Photo project Still in Edmonton studies city's complicated reputation

A new social art exhibit seeks to explore Edmontonians' complicated feelings about their home town.

'We love it. We hate it. We're still here.'

One of the pictures submitted to the exhibit shows empty chairs and tables in Edmonton's Churchill Square. (Still in Edmonton)

We've all said it at one point or another. "Yes, I'm still living in Edmonton."

Those who live in Alberta's capital city are used to it being dumped upon — often, by people who have never visited.

Put more frankly: "People from outside Edmonton do not like Edmonton," says Randee Armstrong, a photographer whose pictures are featured in a new social art project called "Still in Edmonton."

And then, there's what we say about the city ourselves, which in darker moments tends to revolve around cold weather, potholes, a desolate downtown and a dubious hockey team.

But there is also the other side of the city — the river valley, the thriving art and festival scene and yes, the mall, that bring people in and hold them here — and it's that complicated mix of emotion the exhibit hopes to capture.

"Some people see (Still in Edmonton) and they think it's a bad thing and then they get mad at you," says Armstrong. "I think it's open … I think it could be 'Still in Edmonton!' ... whatever it means to you."

"It's really whatever you make of it," seconds Mat Simpson, who also has photos in the gallery. "It opens up the conversation of what that means to you, because obviously we are still here, we all have our reason."

For Armstrong, who grew up in B.C. but has lived in Edmonton for the past 12 years, it's the people that keep her here.

"Honestly, I tried to leave — it's not that I didn't try to leave, I'm not going to lie … and then my friend kind of reeled me back in," she says.

"Walking down the street and knowing someone when you can't really get that in Vancouver."

For Simpson, born and raised in Edmonton, it was the promise of work that lured him back after a brief three-month sojourn to Vancouver after graduation. Today, it's the tight-knit arts community that anchors him here.

Anonymous origins

Both Armstrong and Simpson were approached directly by the exhibit's creator, a writer who chooses to keep his name a secret, to submit pictures — but anyone is allowed to contribute.

Photos and drawings can be sent in through the Still in Edmonton website, Twitter or Instagram account.

The challenge, says Armstrong, is that the photos and drawings should not include iconic images (think: the legislature), but should instead show the quiet, less visible, sides of the city. For instance, she chose to take pictures from the End of the World and the Mill Creek Ravine ... and also a picture of pigeon poop.

The images are supposed to show something the photographer either loves or hates, and must be taken within the city limits.

"It's really open for anyone to figure out what they love and what they find confusing about Edmonton visually and put it into a photograph," says Simpson.

Armstrong, however, sees the exhibit as a way to build positive momentum about the city.

"It's a labour of love. People live here because they want to live here and see it grow and get better — so I find when people look at this and say 'Well, you're just doing something negative towards Edmonton' they're not really looking at what this is about."

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