London Photographer Shines a Light on Chicago People, Places

A British photographer moved to Chicago three years ago and used her camera as a calling card. A new exhibition of her work features portraits of both famous faces and little-known locals.


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Jay Shefsky: A Chicago Bear. A Chicago mayor. A former Playboy bunny. A blues musician.

Interesting folks from all walks of life are captured in “Chicago Lights,” a photography show where the common thread is the people who are woven into the fabric of the city.

Abigail Zoe Martin, photographer : They were people I thought had something beautiful inside them. I thought: I really want to have a conversation with the person, I want to highlight them in my show because they may be normal to everyone else but to me they’re making a difference to my life every single day so they must be to other people, and in my mind, you don’t always have to be famous or brilliant to change people’s lives.

The main ingredient I need is integrity. If I’m going to showcase these people, and shine this light on them and spend quite a lot of time with them, when I interview them, when I talk to them about who they are, about what they care about, what they’re passionate about, I want it to be a really beautiful exchange.

  • “Chicago Lights,” Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (Credit: Abigail Zoe Martin)

    “Chicago Lights,” Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (Credit: Abigail Zoe Martin)

  • “Chicago Lights,” Kathleen Kenehan Henson (Credit: Abigail Zoe Martin)

    “Chicago Lights,” Kathleen Kenehan Henson (Credit: Abigail Zoe Martin)

  • “Chicago Lights,” ShanZuo ZhouShi and DaHuang ZhouShi (Credit: Abigail Zoe Martin)

    “Chicago Lights,” ShanZuo ZhouShi and DaHuang ZhouShi (Credit: Abigail Zoe Martin)

Shefsky: As you probably noticed, the photographer is not a local. Abigail Martin moved to the city three years ago with her family.

Martin: We’re from London but we’d been living in Madrid and then suddenly we found ourselves being thrown into the world of Chicago, and my first thought was you know, I don’t know anyone. What am I going to do? So I then thought, well I’ve got a camera and I’m a portrait photographer – my work’s been exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery in London, I’ve been working for years – why don’t I just take my camera out and ask people if I could photograph them?

Shefsky: She let the subjects choose the setting and went along for the ride.

Martin: It was a completely autonomous process because I don’t know Chicago and I want people to be who they are, so what I asked each person to do was to choose a location that they loved or a location that meant something to them or told a story, and then it helped me go around Chicago because I was new here, and so I went on this journey with them.

Shefsky: She asked people to nominate others she might photograph – and started a chain of connectivity.

We asked the photographer how her efforts might have differed in her hometown.

Martin: Say if I was doing this project in London, I would say to somebody, “I’m doing this project, are you interested? Would you wanna do it?”

“Mmm, no, no, no. Don’t want to do that.”

“Well do you want to nominate someone?”

“Not really.”

Whereas in Chicago you say, “I’m doing this project,” and they say, “Ah that’s amazing, really, ah that’s so exciting, tell me more.” And you think wow, and I say, “Do you wanna be in it?”

“Yes. Yes, I’m honored.”

My goodness. It was the yeses. It was really surprising how generous people were, the lack of cynicism because Londoners are quite cynical, we can’t help it.

Shefsky: The exhibition is at the Zhou B Art Center in Bridgeport – and Abigail Martin also photographed the art center’s namesake, the Zhou Brothers.

And she includes audio from her interviews with her many subjects.

Martin: I think it’s really important when you meet somebody, especially as a photographer because I think it’s a big responsibility to, for me, to just put somebody in front of my camera and say, “Look, stand there, be yourself.” How do you do that? It’s scary, it’s threatening, it’s a bit – you know, someone’s poking a big lens in your face, you think, “Ooh no go away!”

So I started by having a conversation with them about who I was, what I was attempting to do, what my sort of mission was in a way, which is a mission to connect and, to show a community of exchanges, I suppose, and create a chain of kindness.

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The exhibition “Chicago Lights” is on view at the Zhou B Art Center in Bridgeport through Dec. 28.

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