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Photo and Audio Project Shows “Inner Light” of Everyday Chicagoans

Forget the “acerbic” stories that pepper your Facebook feed, photographer Abigail Zoe Martin says. Her project teaches us about the people of Chicago in a different way.

Abigail Zoe Martin Photo: Courtesy of Abigail Martin

Abigail Zoe Martin is a photographer and collector of random, remarkable encounters.

It happened again the other weekend as she browsed in a Bucktown shop, the kind that sells fresh-pressed juice and crystals. In walked a young woman with an unforgettable face, the ends of her long hair gathered in balls. “Bobbles,” Martin calls them.

Martin sidled up for a chat. Turns out Kiara Lanier has competed on American Idol and hosts pop-up tea party cabarets that mix music and holistic health. Lanier belted out “Valerie” by Amy Winehouse for Martin, the two exchanged numbers, and Martin knew she’d found another one.

“Chicago Portraits,” her multimedia series two years in the making, will weave together portraits of 100 Chicagoans, some notable, many more unknown, with their voices, recorded over hours of interviews, talking—maybe even singing—about the city and their place in it. She aims to have it ready to show at a large-scale exhibit by April.

Initially titled “Chicago Stories,” Martin changed it after hearing of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s recently launched podcast by that name, also featuring everyday Chicagoans. Unlike the mayor’s chats, which she says come off as promotional (a sit-down with restaurateurs Charlie Robinson and Beverly Kim happened during the Taste, for instance), Martin says hers are meant to be timeless. 

Essence Walker is cofounder of Femme FATales, a plus-sized burlesque dance troupe. Photo: Abigail Zoe Martin

Forget all the “acerbic stuff” that fills her (and everyone’s) Facebook feeds. “This is about finding people who just have an inner light, something to say that makes you feel better,” says Martin, 47, a London native whose work is in the permanent collection of the National Portrait Gallery.

She has shot 30 people so far and has another 16 waiting. It’s a varied bunch: Secretary of State Jesse White, Dr. Theri Raby of the Raby Institute for Integrative Medicine, drag queen and artist JoJo Baby, but also college students, small business owners, and bartenders. They choose where to be photographed and what to wear.

It began in July 2015, when Martin, her husband, and their two children moved to Chicago from Madrid for his job. She started a blog to chronicle funny moments and interesting people she came across, which morphed into convincing them to sit for portraits. 

That wasn’t enough. “I thought, Wouldn’t it be lovely to have it be completely authentic, to have a proper conversation as if you just sat down next to the perfect guest and you’re two hours in, and you’re finding out all these things they believe in and care about?” Martin says. That’s when she started interviewing them and recording the sessions.

Father Michael Pfleger is a priest and well-known activist at St. Sabina Church.Photo: Abigail Zoe Martin

“There’s an openness to this city that’s allowing this process to happen that wouldn’t happen in London or Madrid,” she says.

The project has evolved again. Each person now nominates someone else for her to photograph. Lanier says this “pay-it-forward” element most intrigues her.

“It’s the city talking,” says Martin. And she gets you talking. She’s proper but mischievous, Emma Thompson with a smidge of Amy Poehler. She thinks nothing of entering an open, unmarked door off the street whenever it presents itself. (She did this near her Bucktown home and boom, found herself in a music studio with another willing participant.)

Two months ago, Martin shelved the project, not by choice. She was driving to a church in the Grand Crossing neighborhood to photograph Marcus Morton, a gospel singer. A car sped through the intersection, hitting hers and causing it to flip twice. She broke a few toenails and has had some neck pain since, but suffered no major injuries. Her camera equipment? Not a scratch.

Martin says there’s even more of a purpose to “Chicago Portraits” now. “This is really about love and connections. It pretty much decimates pettiness,” she says.

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