By Miriam Raftery, Editor
December 1, 2012 (San Diego’s East County)--I looked forward to a debut last night of the Far East Project, which promised to showcase photos, art, poetry and essays telling the stories of East County. Sadly, the resulting book, The Far East Project: Everything Just as it is, fails to live up to its promises to show the "soul" of East County. While some of the writers clearly have talent, the book's slanted approach overall is offensive.
Our assistant editor, Mayan Avitable, a retired educator, was equally aghast when she first saw the book and photos displayed at last night's event. “I’ve lived in East County for over 50 years and this is not the East County that I know,” she stated.
The project was funded by San Diego Foundation, an organization that in the past has done great good, including helping firestorm victims in East County. The project claims to capture the “uneasy beauty” of East County. But instead, the book published under direction of Justin Hudnall, Editor Mindy Solis and So Say We All fails to live up to its expectations. It highlights overwhelmingly the seamiest elements of our region, reinforcing seemingly every negative stereotype that East County residents have long strived to overcome.
The initial project description of creating a people’s history of East County sounded worthy, no doubt, to grantors. But from the looks of this book, one would think that East County is populated mainly by rednecks, racists, illegal immigrants, poor white trash, hookers, and gun-toting gangbangers. It ignored rural residents' serious issues and through the choice of visuals, reinforced the trailer trash image that too many San Diegans have of East County.
The book contains not a single photo depicting the natural beauty of our region’s spectacular mountains, lakes, waterfalls or deserts--those places of which backcountry residents take pride. Why are there no images of Lake Cuyamaca, Mount Laguna, Carrizo Gorge or Cedar Creek Falls, cherished natural wonderlands?
(Note: The group's website contains photos that are NOT included in the book, such as a snow scene and a rural resident gazing out at a sunny meadow. Absence of these makes for an imbalanced portrayal dominated by ugliness in the book.)
We have beautiful seasons, from snow-capped mountains to fall foliage, from shimmering summer lakes to deserts abloom in spring wildflowers. We have wineries and vineyards, a rich agricultural heritage, colleges with gleaming new buildings, historic sities and charming rural towns - yet there is not a single positive image of any of these, or anything else. These settings are important backdrops to understanding the people who live here, but the voices of rural residents and all who love East County were excluded in this work. Even essays on wildlife in this book have no photos-- other than a snake consuming a lizard, a squirrel drinking from a jar, and a plastic deer with a broken-off antler.)
Two cities, El Cajon and La Mesa, celebrated centennials this year. There is no mention of these historic commemorations, nor of revitalizations occurring in these communities. Also omitted was our historic gold rush town, Julian. Instead, the images chosen to represent East County universally depict squalor, mediocrity, urban decay and despair.
"It needs to be said that some of the world’s greatest writings focus on the darker sides of life, and most of us know nothing about what some of the things that are being written, photographed and drawn about our city," says Eldonna Lay with the El Cajon Historical Society, who defends the project in which she was involved as a "literary accomplishment--an art book," adding, "In truth, The Far East: everything just as it is, represents good, as well as regrettable and evil, happenings at every level of society in portions of each city and community in the entire world.” She further praised the work as "an ode to the superior instructional abilities and insight of our college, high school and grade school teachers, and the ability of their most talented students to write honestly and magnificently of personal observations and insights."
Certainly life is not all sugar-coated and casting a light in darkness is at times necessary in art as in journalism. Our own mission statement is to reflect all voices and views in our community, and we especially strive to include the downtrodden and those too often ignored by other media. It is right to give voice to those who are oppressed or impoverished.
But choosing entirely derogatory visuals and overwhelmingly negative stereotypes is a disservice to our diverse community, implying that there is no inspiring places to show and no one here with positive stories to share. It is this profoundly skewed approach that has aroused my indignation. Justin Hudnall in his welcoming remarks claims the book includes "portraits of moments poignant and beautiful...captured alongside sights equally depraved and desperate." But the images he chose are entirely negative. Why? What message was he trying to convey to readers not familiar with our region? Why does he want to make us all look like trailer trash through the images he chose to portray?
I will not promote those negative stereotypes by showing you any more of the Far East Project’s photos from the book. Instead, I am sharing images taken by our photographers and readers to show examples of what could and should have been included as one aspect of any project aspiring to tell the stories of East County and its people.
The people in the Far East photos appear downtrodden and depressed. Our people’s proud heritages are ignored or denigrated. The mood in most images is somber and the text adds insult to injury in the vast majority of passages.
Why are there no positive images or stories about our 19 Native American tribes and their traditions? Or our proud wild west heritage, such as interviews with descendants of East County’s pioneer families and the many historical re-enactors locally? Our rich tapestry of cultures from around the world--the immigrants and refugees from the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Latin America who call our region home—have also been disrespected. Other than derisive references to illegal border crossers and Chaldeans running a smoke-filled hookah bar, our immigrants are largely in the shadows in this book.
