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Well-known photographer at work in West Charlotte says, ‘We want people to roll up’ at The Roll Up

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The Roll Up CLT artist residency was designed as an ethical community redevelopment project, based in the Camp Greene neighborhood on Charlotte’s West Side. It differs from traditional artist-in-residence programs in that founder Jessica Moss wanted to emphasize artists helping develop skills and activation in the community, rather than being cloistered away to create. Photographer Zun Lee, the inaugural artist, says he is intentionally seeking ways to become an active and engaged neighbor for his six-month residency, which ends Nov. 30. One project: Teaching an eight-week photography course at Lorien Academy of the Arts. (Another collaboration: Muddy Turtle Talks from QC Family Tree, Sept. 15 in the Knight Gallery. Images curated by Lee (whose first name is pronounced “choon”) from his archive of found African American family Polaroids will be backdrop for live storytelling about living on the West Side, developed with Tuckaseegee Road-area residents by artist/storyteller Hannah Hasan.)

Describe your role in this residency: I’m connecting with West Side residents through pedagogy and creative conventions – basically doing anything that enables me to create strong relationships, whether they’re art-related or not. If my neighbors remember me as adding something positive to their lives beyond the making of art itself, that’s the goal here. To be a good neighbor, to really get out there and figure out what are the issues they’re dealing with every day, to talk to them and get to know them and get them to know me. The entrance to The Roll Up is actually a garage so the doors roll up, and we want people to roll up and engage, so there are several levels of meaning.

What has been the most surprising moment in the Lorien part of the project? I initially thought being a photography instructor for Lorien students would be predictable. I had taught teens before and knew it takes time to develop relationships where people trust you. In eight weeks I said I wouldn’t expect the world. I figured the worst that could happen was they’d walk away with a few useful techniques. I was also teaching them to look at creativity as a tool within itself to problem solve and further their lives and education.

It was difficult, at first. Every week we would review the pictures that they’d taken and talk about which ones were their favorite and why, beyond its composition. I wanted the students to value their own stories and those of the neighborhood that were being neglected. Initially it was a slog; kids that age don’t want to be vulnerable. It’s a difficult thing anyway, for someone to confide when they’re having a bad day and to take a picture that perhaps might reveal too much information, but feel safe that it will be respected.

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Zun Lee coaches his students at Lorien Academy. Joshua Komer Joshua Komer

The most surprising thing was that it sunk in – it’s hard enough with adults. The last day of class was the moment it all came together. I thought, in a few years we’ll look back on this moment and value what happened here. We will see the value of what we’re doing. I really hope they keep on with photography after I’m gone; eight weeks is a short time. I encouraged them to continue by using their cellphone cameras. The students asked if I would return to teach next year. It was a personal measure of success.

What’s been the most profound moment? There was a breakthrough day, when I had them look at Polaroids of black families from the 1970s and ’80s who’d been displaced from neighborhoods or lost their homes. The pictures showed the richness and vibrancy of family life: The content was joyful but the circumstances were not. The students realized the photos could be of them now. Everyone seemed to know a family that had been affected or had been displaced themselves. It connected: They didn’t want to end up like that. So they determined to continue documenting and preserving what they see. We got to the heart of why being seen and represented matters – that what you think, value and experience in life matters, your black life matters. And don’t let anyone tell you that your life is worth less.

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Lee’s kids had a message for him. Joshua Komer Joshua Komer

What about this work has changed your art? What changed was my realization that the work isn’t photography, it’s connecting with people. Photos are the byproduct, but the point is the relationships. Before my residency I did a lot of research on Charlotte and West Charlotte. I thought, I’ll be here six months and take a lot of pictures, maybe start a new project. But now, even on days that I’m not happy with the photos I shot, I’m good because I did the work through developing these core relationships.

That’s why I love the way Roll Up is structured. I’ve built so much collateral living on Camp Greene. It has a high-crime reputation, but it’s a wonderful neighborhood, like an enchanted forest with big trees and sloping hills. When I go around and ask my neighbors what they appreciate about the hood and they say it’s quiet and everyone has their back, it goes against the popular narrative of the place.

It can be a little frustrating talking to my photographer friends. I can tell them I went to this neighborhood, met that pastor, and they’re like, “Where are the pictures?” They see engagement as a way to get to the pictures. I’m thinking about what it means to be a good neighbor and realizing I don’t have all the answers, but by being present and listening, I’m learning the ways I can help. Tell me a story.

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Zun Lee made this photograph at a rehearsal for QC Family Tree’s “Muddy Turtle Talks,” coming up Sept. 15. Under artist/ storyteller Hannah Hasan’s watchful eye, TyJuan McFadden and Tayshaun Harris rehearse their spoken word stories in front of the youth group at QC Family Tree. Zun Lee

This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.

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