Still in Edmonton? Photo project probes mixed emotions about being 'left behind'

Still in Edmonton, a collaborative photo project you can contribute to via stillinedmonton.com, is opening a conversation about what it means to live and create in a city many leave behind.

Collaborative website asks what it means to live and create in a city with an identity crisis

(stillinedmonton.com)

What do you love about your hometown? What do you hate? Did you stay there, or leave it behind as soon as you could? If someone were visiting for the first time, what would you show them that could make them understand what you feel about the place?

In Edmonton, a growing collective of photographers are contributing to a site called Still In Edmonton — exploring their city's identity, and the mixed feelings that go along with "still" living and working in Alberta's capital city, home of the Oilers, "truck balls," and nine months of winter.

I'm from there, and I'm not proud of what the phrase "Still in Edmonton" means to me. It's mostly a reminder of what I felt like growing up, whether we're talking age 12 or 20, not knowing what I wanted to do, but just knowing I wanted to get out. Ambition wasn't my motivation. It was more some vague dread of being left behind. 

Looking at Still in Edmonton's collection of photos, that old fearful feeling punches me in my smug Toronto gut. People are rarely represented in these pictures, just the place itself. ("Left Behind," indeed.) There are empty streets, abandoned school yards, vacant squares. To an outsider, it could be something out of a disaster movie, but really, it's just the stillness of Edmonton. A city of roughly one million people, it's nevertheless a place where you can, given the time of year, walk for blocks downtown without seeing signs of life.

Edmonton sort of gets a bad rap, not just from outside people but even internally. There's this 'ugh' feeling.- Still in Edmonton's anonymous proprietor

The emptiness in the pictures usually offers some splinter of possibility, piquing your curiosity about the place – or, in my case, making you homesick: lilacs blooming in a parking lot of oversized trucks, endless sky yawning over a husk-dry field, the defiant beauty of a faded mural or sign.

"Still in Edmonton has a couple of meanings, at least to me," says the project's founder, a writer who grew up just outside the city. He chooses to keep his name a secret, but credits other contributors on the site. "Part of the reason I've wanted to keep this anonymous is because I want people to be free to interpret it in a way that's meaningful to them. I don't own this idea or feeling."

That feeling is one he'd struggled to put into words. "Edmonton sort of gets a bad rap, not just from outside people but even internally. There's this 'ugh' feeling," he says.

Part of it, he figures, comes from the idea that nobody moves there with the intention of staying, as though it were some kind of work camp. "This is where you make your money, and then bank out and go live somewhere cool," he says. It's not a problem unique to Edmonton, and the site's creator sees it as a larger theme within the Western Canadian identity. But it's a mentality that runs counter to how the city often presents itself to the world.

"I just wanted to create something that hit a tone that I thought was underrepresented," he says. Whether we're talking the (recently retired) "City of Champions" slogan, or author Todd Babiak's community-building project "Make Something Edmonton" – all Still In Edmonton's founder saw was "super-boosterism."

"It didn't feel real to me to focus on one side of things."

Three months ago, when offered the chance to curate an installation for a local coffee shop, the project was hatched. He contacted photographer friends, and asked them to submit new work. Their photos had to match this checklist:

  1. It has to be something you love, or something you hate.
  2. It can't be iconic Edmonton – so no landmarks like the Muttart Conservatory's big glass pyramids.
  3. It must be within city limits. ("I've been trying to encourage photographers to find these places that actually don't feel like Edmonton, but are smack dab in the middle of the city.")

New contributions are regularly added to the website. Photographers – you, included! – are invited to submit original work either through the site or the @stillinedmonton Instagram account, and the founder is working on new collaborations with local illustrators and writers.

"Mainly this is about the love/hate relationship that most Edmontonians have with this city. Some are definitely proud that they are 'still here.' They haven't left, and they don't intend to. They love living here. Some hate the fact they are still here. They resent the fact they haven't left yet," he says.

"For a writer it's very interesting to have three words have such a broad sort of acceptance to such a huge demographic of people," he says. "That's what's surprised me. I thought I might print a couple of T-shirts, we'll all have a laugh and then enjoy the rest of our summer. … But just to have people own it and take it in their own direction and say what it means to them is something beyond what I originally thought of."

