'The Sanford Project' weaves together a community

Photography exhibit presents a more complete picture of the city


7-11 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 22 | Orange Studio, 1121 N. Mills Ave. | thesanfordproject.com | free

“I was in New York this summer, and people from Europe would come up to me and be like, ‘Oh, you’re from Florida? Oh, do you know about that Trayvon Martin case?’ From fucking Europe, OK?”

Liv Zuk has developed some pretty strong opinions about Sanford during the past year, but they’re not the ones shared by the national news media.

“Sanford has been branded; it’s been marked,” says Zuk. “This is about showing people the other side.”

Zuk is referring to a photography exhibit that is the artistic outcome of the Sanford Project, a group of students and artists she leads in pursuit of “the unique culture and character of a city that’s been misinterpreted by the media.”

On Saturday, Feb. 22, the project will debut 24 large photographs of residents of a place known mostly for the racially charged murder of a teenager. But the spotlight this time will be on Sanford’s humanity and promise, beyond its reputation as an Old South city where racial segregation still reverberates.

The widespread misinterpretations of Sanford became apparent to Zuk when she first visited the city of approximately 53,000 residents in 2012, as part of a Rollins College civic urbanism course taught by Winter Park architect (and Orlando Weekly contributor) Richard Reep.

“You hear the black community’s stories there, and they’re beautiful and rich and vibrant, but they have almost nothing in common with the white community’s stories,” says Reep. “Liv is trying to stitch those together and find some overlap.”

Zuk was struck by the contrast between real-life Sanford and the televised version, which seemed to portray it as little other than a backwoods, backwater murder-trial setting.

“We were interested because of hearing on the news and on the radio that in Sanford there was a lot of violence, that there were riots, that there was all this backlash,” says Zuk. “We were in Sanford, and we weren’t seeing any of that.”

Zuk did see the lasting scars of a city only recently relieved of institutional racism, a city that ran Jackie Robinson out of town in 1946.

“I’ve talked to people who told me, ‘I remember the first time I was able to eat at a place where white people were eating,’ says Zuk. “In a lot of ways, Sanford is a time capsule.”

This led Zuk to seek a PhotoWings social entrepreneurship grant through Ashoka U, with the help of another Rollins professor, to fund the project. The grant’s emphasis on community-building paired neatly with Zuk’s long-term vision of a multimedia platform for small cities to better identify themselves.

Zuk graduated in December with a degree in environmental studies and civic urbanism. She says the project confirms her belief that communities, like individuals, thrive and heal more quickly when they know their neighbors.

“We’re going out and meeting people and interviewing them, spending time with them, getting to know them, taking pictures of them and what they do,” says Zuk. “We’re trying to weave it all together, to understand the fabric of Sanford.”

That fabric will include musicians and visual artists at the show’s opening, supporting an L-shaped exhibit that will lead viewers chronologically through the photo essay, roughly in the same order that the students met and befriended their subjects. The size and proximity of the works allude to the photographers’ proximity to the lives of their subjects. Photographs by Aaron Harriss, Christopher Keith Garcia, Zuk and others will hang at the opening with works by artists including Angelica Millán and Bill Belleville, along with live music by Was Legit and goods for sale from Sanford vendors.

“I’m seeing a startling compassion for the human soul that survived a lot of difficulties in Sanford and continues to be joyful and optimistic about the future,” says Reep of the students’ photos, which he thinks will challenge the audience’s perceptions of Sanford. “Nobody wants to live there because it’s too far away from where the action is. Well, when you get there it’s a beautiful, lovely town.”

“We don’t want to shoot people like they are in a zoo; we don’t want to be voyeurs. This isn’t just about the images,” says Zuk. “We wanted to create authentic work that would be as close to the community as it could be in the short amount of time we have had.” The Sanford Project’s Instagram feed (@thesanfordproject) gives an in-the-moment look at not just the pictures, but the exhibition as it takes shape.

“I have yet to see how she’s going to put that together as an art exhibit, because it’d be pretty intriguing to install,” says Reep. “Would you try to mix them all up? Would you try to portray it as an optimistic future? I haven’t seen the full results of what she’s done yet. It’s pretty exciting.”

The resulting works are revealing and colorful images of children and adults of different races that have attracted Sanford artists and photographers to collaborate with the students through the project’s website, thesanfordproject.com. Zuk says this will ultimately define the project’s future.

“It’s kind of taken on a new life form ever since we got our website up,” says Zuk. “The blog is our journal. It’s how we’re experiencing this and how we’re sharing it. We hope it reaches more people that way. I feel it’s more honest that way.”

The event falls just four days short of the two-year anniversary of the Trayvon Martin killing, a reminder to Zuk of how quickly perceptions can form and change. She knows that it will take far longer than two years for Sanford to regain a more complete reputation, but she hopes that projects like hers will draw curious day-trippers to a city that was once, long ago, larger and more sophisticated than Orlando.

“It’s a very terrible, unfortunate tragedy, and you can’t ignore something like that. It’s now a part of Sanford’s history,” says Zuk. “But this is about how Sanford is going to move forward, and what Sanford has, and what’s binding the community together.”

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