Emma Mattson Discusses Navigating Life in Baltimore City as a Young White Female Photographer

Photograph of Emma Mattson via  https://www.emmamattsonphoto.com/

Photograph of Emma Mattson via https://www.emmamattsonphoto.com/

It’s no secret that Baltimore doesn’t have the best reputation. It’s frequently been named the nation’s most dangerous city, and we now currently find biding farewell to numerous closing businesses, high crime, and a corrupt city government. But one thing is for sure, there is no shortage of artists in Baltimore. In fact, Baltimore was recently named one of the best places for artists to live in America. With such a bustling arts community, it’s hard to ignore the impact of the arts on the city and it’s various communities. But by now, most of us are aware of the fact that where there’s an abundance of artists (especially young, white artists), there’s sure to be gentrification, visible levels of socio-economic inequality, and often a feeling of “two” cities. Here in Baltimore, this phenomenon is known as the “Black Butterfly”, a term used by Morgan State University professor, Lawrence Brown. The term is often often used to refer to the residential segregation and investment patterns here in Baltimore, which are quite literally visible in the shape of a butterfly.  

So what’s actually going on in the city? And how do those young white artists feel about Baltimore? I want to know! This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot, so when I saw a local Baltimore photographer, Emma Mattson, post on her Instagram about deciding not to continue photographing in marginalized Baltimore communities, I wanted to know why. Though a controversial opinion, it is my belief that we can’t begin to understand the true impact of racial segregation, gentrification, and inequality, if we don’t allow others (including white individuals) to join in on the conversation. So, I asked Emma some questions about how she feels navigating “the nation’s most dangerous city” as a young, white female photographer and here’s what she had to say: 

“The media covers black pain extensively…”

Disclaimer: Shades Collective aim to use our platform to allow a variety of conversations to take place, we do not claim to endorse or support any individuals or their opinions. It is simply our desire to allow ALL voices an opportunity to join the conversation, no matter your race, nationality, gender identity, or sexual preferences. This is a space for all to be heard.


AB: So Emma, I first became aware of your decision to stop shooting in marginalized communities in Baltimore through your Instagram story. In all honesty, I was very surprised and excited that you had made this discussion a public one. Can you expand on what led you to make this decision?

EM: I honestly hadn’t shot in those areas much before besides a couple times when I went out shooting with a specific person. He was interested in things there, so we would get out of the car and walk around for a while at night. It always felt uncomfortable being a group of white people with tripods and cameras walking around mostly black neighborhoods in West Baltimore. People would question us often, mostly in a friendly way, asking what we were doing and I didn’t think too deep into it because I had been photographing old cars and whatever buildings I found interesting all over wherever I went, so this just seemed like another destination for that.

The last night I went out shooting there, we were around the 3000 block of Lafayette Avenue and everything was quiet as usual, until we heard three gunshots go off just a block from where we were standing. Then, a man sprinted down the street next to us yelling, “Shit! Shit! Shit!” We quickly walked back to the car as the sound of sirens closely followed and moments later a ton of police and ambulances showed up. The next day it was reported that a man was murdered there. 

It was then made abundantly clear to me why I felt uncomfortable photographing in those areas and it wasn’t because I feared for my safety. Not only was I making terrible living conditions out to be beautiful with my photographs, but I was photographing places where the residents may have experienced severe trauma, the murder of a loved one, gang/drug violence, police violence, etc. I have the privilege to walk around these areas without a care in the world if I wanted to. I’m not attached to anything that would put my life at risk there. I’m white, I don’t live there, I’m not involved in gang or drug violence, the police see that I’m white, and I don’t know anyone personally who has been murdered. If someone were to shoot me, it would be completely random and unlikely. I can simply take photos and go home to my safe apartment in Charles Village when I’m done. 

Photographing the repugnant conditions that our government has allowed Baltimore City residents to live in does not help the problem. A photo of a condemned row home with boarded up windows provides no context or information for how and why it came to be that way. Nothing new is even being provided artistically speaking; we have all seen those photos and the over saturation has just deadened consciences. 

I just saw the film Sage at the Maryland Film Fest, which is a short documentary about the Baltimore Ceasefire Movement, following Erricka Bridgeford, who gathers community members at places of murder to publicly grieve and create new healing energy in areas that have just been darkened by death. This reminded me that there is so much pain and trauma attached to a place of the murder of a loved one, and I don’t ever want to be a person who might, even inadvertently, romanticize something horrendous with a beautiful photograph. 

