Back Where It All Started

The decision to start shooting film again grew from a desire to get back in touch with myself and my roots. I thought the best place to start would be the town I grew up in, and the Spring Equinox seemed like a fitting time for some serious rebirth. I would catch the first light of Spring from Cahokia Mounds and then walk the same street I did when I was ten years old and my father gave me my first camera.

I headed out an hour or so before daybreak to catch the sunrise from the reconstructed cedar pole calendar they are nowadays calling “Woodhenge”. When I was a child, the quarry next door actually overlapped the site, their fence cutting a chord straight through the circle of giant timbers. It was a very symbolic scene and I wish I had a picture. Sometime in the years since since, they decided to donate that strip of land and now the reconstruction is whole again. Many of the mounds of the area were discovered after the highways were already laid out and cities built on top, and a large number of them are likely still undiscovered.

The sky was cloudy and the morning light was grim and lifeless. The man telling the group of us about the history of the site said it had been years since we could actually see the sunrise on this equinox, just because the valley here is often foggy and damp in the cold Spring mornings. Woodhenge is arranged in such a way that you can stand in the center during the vernal equinox and the poles mark the sun rising perfectly over Monk’s Mound, the largest structure and the centerpiece of this ancient civilization. This morning, it was a blank sky—impossible to even tell where the sun was. I took my time anyway and captured plenty of photos around the park. If nothing else, I figured, I can come back and recapture my favorites during more fitting conditions.

Cahokia Mounds was just a short walk from my house. I have a lot of memories from that place, going there with the family, with friends, and during events. It has been a slowly unfolding mystery, trying to piece together what caused the once largest city north of Mexico to collapse, and well before Europeans showed up. I always felt connected to the native community there, and I loved going to their markets and festivals throughout the year and being captivated by the mystery surrounding the once great city. It was the site of some of great memories. I still play my Native American flute sometimes.

The Other Side of the Tracks

Deteriorating not too far from there is Fairmont City, the village where I lived most of my childhood. It was a trip going back and realizing how small it is, how close together everything is. The road is still a gravel obstacle course, and many of the houses I remember are still there but long abandoned. My best friend’s house was in complete disrepair. Back in the day, he wrote a lovely haiku that embodied our feelings about growing up in this “shit hole”.

“Fairmont was my home.
I remember it sometimes,
when passing landfills.”

-Jacob Meyer

I think a lot of my ambition came from living in this place. I was terrified by the idea that I might never rise above that environment. It felt like a necessary escape to get as far away as possible from that place—physically, socially and mentally. It was (and appears to still be) a place of depression. A place where hope goes to die.

To be fair, there were quite a many good people there, perfectly happy about the opportunity low-cost areas provide to a growing family. Especially friendly were the immigrant families who bought houses together and had fun summer block parties, blasting what we called “Mexican Polka” (Norteño) and building giant bonfires to keep away the incessant mosquitos. But it was also a place full of poverty, of crime, of mental illness, drug addicts and drunks. For me, and in many ways, it was a place of trauma. I spent all of my energy looking for ways to get out and never look back again.

Ask any small town midwestern kid and they’ll probably tell you all about their dreams of “leaving this place and never looking back”.

Everywhere You Go, There You Are

What surprised me the most about going back to my home town was the debilitating anxiety I experienced. I’m not afraid of confrontation, and I’m generally a very chill and laid-back person, but being back in that place took me back to a time when I was constantly afraid. And from living there for most of my childhood, I knew all too well how unstable and violent some of the people here were. It was unsettling to see how easily all of my personal growth and adult confidence could dissolve away to reveal a lasting distress and depression—simply by returning home.

But that’s the thing—it never felt like home.

As I drove down the street I grew up on, a wave of paranoia washed over my mind. That woman who drove by had a suspicious look on her face, and she was really staring…would she be notifying the police to come and question me about why I’m out here taking pictures of people’s houses? I know they are just around the corner at the old Venture, and all too overreactive in this neighborhood where people are, potentially, rather unstable and combative. I took a few photos from my car window and moved on quickly.

The motel and trailer park at the end of the street are still as seedy as ever, despite new coats of paint. I wonder, are the trailers still housing a few paranoid meth-heads? Have they been up all night, now poised to come flying out of their doors with knives, swords, bibles, and a flurry of paranoia and suspicion? Do the prostitutes from Washington Park still use the motel for its hourly rates? Would someone come after me, fearing I was a private investigator? I found myself fleeing a perceived confrontation from my past, even though no one said a word to me.

Then I arrived at house where I grew up. I remembered it being tiny—but wow, was it smaller than I even remembered. Claustrophobic, even. The house itself was as small and overwhelmed as I was back then. The street was barely wider than a car. There is barely room to walk between the house and the neighbors’. The curtains are dingy and brown, crumpled haphazardly to one side. The place looked as unwelcoming and melancholy today as it felt to me as a child. A place of great shame for me. I should return soon, when the light is more dramatic or at night, and photograph the house through the lens of memory and the darker moments of my childhood.

But to take a picture here, I might as well be on stage. Everyone in town is going to notice. And with the paranoia that runs rampant in places like these, would they think I was from DCFS? That’s what the photographer at the end of the driveway meant when I lived here. Would the neighbors think I was taking pictures of their kids? I didn’t even notice them in the yard next door playing. Shooting in the suburbs, I’ve been accused of some nasty things more than once, simply for having a camera that didn’t also make phone calls. It’s becoming clear that I’m the one who is paranoid.

Why is a camera so threatening to people these days? Especially in an era when people willingly share the intimate details of their lives and air out their personal dramas on Facebook and Instagram for the whole world to see. Was it easier before, because I was a kid? Or were people less suspicious in the ‘80s?

All of these thoughts flooding in my mind, my heart was racing and I couldn’t wait to leave. No way I was getting out of that car. I snapped a couple pictures out the window with my 35mm and took off quickly—(much like someone who actually was up to something shady would). It’s embarrassing in hindsight, but I was suddenly overwhelmed with all the old feelings of fear and paranoia and ‘you-do-not-belong’ that consumed me as a child. Was it really that unwelcoming here, or does part of me still feel unwelcome everywhere I go? I knew all of this was in my mind, relics of a traumatic childhood—yet there it was, having its way with me.

I will be going back to document the town I grew up in and the places where I hung out with my friends, but I now realize I have some work to do. I still have some personal dragons to slay. Getting away from my small, midwestern town didn’t heal the wounds that living here inflicted. Shooting here will hopefully help me confront and let go of these lasting feelings of unworthiness, of not belonging, of always being afraid to be honest about who I am and where I come from. Being that worthless, scared loser from the shittiest house in the shit-hole town.

So much for “rebirth”.

Vincent James Le Pes III