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East Austin Photo Project Focuses on Building Community, Square by Square

If the consensus from November’s elections was that the media is more disconnected from everyday Americans than anyone recognized, at least one branch of Austin’s media producers is pushing back: photographers.

In the last two weeks, 60 of the city’s professional and amateur photographers contributed to the ATX Squared project organized by Julia Robinson and Austin Photo Night, taking aim at that disconnect and seeking to build bonds with the community.

Every month for the past year, upwards of 20 professional and amateur photographers have routinely convened for Austin Photo Night on the back patio of Full Circle Bar in East Austin. The members hang out until after dark, projecting recent work onto a portable screen, huddling around fire pits when temperatures dip.

The idea is to foster a community of local photographers by sharing work, swapping ideas and, of course, drinking beer.

“We’d been doing that over a year when this election cycle came to a head back in November,” says Robinson, a longtime photojournalist and native Austinite. “Partisan politics aside, I think all of us felt a little bit of shock and disconnect with the America that we woke up to on Nov. 9.”

On a drive to Laredo for a photo shoot, Robinson realized that members of Austin Photo Night were in the ideal position to try to bridge the disconnect by doing what photographers do best: getting out, seeing things and talking to people.

After talking it over with other photographers, Robinson decided that one of the least-understood parts of town is Austin’s East Side. She chose to focus the group’s collective eye on that rapidly changing neighborhood.

The basic premise was straightforward enough: Each photographer would be given 4-by-6 block squares of terrain on the East Side in which to make images. Hence, “ATX Squared” was created. 

The goal would be for photographers to shoot their squares, yes, but also to strike up conversations with the people they met along the way. Each photographer would submit up to five of their best images to a photo contest to be held the following Austin Photo Night.

“I initially created 30 squares, thinking that would be plenty,” says Robinson, “but the night of our project launch we had a bunch of people show up out of the blue, so we had to scramble and make new squares” and have some photographers double up.

More than 60 photographers signed up to contribute to the project, and neighborhood organizations like the East 12th Street Merchant’s Association jumped in to assist.

“If it’s done and it’s done right, photography can show people a world they may not have seen or one you can’t experience yourself,” says Thomas Meredith, an Austin-based photographer and one of the contributors to ATX Squared. 

A former photo editor at The Daily Texan, Meredith has been a freelance photographer since 2006, straddling commercial and journalistic photography, while working on a documentary project about the Creole community in northern Louisiana.

Credit Courtesy of Thomas Meredith
ATX Squared participant Thomas Meredith was assigned the blocks surrounding Peaceful St. James Baptist Church. One of his subjects was the church’s deacon, Joe Williams.

“When I was doing this in my little square, I just basically got out of my car and I just walked around,” he says. “If someone was outside their car or walking into their house, I’d just go up to them and introduce myself and talk to them and take it from there.”

For ATX Squared, Meredith was assigned the blocks surrounding Peaceful St. James Baptist Church on Ulit Avenue. He spent a considerable amount of time in and around the church and with the church’s deacon.

The images he and others have taken over the past two weeks will be displayed tomorrow during Austin Photo Night at Full Circle Bar starting at 7 p.m. Holland Photo volunteered to print 150 of the submissions for display and judging. Awards will go to best in show in the “general entry” and “listening portrait” categories.

Robinson says this project is only the beginning.

“I’m ecstatic with how many people decided to take this on,” she says. “People have been really excited about … how [the project] got them out of their shell and connecting more with Austin.”

She says she’s interested in doing another project like ATX Squared, but there are no definite plans yet. “The incubator is on” though, she says, “and ideas are swirling around.”