Banner Project: The People of Chelsea project takes a pandemic turn

Chelsea photographer Darlene DeVita had long been working on the People of Chelsea project – a photo and text project that tells the story of regular people in Chelsea – before COVID-19 forever changed the city.

However, as that change was going on, she continued the project and came away with an amazing, if not historic, look at the city and its people in one of the most trying times in its long history.

She is showing the fruits of her work this week in a banner project at the library, and in the City Hall Gallery.

“The pandemic definitely turned it into something quite different – the People of Chelsea Pandemic Edition,” she said. 

DeVita said she had been working on her latest installment on the series, which was funded by the Cultural Council in January. Once the pandemic hit, everything was in question. However after a few “camera walks” she began to find that life and people in Chelsea were now even more interesting.

“Early on, I took a walk around Chelsea with my camera,” she said. “I came to one corner and saw a mural that said, ‘Then and Now!’ I stopped and realized a month ago we were in the ‘Then’ and we were at that moment in a very new ‘Now.’ I realized this is an important time and I really decided to just get out there. I still think about that a lot – the new now.”

That new now has found itself in the form of a number of different photographs with back stories in English and Spanish. Those stories have been transformed into banners that adorn the fence along the Library, and in the City Hall Gallery.

DeVita said she continued shooting people in the pandemic until the end of March, when things just got too dangerous with COVID-19 at its surge. It was then that her project took another turn, that being to the food pantries and the Chelsea Collaborative.

That led to an even deeper dive into the people and the community – and what individuals were going through. DeVita met volunteers helping to distribute food, and she met and profiled Chelsea people who were in line to get food. 

“I was comfortable with the photography, but getting the stories and text was new to me,” she said. “When I was there, I would ask people were comfortable telling me their stories. They were. I also found it was important and people wanted and needed to tell their stories. It’s important. The people in lines were there because they didn’t have their jobs anymore. They weren’t homeless people. They were trying to survive.”

Nathalie Pardo, who curates the City Hall Gallery, said the show was an inspiration, and one they are using to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month – as it tells the true stories of people in Chelsea.

“It’s worth noting that there is translation (into Spanish) of all the text and goes a long way in having an inclusive gallery at City Hall,” she said. “We usually do an Hispanic Heritage Month show, but this year it was nearly impossible to connect with artists. Chelsea inherently is an Hispanic community and by translating the text and putting in all these stories, it really is a story of that.”

The show will be up through November, and DeVita said she wants to continue on with the project.

“I really want to continue on, especially with the banners,” she said. “For the people of Chelsea, there so much to be done an so many stories. I want to go back to the early days and focus on what makes Chelsea, Chelsea.”

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