Eric Kunsman is a photographer and book artist advocating social sustainability through his recent project Felicific Calculus. The multidisciplinary series juxtaposes black and white imagery of pay phones located in Rochester, New York with census map overlays. Kunsman hopes this contrast will encourage viewers to examine their prejudgements of pay phones, and the reality of how they serve those less privileged. I interviewed Kunsman to learn more about the intended outcome for Felicific Calculus.
Your project Felicific Calculus documents pay phones around Rochester, NY. How and why did you become interested in this narrative?
To be honest I was initially just annoyed that many of my friends and colleagues were labelling Rochester as a war zone after I had purchased a building for my studio in the area.
My first experience of moving into Rochester involved three seven-year-olds, Elijah, Harry, and Grumpy asking if I needed help when packing up my truck. I replied ‘sure’ and they helped carry rolls of paper for a good hour. It wasn’t until 45 minutes later that they asked if they would be paid, at which point I explained that I did not have any cash. They wondered what else I might have and I found the previous owner left coffee mugs. They asked if they could choose the mugs they wanted, I said ‘absolutely’ and then continued working. When we were done they walked away with their coffee mugs raised in the air.
All the families introduced themselves to me within a week and my experience with this neighbourhood was completely different to how others labelled it. I therefore wanted to discover why these individuals were labelling an area they had never stepped foot in. I noticed three things; an abundance of pay phones, corner stores, and neighbourhood bars. I knew the pay phones were the right fit for the project so I started by photographing 45 pay phones in six square blocks around my studio. The project just grew as I continued to learn more.
What camera equipment did you use to create such captivating images?
This project is photographed with my Hasselblad cameras and either the 40mm or 50m lens. In fact, 90% of the images are photographed with the 40mm lens. I also only used Kodak Portra or black and white film, as it directly speaks to the atmosphere of Rochester, NY. I work a lot with Kodak Portra film because after scanning with my Hasselblad Flextight scanner, I have much more control in converting the image to black and white.
The focal point of some photographs is the payphone and in other images the payphone appears hidden. Was this a conscious decision and if so, please explain your reasonings behind the composition.
The composition of each image is meant to reflect the environment and atmosphere around each payphone. My intention was to conjure up a portrait of individuals that may be using the payphone without a human being in the frame. The way I place pay phones within the frame is meant to emphasise this intention.
You mention the people that rely on pay phones as a source of wider communication. I’m curious whether you have connected with these people and whether you intend to include their voice in the project directly?
Yes, I have interviewed several individuals that I have come across using pay phones. After the first few interviews, I started recording them with audio only and playing back their interviews through pay phones installed within gallery installations. In fact at CEPA Gallery in Buffalo we installed two pay phones and the viewer had to dial phone numbers to hear the audio interviews.
Felicific Calculus explores complex themes such as poverty, inequality and communication gaps. Did you intend for your project to raise awareness in these areas and if so, how do you hope it will help and how has it already helped?
At first, I was simply trying to understand why my friends and colleagues were labelling an area they knew nothing about, seeing as I had a completely different experience when I moved my studio into the neighbourhood. Once I was educated on the poverty, inequality, and communication gaps, I had to find a means of raising awareness. I still have a lot of work to do in this area as I am still working on this project and have started working with community collaborators to bring the discussion to the streets of Rochester.
I have started doing lectures, exhibiting the work, and getting coverage in magazines, newspapers, TV, and online articles. All of this prompts the discussions that we need to start having. This battle to raise awareness, however, is something that I struggle with psychologically and I sometimes question how much I can do and whether anyone is listening. As of late, I feel like I am personally losing this battle and I am trying to figure out ways of raising awareness and discussion to another level.
In the end I hope that by raising awareness I can encourage people to take a slight pause before labelling individuals they do not know. I hope that people will instead give those individuals the benefit of the doubt and listen. I know this is a dream but until we educate the educated about what the uneducated are going through in life, they will never take the time to educate themselves about those underrepresented by society. At this point, the only way forward that I can see is to start the discussion, there is a lot more work to be done.
Has the development of this project impacted how you view the importance of social sustainability?
This project has taught me so many things about my community and those underrepresented that I never knew or thought I should know. In fact, if I did not move my studio into the neighbourhood that started this project, I would be just as ignorant as I was before this project. Yes, I was one of the individuals I now wish to educate and start discussions with.
My view is that without social sustainability, we will never advance as a society and combat all of the issues we face today. If you do not ensure sustainability by caring for individuals in need, society will break, and those at the top of the social hierarchy will fall and end up closer aligned with those they have ignored and forgotten about. Sustainability is the only means to ensure one’s basic needs are met, and we cannot forget about basic infrastructure, including technology, education, shelter, food, and respect.
Did you face any challenges when creating Felicific Calculus?