Essays and poems also included seemingly every unflattering stereotype imaginable, with titles such as “Hooker on the Court,” “All roads lead to the liquor store,” “Barmaid”, and “Trailer trash white boys from Lakeside and how the treated brown girls.”
Even poems with appealing names like “Leopard Sky” contain such negative imagery as “Palms wear the dead around their ugly necks in East County. People comment on the humidity versus the heat—of one’s temper.”
To assure our readers that I am not omitting any positive images in this review, below are descriptions of every photo or other ‘artwork’ in the book.
The first image is of a nondescript El Cajon apartment complex. Then a car in front of homogenous garages. Next is a photo called “The view from Pauline’s complex” as seen through a chicken wire fence. There’s a photo of the iconic yogurt mill followed by a mural on a building hawking costume jewelry and Arabic CDs. We see more gawdy murals, then the “lip rock” in Lemon Grove painted to resemble a big red smooch. The next photos are a thrift store, a roadside memorial, and a billboard reading “Eternity is Forever: Choose widely!”
We then see a photo titled “Trailers in pastel” depicting a trailer park, followed by an extended series of graffiti shots taken along the trolley’s Orange Line--along with a photo of a discarded condom and the author's recollections of observing cops arresting teen girls for drinking in La Mesa.
El Cajon seems to have been singled out for the most derisive treatment. Text informs us that El Cajon means “coffin” in Portuguese; this info is juxtaposed beside an image of a boy diving into a rectangular pool at a stark apartment complex with looming shadows.
Next are street scenes—a wheelchair bound resident gazing up at the El Cajon sign downtown in a washed-out shot, a pedestrian on a nondescript sidewalk, a patron exiting a wig shop displaying green, orange and yellow hair, cooks in an industrial-looking kitchen, a burly man who appears to be holding a cigarette – or perhaps a straw—outside what looks like a fast-food outlet.
A dull brownish-red sedan image follows. If an old car photo was desired, why not choose a lovingly restored vintage vehicle at one of the many classic car events in El Cajon? Adding to the fringe lunatic imagery, we’re shown UFO cult members in El Cajon holding signs next to a vehicle painted with a flying saucer. Could the authors not have found a single positive image in all of El Cajon?
Next is a lackluster shot of a family looking out at a hazy horizon, perhaps atop Mt. Helix, a place where it would have been easy to shoot some stunning scenic shots. Then comes a photo of two white guys at a parking garage—one gap-toothed, the other sporting a shirt with skulls. Had the photographers picked the cast of Deliverance as representative of East County, they could hardly have done worse.
The next set of images is called “Self Portraits in Santee.” It includes a painting of a man in shorts, shirt unbuttoned, standing by a sprinkler and wading pool. More portraits show him seated and standing in a dimly lit living room. Why no images of Santee Lakes, or the many fine new parks and sports facilities, new homes and shopping, or community celebrations in Santee?
Next is a line drawing called “Gas Station” featuring leering faces and another titled “All Roads Lead to the Liquor Store.” We see the “rundown skeleton” of an abandoned Ferris wheel at the former Marshall Scotty’s amusement park. If they wanted amusement ride, perhaps they might have shown one at Santee’s annual Fourth of July extravaganza that the city hosts for its residents.
I had high hopes for a poem called “Back Country” until I read “down hills pass the check point no illegals tonight just me and a sleeping dog”, more immigrant bashing, though it did mention the “orange moon ripe in the sky” and a couple of other brief enticing phrases. There are a few more positive essays and poems such as “The Wind”, which describes scenic areas such as Kitchen Creek and Descanso, but why are there no photos to show these beautiful places?
Another puzzle: why do all the buildings shown look straight out of the 1950s? There is no modern architecture anywhere – such as the spectacular new buildings on our community college campuses, or the fine new civic buildings in La Mesa, or El Cajon’s gleaming new public safety center, Grossmont Hospital’s dramatic remodel, or a glass elevator built with federal stimulus dollars at the Grossmont trolley station.
The book is not without merit, whcih may be found in the words of several writers. An essay titled “Fires” by Zebylon Huset follows, chillingly recounting the charred matchstick trees left by a firestorm. The writer describes the “apocalypse” adding “Ash rained, streaked grey the windshield.” Another moving essay by Chris Baron titled "Prayer for Cuyamaca" movingly described the devastation from the 2003 Cedar Fire, writing, "No voice can chant the trees into rising, or the waters to flow more deply, or the lions to come out of hiding, or raise the dead buried in their trunks" but concludes with a note of optimism that "Hope already seeps into the soil, pushing yellow and purple up and out, and there are some meadows, far and green in the long sun, and a prayer now, a quiet." Several others also show the writers' talents including one on hiking. (Why no photos with the only essays that might shed a positive light on our area?)
