Cheshire Bridge Road – lined with strip clubs, bars and sex shops – has been Atlanta's own red light district for years. But photographer Teri Darnell has found creative inspiration on the corridor and is telling its story through thousands of photos.
A surge of projects has seen older stores and restaurants close to make way for new apartments and mixed-use developments. That's also fed a push to purge Cheshire Bridge of its more adult attributes. Darnell, though, has been taking photos on the road since 2005, collecting more than 20,000 images.
She's pulled a selection of that work into a series called “Crossing Cheshire Bridge.” The photo exhibit, currently on display at the Showcase School of Photography, is highlighted on Friday during a reception as the show continues its run into March. We spoke with Darnell about her inspiration for the series, the familiar faces featured and her thoughts on the changes that are impacting the area.
What was the inspiration behind this series?
As a photographer, I wanted a long-term project, and documenting my neighborhood gave me an opportunity to connect with people within my community. One of the first images that I took was of a homeless woman who appeared to be a drug addict and prostitute. I could see bruises on her chest where she had been beaten. I felt that she was uplifted when I took her picture – a feeling of importance for her, an opportunity to be seen instead of discarded by society. When finished, I cried while walking back home. That shot has kept me coming back a decade later.
Who's included in the photography?
My "Crossing Cheshire Bridge" series includes a diverse group of people in a multi-cultural community. Images in the series include drag queens behind the stage as well as performing – like the infamous camp drag queens from the Armorettes (Gingerbread Man, Plenty Moore, and Lori Devine) and drag queens that perform at Jungle Atlanta (Biqtch Puddin’, Dynisty St. James, Evah Destruction, Edie Cheezburger and Jaye Lish), employees of small businesses, a lesbian burlesque dancer (Candi LeCoeur), a stripper from The Doll House), a woman who looks like she was beaten, street walkers, bar dancers and a pool player from BJ's, a worker from Naughty Girl's Lingerie, a belly dancer at Babylon Cafe, and others.
How do you select your subjects?
For the last decade, I have been walking on and around Cheshire Bridge road in Atlanta, Georgia to photograph people in their environment. Initially, I only shot outside. Then, I got up enough courage to go inside. I slowly established a trust with people on the street. That trust has touched my soul.
Whether you are straight, lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, intersex, asexual, an ally, homeless, helpless or helpful, for decades Cheshire Bridge Road has been a place for all to gather without judgment. People can talk freely and live with the person they are inside.
But there are also layers and layers of complexities on Cheshire Bridge Road, not only with sex and sexuality but with drugs, HIV/AIDS, homelessness, mental and physical illness, abuse, fear with undocumented workers, sex trafficking, violence, and gentrification – to name a few.
I’m hoping my images give people the opportunity to open up and think about what’s really important, which is that we are all human and deserve to have a voice.
The surrounding communities question who has the right to exist and be happy, to be in love, and who deserves to be in our communities. All of these things are woven into this narrative of shame around Cheshire Bridge Road.
What will the exhibition feature in general as well as at the reception?
The exhibition features 35 large framed images taken over a decade along the 1.5 mile strip of Cheshire Bridge Road. When you see the exhibition, you should be able to see, smell, and taste our community. I also have a self-published book for sale that features even more images. The proceeds go to Lost-n-Found Youth, which provides shelter and support for our homeless gay youth where many have been kicked to the streets from their parents for being gay. I have taken over 20,000 images over the last decade on this road.
Cheshire Bridge has undergone some significant changes in the past few years. What do you think of these shifts?
With the recent plowing down of many establishments, many people wonder if Cheshire Bridge was “sanitized,” where will they go? With the ongoing projects of gentrification, homogenization, sterilization, and capitalization of a historic neighborhood, it’s just a matter of time before this unique community is forced to disperse, the establishments become “luxury” apartments and chain stores, and the people relocate to other communities.
Photos from "Crossing Cheshire Bridge" courtesy Teri Darnell