Photograph by Emma Mattson

Photograph by Emma Mattson

“At a certain point, you are no longer documenting “history,” and just regurgitating imagery that already exists….

AB: For other artists who are still documenting in marginalized communities, yet have no connection to the place, what would you ask them to consider?

EM: I will list off some reasons I’ve heard from other photographers as to why they find it important to photograph marginalized areas and my thoughts on them. 

1. “These images are important to the history of Baltimore and documenting what it looks like, in its entirety, outside of the White L, will help show the diversity and true nature of Baltimore.”

I’m going to be a bit repetitive throughout this interview, but bear with me. At a certain point, you are no longer documenting “history,” and just regurgitating imagery that already exists. Whether you find this to be somehow more groundbreaking because you think your photography is better than someone’s cell phone picture or whatever the news has already covered, that’s another conversation, but to call it history, is a stretch. 

The Black Butterfly of Baltimore City is what I see highlighted on the news the most. The media covers black pain extensively and especially with the murder of Freddie Gray becoming a nationally and internationally known story, I am positive that the history books will have documentation of what that part of Baltimore looks like, don’t worry.

Besides, what information are these photographs of impoverished neighborhoods providing? Most of the photos I see posted by photographers shooting this subject matter on Instagram don’t even have a caption attached to them. 

This Susan Sontag quote says what I want to say better than I can:

Strictly speaking, one never understands anything from a photograph. Of course, photographs fill in blanks in our mental pictures of the present and the past: for example, Jacob Riis’s images of New York squalor in the 1880s are sharply instructive to those unaware that urban poverty in late-nineteenth-century America was really that Dickensian. Nevertheless, the camera’s rendering of reality must always hide more than it discloses. As Brecht points out, a photograph of the Krupp works reveals virtually nothing about that organization. In contrast to the amorous relation, which is based on how something looks, understanding is based on how it functions. And functioning takes place in time, and must be explained in time. Only that which narrates can make us understand.

2. “The media portrays Baltimore as a dangerous place, but they’re wrong because I walk around at night and nothing has ever happened to me. I want to show that Baltimore is peaceful.”

Ask yourself why Baltimore is so safe for you. What privileges do you have that make it that way? 

There are murders in Baltimore almost every day and it’s literally celebrated when the city goes one day without one. Maybe this is not a dangerous city for you, specifically, but it is for marginalized groups. These murders are clustered in a small number of the city’s neighborhoods. They are not random acts on pedestrians. They are often interpersonal relations and crimes caused by the structural violence of residential segregation, economic depression, and a poor relationship with police. 

3. “I have lived in Baltimore for X years, this is my city, where I live. I LIVE HERE!!”

I think it’s important to ask yourself where exactly do you live and what are you familiar with day to day. Baltimore is built block to block, so even if you live a block away from, say, Greenmount Ave, as I do, the two streets are completely different. When I walk around the part of Greenmount that I live by or drive through it, I see bodega, liquor store, bodega, police car, liquor store, condemned miscellaneous building, trash on the ground, bodega, etc. Then, upon entering my block, the scenery becomes much greener, there are almost no boarded up homes, instead of police, there is JHU campus safety (that may be about to change with their implementation of private police though), it feels more like a neighborhood than a city, there is very little trash, and there is a street a couple more blocks down with many restaurant options and an Eddie’s. 

Your experience of living in Baltimore is not the same experience of everyone living in Baltimore and to say that it is, is demeaning. 

Lastly, do the ends justify the means? 

Photograph by Emma Mattson

Photograph by Emma Mattson

Photograph by Emma Mattson

Photograph by Emma Mattson

AB: There is a lot of pressure on white individuals to use their privilege to help marginalized groups, do you sometimes feel this pressure while living in a city like Baltimore? It’s very hard to ignore the clear racial and socio-economic divide in the city, so how do you navigate that landscape as a young white female? Do you feel out of place at times? If not, what helps you feel grounded and secure in how you move as an artist in this city?

EM: I do feel that pressure, especially working at MICA and being a part of the art community because I would say that most of the work coming out of this school at the moment is conceptually based around some kind of political activism. However, I don’t know if that pressure is specific to white individuals or if they face any more pressure than POC. For example, at MICA it seems like there is a lot of pressure for black students to make work about their blackness. One student told me that during her critique of her collection of photos, the guest artist that had come in said something along the lines of, “What does this have to do with being black?” That amount of expectation on someone to create work about what oppresses them is absurd! Sometimes people use art as a relief from that. I honestly don’t think there is that high of an expectation on me in that sense.

