The assignment description from the course:
Documentary Photo Project
Each of you will be required to plan and carryout a documentary photo project. You may select your own subject – subject to my approval, but I would urge that you not take on anything too grandiose. I would suggest that you begin looking for a subject close to home, considering, for instance:
Life on your dorm floor
A fraternity weekend, or life in a fraternity
A day-week-month in a local laundromat
The work of a scientist, or lab
The activities of a campus group or organization
On the other hand, you may push the envelop as far as you dare – If you can gain access to a group of people, or an organization, whose lives or functioning we normally never see, go for it. But remember, to paraphrase Susan Meiselas:
“Faraway is not a place.”
And even more important, remember that there is one thing that you owe your subjects, be they your roommates or a group of developmentally disabled adults –
Honesty: Honesty in your vision; honesty in what you tell your subjects about your project and its purpose; honesty in your approach to your subject; and honesty in what you present to your viewers.
Your finished project will consist of 15-30 photographs, and 1500-2000 words of explanatory text. The text and photographs should, together, present the uninitiated with an understandable, engaging, ‘picture’ of your subject, but the writing and the photos should each stand on their own.
Ghost Bikes in the Santa Fe Area
The origin of the “ghost bike” is unknown. It may have come from Provo, a Dutch counterculture and anarchist movement in the mid-1960s. The name is derived from the Dutch word provoceren, meaning to provoke, based on their non-violent provocation of police to violent reaction. The political wing of the Provos developed White Plans to address social problems in Amsterdam. One such plan, the White Bicycle Plan, was introduced to the Municipal Council of the City of Amsterdam in 1967 by social inventor, industrial designer, entrepreneur, and politician Luud Schimmelpennink, but it failed to get the needed political support.
The Provos forged ahead any way and provided about 50, free to use, specially painted white bikes which they scattered around the city of Amsterdam. Many were stolen or tossed into the canals and the police impounded the rest as they violated a law forbidding citizens to leave bikes unlocked. After the bikes were released, the Provos equipped them with combination locks and painted the combinations on the bicycles, similar to the name, birth date, and the date of the accident or death painted on the frames of contemporary ghost bikes. (1)
Another theory about ghost bike origins is that it stems from a project by San Francisco artist Jo Slota. His project focused on the ghosts of bikes, those still locked but stripped of any useful parts, often with only the frame and maybe a single rim remaining. In 2002, he began painting them white and posting photographs on his website, ghostbike.net. As he puts it, “I see them as ‘dead bikes’ and paint their skeletal remains to emphasize their ghostlike quality.” (2)
The earliest known ghost bike, in the current sense of an accident marker or memorial, was placed in St. Louis, Missouri in October 2003 by Patrick Van Der Tuin. He saw a motorist strike a bicyclist in the bike lane on Holly Hills Boulevard and placed a white-painted bicycle at the accident location with a sign reading “Cyclist Struck Here”. After seeing the change in drivers’ behavior he and friends placed 15 more ghost bikes where cyclists had recently been hit by automobiles. The idea caught on and spread to other cities in the United States in the mid 2000s. It has since become a global phenomenon in dozens of countries from Austria to Uruguay. (3)
Until recently, I was only aware of ghost bikes in a general way. I had noticed one exiting onto Lomas Boulevard From I-25 in Albuquerque, but I hadn’t really considered them as distinct from the hundreds of other descansos one might see on the side of the road in northern New Mexico.
Historically, a descanso is a place where bearers in a funeral procession pause to rest and put down their burden between the church and the cemetery. This spot was often marked as a “descanso”; literally, a “resting place”. Later, its meaning changed to mean a marker or memorial placed at the site of a death on a road or highway. In this way, a ghost bike is a form of descanso – a subset specific to bicyclists.
