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For his documentary photography exhibit “The Farms,” Jared Soares hung out for dozens of hours at the Barry Farms Dwellings basketball court in the Barry Farm neighborhood of Southeast D.C., getting to know the players and spectators at George Goodman League basketball games. A selection of Soares’ images are on view through Oct. 31 at Vivid Solutions Gallery in Anacostia.
Soares, who’s been based in D.C. since 2012, grew up in Shawnee, Kan., a suburb of Kansas City. He studied English at the University of Kansas, then moved to Roanoke, Va., to intern with the photography department of the Roanoke Times. He was hired full-time in 2007, then left the paper to freelance in 2010.
In addition to Soares’ Barry Farms project, he has produced in-depth documentary work on the hip-hop culture of Roanoke and how individuals and families in Martinsville, Va., have coped with the loss of manufacturing jobs. His photographs served as inspiration for the book Factory Man. Arts Desk spoke with Soares about earning his subjects’ trust and what basketball games bring to communities.
What kind of projects tend to catch your eye?
A project starts with a curiosity, and then questions. Lately, I’ve been exploring how identity and community intersect. I like the idea of photographing daily life within a specific group of people to show something more universal.
How long do you typically spend on location for a given series?
Since these projects are all self-initiated, I have the luxury of working without any time constraints. Also, for the most part, my projects are in my backyard, so I’m able to make frequent visits. This process allows me to spend a significant amount of time getting to know the people and becoming familiar with the subject. Conversations with subjects help me figure out my approach to the photography.
For the most part, I work on projects over the course of 12 months, with a month or two of research on the front end. I’m also balancing commissioned work and having a personal life, so projects can take a little longer. When I feel like all my questions are answered, then I know it’s time to finish the work.
What are some of the secrets to being accepted by your subjects?
Transparency. As an independent photographer, you don’t have an organization’s name to lean on, so explaining your purpose and your intentions with the work is crucial. Social media is the new front porch, and most people want to know how their image or likeness will be used. I’m sensitive to that and want to make sure that an individual’s experience with me is honest and pleasant.
When I’m starting a new project or an assignment, even before I take the camera out of the bag, I have a conversation to get to know the person and to provide clarity in terms of where the photos might end up. I try to develop a rapport either through shared interests or experiences. It’s really just two humans getting to know each other. And recently, I’ve started bringing along a small portfolio book to give people a better idea of my approach to photography.
Tell me about the Barry Farms league you followed.
The George Goodman League, which has concluded its 39th season, is an outdoor summer basketball league that is made up of roughly 20 teams that feature professional, college, and high-school players. The league, originally called the Barry Farms Basketball League, was founded by Ervin Brady, Carlton Reed and Morty Hammonds and later named after Barry Farms community activist George Goodman by commissioner Miles Rawls in 2000.
The league is sponsored by Nike and Red Bull, and games take place six nights a week, starting in June and finishing up with playoff games to decide the champion before Labor Day. Many of the professionals play overseas or in the NBA Development League and use it to keep in shape because the D.C. area has an abundance of basketball talent.
…D.C. native and NBA MVP Kevin Durant will play in a game each summer. In August, Bradley Beal of the Washington Wizards played in a few games to fans’ delight. Also, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan plays in the league. Some players are able to garner interest from pro teams based on their performance.
What are some of your takeaways from your time documenting basketball at Barry Farms?
My visits to Barry Farms allowed me to see how a sport gives people an indirect reason to celebrate community. I’m a huge basketball fan, so seeing high-level, on-court action was a treat. But I found the relationships between the fans and the individuals who make up the league more interesting.
The nicknames for each bleacher section, the pickup games played by teens before the actual games, DJ Mixx playing the league theme song, and color commentary from league commissioner Rawls are all just a handful of pieces that make up the identity of the league. It’s more than just basketball.
What are some of your favorite images, and why?
I don’t have a favorite image, but the portraits stand out for me. My first intention for the project was to make candid images of situations that spoke to the experience of attending a game. This documentary approach changed when people asked to have their picture taken in a posed setting.
In the past, I would get frustrated when people wanted to pose, but this experience led me to explore what was possible with collaborative portraiture. When an individual asked me to take their picture, I would bring them over to a non-distracting background and into pleasing light. Then I’d ask them to do the same pose. Included in the frame is how the individual chooses to represent themselves, along with what I deem aesthetically alluring.
What are some of the technical specs for your work?
For “The Farms” project, I used medium-format cameras to slow down the process of making photographs. This choice in camera system was a reaction to the deadline-driven assignment work that calls for a digital SLR. I wanted to use a camera that would force me to deliberate and consider the choices that I’m making with regard to what is or is not included in the frame.
Do you have a full-time job separate from photography?
For the past four years, I’ve been earning a living by collaborating with editorial and commercial clients to fulfill their visual needs as an independent photographer.
What photographers’ work has influenced your own?
My friends and the people that make up my peer group have always and will continue to inspire and influence my work. Now that I live in D.C., many of those individuals are here and I get to see them pretty regularly. There are way too many to name. I don’t think I could just mention a couple.
At Vivid Solutions Gallery, 1231 Good Hope Road, S.E., Washington D.C. Tue–Fri 12-5 and Sat. 11-5. Soares will be holding an artist talk at the gallery on Oct. 18 at 1 p.m.
All photos by Jared Soares