But the handful of essays and poetry with literary or historic value in this book are overshadowed by the overwhelmingly derogatory tone of the project, particularly the unconscionable omission of any images portraying East County in a positive light. The text is mostly gritty and devoid of inspirational value, though there is much to find inspiring in the actions of East County's people. Where are the stories of neighbors helping neighbors to rebuild their shattered lives after the fires? Or the firefighters whose heroic efforts saved lives, homes, and entire towns in this wildfire and so many others?
I have no problem with artists documenting the terrible toll taken by the firestorms, nor the impacts of undocumented immigrants or the plight of the homeless or any other dark sides of our region if done in the interest of provoking change. But what’s missing is any sense of balance. To read this book one would come away with a very distorted view of East County.
A piece titled “Refugees” makes no mention of those with formal refugee status conferred by the United Nations or other international agencies, such as the tens of thousands of Iraqi Chaldeans, or the East Africans, or Vietnamese, who call our region home. Many have started businesses, helping to fuel economic revitalization. Instead the essay describes illegal immigrants pursued by Border Patrol agents. Those are not refugees under the legal definition of the word.
An essay on mountain lions was included, but why no photos of our most specatular local wildlife – our lions as well as endangered bighorn sheep, bobcats, coyotes, owls, wild turkeys and eagles?
Next there are many pages of essays, some painting mental pictures but with no photos or other artwork at all– stark and unattractive, not at all like the beautiful and diverse East County that I’ve come to love. Some are gritty, i.e., “Hunger on public transit.” Another describes a tattooed, bruised woman awaiting a trial in the El Cajon courthouse; she mutters, “I need a gun.”
An essay on Iraqi Chaldeans chose to focus on smoke-filled hookah bars. Why not something more positive such as the many restaurants, dress shops, and markets owned by Chaldeans? The same essay later denigrates gays as well, citing a redneck who spouts forth a profanity-laced tirade.
A piece titled “Casa de Oro” opens with the line “If you’ve grown up in a place where the skinheads from your high school frequent your favorite taco shop….” The final entry, “Simple Music” elaborates on such details as bus fumes, Argentine ant attacks, homophobia, “wife beaters holding coffee mugs at the windows” and more.
The book ends by insulting even the popular Mother Goose Parade, suggesting that a marching band needs practice while oversized storybook characters proceed “ponderously” down East Main Street.
If the writer didn’t like that event, why not find another festival to celebrate? We have many, as anyone reading our “Festivals” section on East County Magazine would have known.
The Far East project also includes news reporting, also of a negative nature. For instance, a story that appeared on Huffington Post focused on the murder of a Muslim woman in what was initially suspected to be a hate crime, though police later concluded that it was a tragic case of domestic violence and arrested her husband. Did the Far East folks bother to issue an update to Huffington Post? Or did they simply leave standing their original sordid tale of sex, forced marriage and a desperate young woman who leaped from a moving car?
As a stand alone piece, some individual entries have artistic or journalistic merit. But why are the only stories this outfit publishes on East County all negative? They have taken the bashing of our region to the national media.
I have never before written a negative review before of any arts project or other local endeavor. My philosophy has always been only to review shows, restaurants or exhibits that are good to excellence, focusing on places I wish to recommend to our readers. If I find something not suitable for recommending, I simply don’t review it. I have made an exception in issuing this harsh review of the Far East Project, however, because I feel compelled to dispel the negative messages conveyed about East County by this project.
As the editor of East County Magazine, I’ve travelled back roads and byways across our region. I’ve met many generous and good-hearted people, and found beauty in a wide array of places—from vineyards resplendent in the autumn sun to hiking in our wilderness to admiring a rainbow arcing to earth after a rain shower. I've interviewed refugees, asylees, and immigrants. Many have overcome terrible hardships such as war and torture in their homelands and some are still struggling here. But they also have stories that are inspiring--stories of courage and overcoming adversity. Why does this project not show us their faces and share their experiences?
To publish a book about East County that focuses virtually entirely on negatives and reinforces every derisive stereotype is culturally insensitive and just plain wrong.
How would sponsors of this project have felt if their neighborhood was covered in such a one-sided and negative fashion? Imagine the uproar if the same folks had created a “Far West Project” that focused on stench at La Jolla Cove, those who want to kill the seals, beach bums, and socialites mistreating servants? Or a story on the Gaslamp limited solely to pimps, pandhandlers and tattoo parlors? Or a College Area profile limited to images of frat boys passed out in drunken stupors while ignoring educational excellence? Such negatives reflect only a narrow spectrum of the broader fabric in these communities.