My first real encounter with a ghost bike was Amy Marie Jobe’s memorial in Pojoaque, NM during the last week of March 2014. I was pressed for time and looking for anything visually interesting for the 52 Cameras Project. I spotted a bicycle near a shuttered Allsups on U.S. Route 285/84 on my way to Los Alamos from Santa Fe. I exited onto the frontage road, stopped, and pulled out the camera of the week, an old Polaroid (a scan of the negative is the first photo in this essay). The bike was pretty spartan as roadside memorials go, but it was definitely a ghost bike.
Amy Jobe was only 16 when she was hit while crossing the road to use the pay phone at the Allsups. The driver was not charged in the accident. I wasn’t there so that’s not a judgement, just a statement of fact. Since the accident in 1999, there have been safety improvements in the area. The former highway lane is now a frontage road; separated from the new highway by concrete barriers. (4)
Some time between April and December of 2014, the bike was spruced up with new paint or a good cleaning, the replacement of flowers, and the addition of some jewelry. It’s as pretty as the photos I’ve seen from the dedication ceremony. Weeds and grass had grown up around it again by the fall so it will require a little maintenance in the spring. Her bike has been a photographic subject for me twice and my research has shown me a face and a young life lost. It’s more than just a ghost bike as a photographic subject to me now. I’ll stop by and pull some weeds.
As I’ve researched, it seems to me that ghost bikes serve several purposes. First, like a descanso, they are a memorial to a friend or loved one who has died. From what I’ve seen, photos are rare but this one at Matt Trujillo’s memorial is nice. Not everyone has the time or inclination to do their own research into a specific memorial. A picture humanizes the ghost bike. It’s no longer “somebody died here” but “Matt Trujillo, a human being known and loved by other human beings, died here”.
Next, they are a way of focusing motorists’ attention on sharing the road with bicyclists. I hate to put it in this trite form but I can’t think of a better way: Nothing can bring Paula Higgins back but if her memorial makes one person slow down and look around, maybe her death can benefit others. The city of Albuquerque did make the bicycle crossing symbols larger and more visible, even if they did it on the cheap and left the previous symbols underneath.
In a similar way, they also remind cyclists to be aware and ride defensively.
Lastly, I think ghost bikes bring a cultural awareness that far too many people die needlessly on the road. Hopefully, this awareness can be expanded to encompass pedestrians as well. “Right of Way | Direct Action Street Justice” has done this with their stencil art (5) and the ghost bikes of “The NYC Street Memorial Project”. This stencil is in San Francisco, CA.
Based on a do-it-yourself guide in the NYC Street Memorial Project’s 2014 press kit (6), a WikiHow article on painting a bike frame (7), and my own experience repainting bicycles, the actual construction of a ghost bike is fairly straightforward:
- Strip the bike of non-essential parts (grips or tape, cables, brakes) and reuse or recycle them. This makes the bike easier to paint and less attractive to thieves.
- Degrease and clean the bike.
- Apply primer, at least two coats of flat, white paint, and maybe a clear coat or two of lacquer. You want your memorial to last and be able to endure the weather.
- Depending on the location, you may need a lock or a chain and some rebar or other support if there isn’t a rail or a post to secure the bike.
- If the information about the person isn’t painted directly on the bike, you’ll also need a well-secured sign or placard.
The purple stickers on the bikes placed by the Duke City Wheelmen Foundation are a nice touch to let people know who put the effort into constructing the memorial. If you aren’t a close friend or relative, perhaps it’s best to leave placement of flowers, mementos, and personal items to those who are. A dedication ceremony helps – for closure, for publicity, and to give the community a sense of ownership and responsibility.
Dealing with local authorities about placing a bike can be another matter entirely. The ghost bike memorializing Roy Sekreta on Comanche Boulevard in Albuquerque disappeared shortly after it was installed in 2008. As reported by KOAT news, a city spokesman said officials decided to take the ghost bike down due to safety concerns. (8) According to ghostbikes.org, the current ghost bike is the third one, the previous two having been removed by the city. (9)
Like New York City, Albuquerque can be a slow moving entity but at least there is a wide bike lane on Comanche Blvd. and there are now clear, bright signs marking the area where the trail crosses the street. Moving the memorial from the median to the south side of the street next to the bike trail seems to have been acceptable to the city and it hasn’t been disturbed again.