Sometimes trying to help marginalized groups as a white outsider can present a double-edged sword because you don’t want to be seen as a “white savior,” but you also don’t want to sit back and do nothing. I definitely think that maybe the best way to help communities is to link up with a community leader that is already doing great work in their community and learn from/help them. If you have money to give, then do that.

I do feel out of place at times, but I think that is necessary. I understand that there are some streets of the city that I don’t belong on and that is fine. It’s a good time to reflect on what black people have to feel a lot of the time. It’s also a reminder of how responsible the city is for segregation. 

AB: Do you believe that photographers have a social and ethical responsibility towards the people and communities that they represent?

EM: I think that if a photographer is coming into a community that they’re unfamiliar with, it is very easy to present biases and create caricatures of the environment that may be stereotypical or exploitative. There are a ton of gray areas as to what is seen as ethically correct in photography and it can be really hard to tell what a photographer’s intention was or what relationship the photographer has with that community. 

A way to ethically represent a community might be to focus attention on people who are doing the work in communities to uplift, such as community leaders working to alleviate issues such as food deserts by building urban gardens. An outsider coming in to photograph the problems of a neighborhood isn’t useful and can be exploitative. Focus on things that are working, since Baltimore has enough negative media cast on it. 

Photography by Emma Mattson

Photography by Emma Mattson

AB: As someone who is very interested in landscapes and nature, how has it been navigating a city like Baltimore? How do you choose your subject matter and how have you changed the ways that you navigate the city?

EM: Baltimore is a city that has a ton of great nature spots within it. There are parks like Lake Roland, Druid Hill, and Patterson Park that have a bunch of trails and trees. There’s also Cylburn Arboretum, which is beautiful and a great quiet place to go. Just walking around Baltimore in general, it’s a pretty green city with a ton of little gardens and grassy areas for dogs to play. Besides the nature areas, I have always loved the architecture in Baltimore and how many old buildings still exist from the 1800’s. I think even when I am photographing around the streets of Baltimore, I still see it as a landscape and compose it as such. 

My subject matter is really just relevant to where I am spending time at or what is happening in my life at the moment. I like quiet moments and parking on the side of the road to shoot something I thought looked interesting when driving by. I guess I don’t have much of a complex thought process when it comes to photographing, I’m sorry if I’m a bit boring in that way. 

AB: Who are some artists that are currently inspiring your own work? Are of any them Baltimore based artists?

EM: Film directors, the Coen Brothers, have been inspiring my work for the past couple years. I just love the slapstick humor, the car scenes, and wide expanses of land that they film in the Midwest. 

As for photographers in Baltimore, I’ve mainly been keeping up with what Tori Hardy and Kyle Myles have been putting out. They both seem to be shooting all the time and just constantly posting amazing images. Their work focuses on each other (they’re dating), their families, and Baltimore. It’s all just very pure and dreamy. 

Deyane Moses, who is a photography student at MICA graduating this semester, created a project called Blackives, which is an exhibition and online database that archives the portraits and oral histories of black MICA students and alumni. She is doing the work to make changes to the segregationist history at MICA. 

AB: Do you have any upcoming projects you’re working on? Anything you’re working on that’s specific to the Baltimore landscape?

EM: I am going to be working on curating a women’s photography in Baltimore show soon, I am just waiting to hear back from the gallery about dates. 

I am continuing to shoot around Baltimore, but I don’t have a specific project I am working on. I am still collecting my thoughts on what my place is in the city and what would be a good contribution photographically for me to make. 

We’d like to thank Emma for sharing her thoughts with us. We appreciate her willingness to share what led to her decisions stated above and we welcome a continued dialogue.

If you want to keep up with Emma, you can find her work at https://www.emmamattsonphoto.com/ or on Instagram at @emmancipationx


Photograph by  Jacob Morel

Photograph by Jacob Morel

Emma Mattson -she/her pronouns- is a Baltimore based photographer, filmmaker, and multimedia artist who utilizes medium format color film. She explores emotion in an increasingly human world, often devoid of the human form.  Her photographs may seem like portions of an incomplete story because she believes that even with the oversaturation of images today, photos will never be able to tell a complete story. They are sectioned off moments of an event seen through one person’s viewpoint and can lack an enormous amount of context.  Automobiles and homes are main subject matters in recent works that are personified, as they have become strong attachments to human life.  Working as a photo department at MICA, she has the opportunity to instruct and exchange ideas and techniques with the next generation of upcoming photographers.