Why was East County singled out for the “honor” of this grant project? Given San Diego Foundation’s outstanding reputation, I suspect that the Far East Project’s end result does not reflect the grant proposal. Earlier descriptions I read of the project certainly did not imply that it would make a laughing stock out of East County. But the outcome is neither artistic nor appropriate.
Perhaps submissions from the public lacked suitable quality and context. Only 60 photos were submitted, Hudsall said. Most images are of marginal technical and artistic quality, at best. Efforts should have been made to reach out to local publishers and photographers to assure balance. An editor or other individual with long experience in East County issues should have been asked to oversee the project. If the director could not or would not provide balance, the project should have been cancelled.
East County Magazine has thousands of beautiful, high quality images showcasing the natural beauty of our region, the historic character of our communities, the proud heritage of our residents, the resiliency of fire victims in the face of adversity, efforts to help the immigrants/refugees and others in need, and the changing faces of our homeland.
We’ve won over 40 major journalism awards for our reporting on East County including photojournalism, investigative reports, multicultural and environmental reporting. I personally have won national honors for community journalism focused on our region. If we’d been asked to create a “Far East” project, the results would have been something we could all be proud of, not ashamed to see.
East County is under stress as it has never been before. The federal government seeks to turn our most beautiful places into giant energy corridors. Some of our most special places have already been lost and others are now threatened.
Our people have suffered terribly from the wildfires, but the land can recover from flames. It can never recover from the devastation wrought by industrialization of our backcountry.
The last thing we need is a project devaluing our region’s worth, when those who love East County are fighting to save the places they cherish, places that generations here have called home. These places are vanishing before our eyes, as local residents organize to combat battles waged in Washington and Sacramento by politicians and bureaucrats who don’t realize or don’t care what is being lost. Backcountry residents constantly ask me why San Diegans treat them with such disrespect and don't care about what's happening to them. This book feeds that prejudice.
The Far East Project’s assault on East County is particularly unconscionable at a time when residents across our backcountry are fighting to save their rural communities and pristine wilderness areas from an onslaught of industrial wind facilities and power plants that if built, will forever destroy the places we hold dear.
San Diego Foundation owes it to the people of East County to atone for this “art” project that is, in fact, largely a hit piece denigrating our communities and our people. I believe the insult was unintended by the Foundation, and that its good-hearted board members will seek to restore the trust and support of East County residents. Some have criticized me as not having a sense of "humor" about this project. I don't laugh at racist or sexist jokes either. There is nothing funny about denigrating an entire region and by extension, those who live there.
To accomplish that, I propose a grant for our nonprofit news organization, a division of the Heartland Foundation which has been a proud partner with San Diego Foundation in the past. I propose this not for profit, but to restore the dignity of our readers who have been harmed by this project. We aspire to create a photojournalism project that will celebrate the strengths and beauty of East County—not treat our communities and our people with disrespect. Had the Far East Project lived up to its expectations, there would have been no such need. But if nothing is done, the stigma of the Far East Project could have serious and lasting impacts.
The tragedy of the Far East Project is that it fuels the dangerously misguided notion that there is nothing in East County worthy of preserving for future generations. It implies that our region and our people are trashy and expendable.
If you believe East County Magazine should be granted an opportunity to rectify the offense promulgated by the Far East Project, please support our goal of creating an East County Heritage project to restore our region’s good name. We aim to celebrate our strengths, including triumphs over adversities, instead of exploiting stereotypes. Yes there are people facing hardships. But we should focus on root causes and solutions to help those in need, while also celebrating those who have overcome adversities and the many generous individuals and groups who are credits to our region.
We would also interview old-timers for reflections on our region's history, from pioneer descendants to Native Americans, as well as immigrants, refugees and asylees from around the world who now call East County home. Our project would also show a truly representative sampling visually of each area in our region -- our mountains, deserts, and rural areas, as well as our redevelopment areas and our urban and suburban neighborhoods. We would show people at all stages of their journey through life--those facing challenges but also those who overcame adversity and those who lent a hand to help their neighbors in need. Put an award-winning journalism team with decades of experience in East County in charge. We will assure that East County's people are treated with respect, not derision.
Our East County Heritage project would include multimedia East County components including a full-color book, video, audio and online site devoted to this worthy cause. Please help by sending an e-mail voicing support to firstname.lastname@example.org. We aim to present letters from community groups, local leaders and residents to the San Diego Foundation in hopes that the Foundation’s honorable board will support our vision of forging a legacy project of which we can all be proud.
Correction: An earlier version of this editorial reference the project director as a "city slicker" affiliated with CityBeat. CityBeat has clarified that Justin Hudnall is a freelancer who began writing for their publication after receiving this grant.