North of Albuquerque, there is a longer tradition of roadside memorials and thankfully, there are fewer ghost bikes. David Sciera’s ghost bike is in the median of New Mexico 599 (Veterans’ Memorial Highway), the bypass around Santa Fe, and there have been no complaints that I’m aware of, no vandalism, and no removal.
Traffic safety is less of a concern with the location of Forrest Fukushima’s ghost bike. It is well off the road at Totavi on NM 502 between Pojoaque and Los Alamos and if you blink during the commute, you might miss it.
He was 20 and training for an “Iron Horse” competition in 1986 when he died. Alex Naranjo, her blood alcohol level over twice the legal limit of .08 percent (.18), had a blowout and struck him with her car. Over fifty of his friends and relatives gathered to remember him in 2014 when his ghost bike was dedicated. Alex Naranjo is now a municipal judge in Española, NM. (10)
The NYC Street Memorial Project’s mission statement (6) is a good summation of the cultural awareness that needs to be fostered. It also shows how governments sometimes have to be forced into doing the right thing and just how much work remains to be done.
NYC Street Memorial Project’s mission statement:
WHAT DO WE WANT?
We want a change in culture.
- To encourage mutual respect among all street users.
- To instill in each person the responsibility we share to look out for each other.
We want to incite more humanity in this city.
- To assure that every person is remembered.
- To build solidarity among non-drivers and create a space for mourning and support.
- To acknowledge each death as a tragic, but not isolated, event.
- To recognize the ripple effect that one person’s death has on their family, neighborhood, and community, and to acknowledge that the loss of one life affects us all.
We want improvements in policy.
- To make the City follow through on necessary improvements in engineering, enforcement, and public education.
- To compel the City to conduct full investigations of crashes and their causes and to take action to improve safety.
We want outrage that makes a lasting difference.
- To encourage the media to report on all deaths in a sensitive, educated manner.
- To hold the City accountable for street safety issues and to force each agency to respond to these preventable tragedies.
- To inspire all New Yorkers to be grieved and angered when someone is killed.
We want to stop having to do this.
(1) 2 January 2015. “Provo (movement)”. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved 17 January 2015.
(2) Slota, Jo (July 2005). “Ghost Bike – An art chronicle by Jo Slota”. http://ghostbike.net/. Retrieved 17 January 2015.
(3) 4 December 2014. “Ghost bike”. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved 17 January 2015.
(4) Khal (21 February 2011). “Traffic Justice, Two Views”. Los Alamos Bikes. Retrieved 17 January 2015.
(5) 2 January 2015. “Right of Way | Direct Action Street Justice”. rightofway.org. Retrieved 17 January 2015.
(6) 2 January 2015. “The New York City Street Memorial Project”. The New York City Street Memorial Project. Retrieved 17 January 2015. (Link is to a PDF file).
(7) 5 January 2015. “How to Paint a Bike: 13 Steps – wikiHow”. wikiHow. Retrieved 17 January 2015.
(8) 28 February 2010. “Ghost Bike Memorials Vanishing From Roadways”. KOAT. Retrieved 17 January 2015.
(9) “Roy Sekreta | ghost bikes”. ghostbikes.org. Retrieved 17 January 2015.
(10) DeRoma, Tris (19 July 2014). “Remembering Forrest”. Los Alamos Monitor. Retrieved 17 January 2015.
None of the example projects have citations and I can’t ask an instructor so I’ll explain here. My bachelor’s is from a liberal arts college so I’m used to using MLA. Proper citation uses too much space in a blog format so I used a wiki-style numbering scheme instead of a full Author, Title, Print Version, Electronic Version, Access Information format.
I didn’t count quoting the NYC Street Memorial Project‘s mission statement toward the assignment’s required word count.