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Contributed by Maricopa County Library District
There was a time when the small town of Aguila, Arizona wasn't such a nice place to be. After a few years of being plagued by crime, community members decided to make a change. They got the town's issues in the press, which set off a chain reaction of events that resulted in a local cultural shift. Within months, most of Aguila's problems faded into history. But then a new issue arose: even though the crime was down, the town's reputation stuck.
This didn't do much for Aguila's youth. In spite of growing up in a closely knit community, local teens still felt the stigma of growing up on the wrong side of the tracks. Something had to be done.
We developed a vision: create a snapshot of the town as it exists today, as seen by the youth growing up here. The hope was that we could instill a sense of community in the participants and, hopefully, the residents who viewed the book. We decided to send kids into the community with cameras to see what they came up with. The first photos the kids took made it clear to us that we weren't giving the effort the resources it deserved. These images were emotionally affecting and told an amazing story. We needed to respond in-kind. William Dudley, the local librarian and originator of the project, purchased two high quality digital cameras. He sent kids out into the community with the less expensive cameras to see what they'd come up with. When they managed to capture something spectacular, he would send them back to retake the photo a dozen times using the high quality camera. This worked well for the most part, but there were some instances where it hindered the process. If a teen took a photo of some wildlife, for example, it was very difficult to get those animals to pose for the photo a second time. To deal with this, we started planning regular sessions where kids could start off using the better cameras to catch those incidental photographs.
After the first few weeks, we had some beautiful photographs of the town. The farms, buildings, and roads were well-documented, but so few of the photos featured actual residents. We couldn't properly tell the story of a town without featuring its most important feature. We started by working with the young relatives of library staff and expanded participation through the network they provided. News of the project spread quickly.
This is where community connections really came into play for us. We printed up a book of some of the photos we had so that we could show people what we were doing. Once the kids were able to explain to their families, friends, and neighbors what was going on, that this was a community effort, the walls came down. The people of Aguila opened their doors and allowed their lives to be documented for the book. The small, closely-knit community began to embrace the project.
Once we finished collecting the photos, we were ready to go to press. We met with some local publishers to see about getting our book in print. Across the board, they were all willing to work with us, but none would publish it outright. Photobooks, It turns out, are expensive to produce and don't typically result in good sales. The publishers loved what we were doing, but none could take on the financial risk necessary to bring it to its final stage. They could do the printing for us, though, if we could pay for it.
We decided that, or something like it, was the best route for us. However, every printer required release forms for the photographs. We'd thought of this ahead of time, but hadn't had any success. We handed out dozens of release forms to the handful of kids who participated, but we never got any back. To follow through with the project, we needed to get release forms from each photographer and the subject of every photo. This was a challenge and took weeks to address. In the end, William started going to houses, meeting parents he'd never seen before, to show them what their children were doing. He handed over the photo book proof, and the parents eagerly signed the papers.
With the book finished and the rights secured, we moved forward with publishing it ourselves. We did a small print run of enough books to provide each of our participants with one, and to include on in the collections of each of the seventeen libraries within the Maricopa County Library District. We set up a method for purchasing the book online, with all proceeds going to the Friends of the Aguila Library. Finally, we partnered with the Arizona Memory Project to give our project a permanent home in their digital archives.
The issues that created the climate for our project's genesis are in no way unique to Aguila. In every place, be it city, town, or neighborhood, residents go about their daily lives without stopping to consider how their neighbors live. They don't take the time to see how their friends, families, habits, and aesthetics fit into the web that creates a community. Aguila's story is universal. It is the ever-evolving tale of people living together and contributing to a way of life.