Meet a few of the photographers who are "Still in Edmonton," and discover what the statement means to them.

Mat Simpson. University Farm, 2015 (Mat Simpson/stillinedmonton.com)

How long have you been in Edmonton?
Mat Simpson:
 My whole life! I spent a summer living in Vancouver after I graduated from university, but that barely counts. 
Why do you live there?
MS: There's a lot of opportunity and work and rad people looking to make Edmonton as cool as they can. 
What does the phrase "Still in Edmonton" mean to you?
MS: Edmonton is filled with beautiful people constantly building this city into something better, but when it comes down to it, you still have to endure 9 months of winter and 12 months of brutalist architecture. It's not for everyone. But it's home. And it's hard to leave.

Zachary Ayotte. Beaumaris, 2015 (Zachary Ayotte/stillinedmonton.com)

How long have you been in Edmonton?
Zachary Ayotte:
 I've been here since about 1984 (I was three) so most of my life. I left periodically in that time but, for the most part I have been in Edmonton. 
Why do you live there?
ZA: The most important thing to me is getting to use my time doing things I want to do and getting to spend time with people I care about. I get to do a good amount of that here. I think at one point in my life, I was someone who just hadn't decided to leave Edmonton and now I would say I am someone who has chosen to stay and live here.
What does the phrase "Still in Edmonton" mean to you?
ZA:
 To me, I think it ties both to the expectation that people are supposed to leave Edmonton (because so many people do) and to the belief that interesting and "cool" things only happen in certain cities.

Randee Armstrong. Manulife Place, 2015 (Randee Armstrong/stillinedmonton.com)

How long have you been in Edmonton?
Randee Armstrong: To be honest, I can't even remember what year it was when I moved here. I believe I have been here for about 12 years. Ha.
Why do you live there?
RA:
 One hundred per cent the people — and the ability to do things and have them succeed. When I first moved here I would walk through the downtown core on a Sunday and I honestly wouldn't see one person. It was completely eerie. Every year that passes it gets better and better and the amount of young entrepreneurs trying new things is really a good example of why people should still be here

What does the phrase "Still in Edmonton" mean to you?
RA:
 To me, it's a positive. It's like, 'Yeah, we are still here doing cool shit and enjoying it.' People have no idea what Edmonton is about. As soon as you mention Edmonton to people they instantly think 'boring, grey and oil,' but that is such a bad example of what it really is. My favourite photo is the one of the pigeon shit on the sidewalk, not because I think it's the perfect example of Edmonton but mainly because I'm a sucker for lines and light. (But the pigeons really drive me crazy here, so I guess it was one of the things about Edmonton I don't love so much.)

Tristan LaRocque-Walker. River Valley, 2015 (Tristan LaRocque-Walker/stillinedmonton.com)

How long have you been in Edmonton?
Tristan LaRocque-Walker: Just over 14 years.
Why do you live there?
TLW: I'm still in Edmonton because I love this city, and I am proud to see where it's heading. Some of the most wonderful people from my life reside here.
What does the phrase "Still in Edmonton" mean to you?
TLW: "Still in Edmonton," to me, represents a love/hate relationship that anyone might have with their city, but seems prevalent in somewhat harsh climate like Edmonton.

Ben Lemphers. Whitemud Creek Ravine, 2015 (Ben Lemphers/stillinedmonton.com)

How long have you been in Edmonton?
Ben Lemphers: Thirty years. That is to say, all my years so far.
Why do you live there?
BL:
 At present my wife and I both have good work here. At other points school has kept me here. And, of course, because I've lived in Edmonton my whole life, I have deep relational roots here - a solid network of great friends. My immediate family all lives elsewhere now. I love our neighbourhood and the river valley is steps away from our apartment. 
What does the phrase "Still in Edmonton" mean to you?
BL:
 To me the phrase is a mix of pride and disappointment. I've been hatching plans to leave this city since I was 12 years old, and most people know that about me. It has become a joke among my friends. Edmonton has a magnetic pull on me, whether I like it or not. I'm more at peace now than I used to be about being in Edmonton, but I still want to live elsewhere. Family and friends from away will ask "Are you still in Edmonton?" 

"Yep, I'm still in Edmonton," I say, with that mixed feeling.

View the Still in Edmonton project, and submit photos, at stillinedmonton.com.

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