tropical Storms, Talisman’s & Alien Archaeology”. This issue is an inventory of the imagination, featuring art, science, poetry, mythology and a moonshine of fantastic stories more valuable than any precious metal.
I have read the pdf version (the hard copy is on its way!) of Issue 001, and all I can say is that the only thing that would have made it better would have been to have had it physically in my hands. I’ll leave it at that.
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