Currently, my two most significant challenges are staying motivated to finish photographing the last 450 pay phones of the 1,455 in Rochester and gaining access to some of the interior pay phones, including the ones in prison, corporations, and some factories. My kryptonite is cold calling or approaching individuals when trying to get something from them. My outreach for gaining access to the interior pay phones is therefore a significant challenge I am trying to overcome.
If you had control over the interpretation of the project, how do you hope it would be received?
I want people to interpret this project as an illustration of the problems of prejudging a location or the people living there without a full understanding or first hand experience. By utilising the maps of the US Census data and the locations of the pay phones, I hope to convey the direct correlation between race, class and a technology many feel is antiquated.
At the same time, I hope to bring light to the subject of sustainability and the fact that we cannot forget about those in society that cannot keep up with the fast pace at which technology is moving. Technology and society are moving so fast that we are forgetting about the most vulnerable individuals in our society and often cutting off lifelines for those people without thinking twice. I also hope to draw attention to the fact that many of us are just one natural disaster away from relying on this antiquated technology, once the power goes out for all the cell towers we can no longer rely on our mobile phones.
How do you see the project evolving in the future?
In the future, I plan on creating a web database where individuals across the whole of the US can submit their images of pay phones along with cross-streets or physical addresses. They would also have to inform me whether the payphone was operable or not. This would then become a national payphone database where we can look at the census data and create a national comparison just as I am making for Rochester. I plan on starting this next Fall as there are currently other aspects of my project that are taking up a lot of time.
My project’s educational and informative aspect has become a focus in the past few months, and it is continuing to grow. I have teamed up with Rebekah Walker, Digital Humanities and Social Science Librarian at RIT, and Dr. Janelle Duda-Banwar, Assistant Research Professor, Centre for Public Safety Initiatives, Department of Criminal Justice at RIT. Their expertise is in mapping, humanities research, and digital information analysis. With their help, this project is moving into a realm outside of photography where it belongs and we plan on collaborating with many other individuals in the future.
We realise that to tell the whole story we need to provide data and statistics to challenge the viewer of the images. For instance at the CEPA Gallery exhibition, all pictures were titled with the phone number and address, including zip code. A walking guide allowed a gallery patron to view the photograph and then use the zip code to look up census data statistics, including information on race, class, economics, housing and drug overdoses. The goal is to tell the whole story and not just appeal to gallery patrons. We are planning many community based events this summer to engage the community.
One of the community events we have planned will involve local kids and adults documenting their neighbourhoods after an initial discussion about my work. We will then print their images and display the prints during a second community event where we will have other RIT researchers and students conducting surveys. The idea is to allow the individuals that live in the community to document what they feel are social markers of their community. We will display those images and provide each person with a copy of their image upon the events conclusion. The aim is to tell these individuals’ stories rather than relying on census statistics alone. For instance, more than 50% of Rochesterians do not have access to the internet, including smartphones. How do they tell their story rather than an academic doing so?
Lastly, this information will be used to help us install the free pay phones I plan on installing throughout the city, which can also act as free Wi-Fi hubs. We all feel that if we get the community to help with the placement of said phones, they will do their best to ensure that the service continues and prevent vandalism.
Whenever I have exhibitions in other cities, I plan to team up with sociology, history, social studies, economics, criminal justice faculty members and community members to engage their communities. I do not want to bring Rochester to another city for the sole purpose of those individuals learning about Rochester. Instead, I want to use Rochester as a catalyst to further discussions about other communities.
Do you have any future photographic plans and are you currently working on any projects?
I am still currently working on this project, along with several others. I needed to start creating other work to help maintain my motivation towards the payphone work as it was starting to feel like Groundhog day. I currently have around 900 of the 1,455 pay phones in Rochester photographed. I aim to finish documenting the pay phones in the next 16 months and then rephotograph them as I see fit.
I am now focusing on the activism aspects of this project by collaborating with my social science collaborators and taking the project to the streets of Rochester. I also wish to work with sociologists and other social science faculty and community members when I exhibit this in the future.
I am working on the Line-Lines Throughout the US whenever and wherever I travel and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. This project documents the pay phones outside of Rochester, NY, to show that Rochester Is not the only place where pay phones are needed to ensure equal access to communication for all. Another new series I am working on is Before Noon, which started after my CEPA Gallery exhibition as a tangent to this project due to ignorant statements I heard from some people.
I decided to walk the streets and document the individuals in Rochester before noon. It seems that individuals are happiest before noon and do not feel the weight of the world, each day still has potential. I want to photograph the residents of the area surrounding my studio in a way that does not exploit their poverty or needs but instead focuses on their successes and happiness.
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Sustainability permeates every aspect of our lives and is now a necessity, not a choice. Human innovation, determination and persistence is more important than ever and will ultimately decide the fate of our planet. In this issue, through photography and writing we explore insect-based protein, space colonisation, childfree people, the importance of payphones, the world’s largest blanket bog, support for artists, sustainable photobooks and Universal Basic Income.
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