Life in the shadow of Indiana’s steel mills

Credit David Schalliol.

Chicago-based sociologist and photographer David Schalliol spent several months exploring small industrial cities in Northwestern Indiana. He shared his impressions of the region, as well as his thoughts about the relationship between reputation and representation.

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Can you say a few words about this body of work? 

I spent a good deal of 2013 working on Almost There, a documentary film about Peter Anton, an 83-year-old “outsider” artist living in Northwestern Indiana. The film is an intimate portrait of the artist and his relationship with the film’s co-directors, Aaron Wickenden and Dan Rybicky. I can explain more about my role in the production later, but as environmental cinematographer, I tried to situate the story in place and convey the broader mood of the film. I made the images featured here while working on the project, and many of the vignettes on which they are based were included in the film.

Broadly, how would you characterize the economy and demographics of the region? How does this come across in your images?

Northwestern Indiana is just across the state line from Chicago, but it isn’t stereotypical suburbia. Heading south from Lake Michigan, the landscape radically shifts from industrial cities to suburban communities to farmland.

Almost There was mostly set in these northern cities, which, despite decades of deindustrialization, remain disproportionately driven by manufacturing and heavy industry.

Credit David Schalliol

While many of the lakeside communities are a fraction of their boomtown selves, they are as different from each other as they are alike. The neighboring cities of Whiting and East Chicago, the two cities in which I made the majority of the images for the film, are indicative of this contrast. Whiting is a small city with a relatively stable population and a below-average poverty rate, while rapidly contracting East Chicago is several times larger and has a poverty rate of nearly 25%. As a result, Whiting feels like a quintessential small American town, albeit one dwarfed by one of the country’s largest oil refineries, but decades of economic contraction are plainly visible in East Chicago.

Credit David Schalliol

The main character of the film, Peter Anton, has lived in East Chicago for nearly his entire life and has viscerally experienced the city’s rise and decline. This close relationship between place and biography was the starting point for my conversations about environmental cinematography with Dan and Aaron. Because of this connection, we knew that signs of the region’s tumult and resilience should be incorporated with the enduring industrial sights and sounds near Peter’s home.

Credit David Schalliol

Once we connected this relationship to seasonal change, the tone of my images was set. Because I started working in winter, I started the project by dwelling on quiet streets, the juxtaposition between residential and active industrial operations, and signs of persistent tensions. As time passed, I augmented this approach with a warmer, human scale of interaction.

Credit David Schalliol

How do this area and Chicago relate to one another?

The two are directly related. Northwestern Indiana and southeastern Chicago were home to a joint industrial and population boom that began in the late 19th century and a similarly spectacular contraction in the last third of the 20th century. The border between the two would be nearly seamless if it weren’t for the cigarette outlets, fireworks stores, and gas stations on the Indiana side of the border, which take advantage of the legal and tax differences between the two.

Credit David Schalliol

The proximity and similarity are tremendously helpful for how I prefer to work. I live on Chicago’s South Side, and if I walk a few minutes to the edge of Lake Michigan, I can see the steel mills 11 miles down the coast.

Credit David Schalliol

While I enjoy doing short projects where I quickly learn about a place, my ideal process involves entangling myself with the site. I’d already made a significant number of photographs in the region and already had a good idea of where I wanted to shoot, but I was excited for another reason to head to Northwestern Indiana at all times of day and night.

Credit David Schalliol

The proximity was particularly helpful in the winter, when it was critical that I film when it was snowing—the harder the better. The 2013 winter was much drier than usual, so I had to film as many snowstorms as possible. For a good portion of the winter I checked the hourly forecasts, hoping to time my visits during peak snowfall. I still remember the excitement of getting home and being able to send Aaron and Dan an email at 3:48am with the subject, “It Snowed!”

What’s going on in the shot with the flames [top of page]? Is that a before-and-after series with the burned-out building [below]?

The photographs are the result of two different fires that nearly bookend my work on the project. The fire that destroyed the iced-over building occurred in Whiting the night before I started filming in January 2013. The actively raging fire engulfed an East Chicago garage on an alley that September. I finished the project a month later. Thankfully no one was injured in either event.

Credit David Schalliol

What’s your process when beginning to document a particular place? How do you go about deciding what to shoot & how to shoot it? Are there things you specifically try to avoid?

I typically begin working on a project by trying to understand how a place’s history influences its present. I read about the place, spend time with demographic and other data, and have conversations with current community members. I use these experiences as an initial framework for the project, until I spend enough time in a place to refine my perspective. This tweaking usually happens through exploration: moving through the community, frequenting businesses, meeting new people, and so on.

Credit David Schalliol

Because the approach is relatively organic, I’m typically more motivated by what I’m going to shoot, rather than what I’m going to avoid, but there are a few exceptions. My biggest concern is simply how to avoid making work that simplifies a place. I’m always hoping to complicate the understanding of a place, rather than reinforce the dominant perception of it. This is particularly important in places with significant economic hardships, where I am especially wary of exploitative relationships and representations. With this in mind, if I know about projects about or even reputations of an area, I’ll try to contribute a new view.

Credit David Schalliol

Because I already knew the region, this project was bound to be a little different, but there were other differences too. The biggest distinction was that I wasn’t only trying to produce my point of view of a place, but I was also trying to express feelings and places about Peter’s life. Moreover, the ultimate shape of the film would further mediate the expression. So in addition to meeting Peter and talking with Aaron and Dan about their perspective, early in the project Dan and I drove around the region to show each other places we thought would work well with the film. What emerged was a small list of specific sites to document and some overarching feelings.

Credit David Schalliol

We added to the list as Peter’s life changed and as I discovered new ways to explore the landscape. One of my favorite additions was through trying to get a new view of the landscape. I was happy with the ground-level perspective, but I felt like a broader view was missing. After a series of in-person meetings, phone calls, and emails, I gained access to the rooftops of the tallest occupied buildings in the area to get sweeping views of the communities.

Credit David Schalliol