CAMDEN, NJ — Camden is legendary, talented, tough, resilient and so much more. 

As part of artist Erik James Montgomery’s “Camden Is Bright Not Blight” project, portraits of residents — no matter what walk of life or age — are currently going up outside vacant homes and blighted apartment buildings throughout the city.

Each poster features a word or phrase of the resident’s choosing. A few examples: authentic, creative, God’s home, vision driven and unbreakable.

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The photo campaign is part of “A New View — Camden,” a $1 million Bloomberg Philanthropies contest winner, looking to transform former illegal dumping sites and bring awareness to an issue that has long plagued the city. 

It costs Camden approximately $4 million a year to collect dump — like broken down TVs, unused mattresses and torn-up furniture - which winds up in vacant lots and abandoned homes, said Vedra Chandler, community events manager for Cooper’s Ferry Partnership.

While the bulk of “A New View” was postponed earlier this year due to COVID-19, Montgomery thought up an alternative to his contribution - safely and socially distancing while he installed 50 gold-framed portraits.

“Camden Is Bright Not Blight” has allowed Montgomery, a Pennsauken resident who works in Camden, to harken back to his days as a graffiti artist in the 1980s.

“I understand the ability to put messages out there,” he said. “Now as a photographer and running my own non-profit, I do public works of art often but on a smaller scale. This is much larger.”

Another 50 of the portraits, which Montgomery photographed himself, will ultimately be shared on social media, billboards and other digital platforms as well.

“Unfortunately, in Camden, sometimes people feel like they don't have the connection to galleries and exhibits and things of that nature. So that's what public art is,” he continued. 

“What would my poster say? Hmm….It would say, ‘Camden is my canvas,” Montgomery said after a long pause. “God has allowed me to be able to create public works of art throughout the city, to help unify it, to help point to the good, the bad and the ugly of what's going on. And it helps to challenge us. It also helps to celebrate us.”

Montgomery hit the half-way mark on his mission to 50 portraits Thursday afternoon on Broadway next to Camden Printworks. Armed with a ladder and nail gun — while wearing a face mask over his beard — he would install four more.

Among them was Brenda Antinore - who along with husband Bill, son Kyle and other family run Seeds of Hope Ministries. The non-profit provides outreach to those in need in Camden, working as the umbrella organization for three ministries: My Father’s Hands, She Has A Name, and South Jersey Aftercare.

“What's great is that everybody that comes through here on the NJ Transit bus will see these and think about the issue [of illegal dumping],” said Antinore. “They’ll think, ‘How can we continue to transform people? How can I myself make a difference?’

Choosing “Camden is...Loved” for her portrait was not a debate, Antinore said.

“I knew right away. We have more to do,” she added, pointing to litter alongside the building where she stood, “but people should know the love we feel for this place now.”

The portraits, made possible with help from the City of Camden and Rutgers University as well, will remain up until October 2021. 

Montgomery said he still has room for subjects. An open-call photo shoot will be held Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Camden Fireworks (1813 South Broadway) - where Montgomery has a studio.

The youngest subject currently featured in the project: 2-year-old Camden Hill. Montgomery is now on the prowl for the city’s oldest resident (reach out if you can help).

Visit www.ejmfoundation.org for more information. Anyone interested can also call 877-456-7924 or email ejm@ejmfoundation.org

Chandler also said Cooper’s Ferry Partnership recently launched an online tool to report illegal dumping and flooding. The hub allows you to identify illegal dumping, while uploading photo(s) and precise locations. 

“Something we’ve seen while going to these sites around the city, is that folks are very much used to this problem of dumping...and it shouldn’t be normalized,” Chandler said. “Our team is working on that in cooperation with the Camden Collaborative Initiative, and the DPW as always since they’re constantly working to remediate this issue and understand just how big it is.”

On Sept. 22 at 6 p.m., a virtual meeting will be focused on “A New View - Camden” initiative, where locals can learn more about illegal dumping and discuss the issues happening in their own area. To register visit www.anewviewcamden.com/public-meeting-fall-2020.html.

On Earth Day 2021, Cooper’s Ferry plans to unveil the additional sculptures - among them “Invincible Cat” by DKLA Design,” “Turntable” by Amanda Schacter and “Mechan 11” by Tyler FuQua.

“People should look out in April 2021 for amazing sculptures, most of them made from recycled materials and one of them that actually can recycle it!” Chandler said.

That would be the “Bio-Informatic Digester” by Mitchell Joachim. The machine, created by Terreform ONE (Open Network Ecology) - a nonprofit architecture and urban design research group.

The digester uses mealworms to eat Styrofoam packaging from e-waste. 

“At the base, the tesseract showcases mealworms devouring community-donated Styrofoam and at the top, mycelium erodes over time to reveal the biodiversity graph and future projections of Camden,” project leaders said in a description of the project. “Tapping into Camden’s roots as the first county in the state to mandate recycling, this project demonstrates anew method of biologically-driven recycling that can contribute to urban biodiversity.”

This story was produced in collaboration with CivicStory and the New Jersey Sustainability Reporting project. It was originally reported by Steven Rodas for TAPinto Camden, and may be re-distributed through the Creative Commons License, with attribution.

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