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Photographer Jerome De Perlinghi is on a mission — a mission to document, through square format black and white photographs, sections of Wilson that seem to be forgotten. These photographs make up the “Wilson in Squares” project that De Perlinghi has been working on since 2015. It’s a project that seems to lend itself to the distant, empty, strikingly different times in which the COVID-19 pandemic has placed us.
“I started this project in 2015, working on and off, but not too much,” De Perlinghi said. “I’ll work on it one week, then no more for six months. I’ve been doing that for several years. I have no time limit for this project, although this is a good time for me to work on it a bit harder.”
Carrying his Fujifilm X100F digital camera, De Perlinghi says he walks between three and four hours a day for the project which adds up to anywhere from 12 to 15 miles,.
“This keeps me busy in a healthy way,” De Perlinghi said. “I’m putting no one in danger. I’m meeting no one, I’m talking to no one. I say hello to people and I wave — I’m polite — but I’m not putting anyone in danger, and I’m not putting myself in danger.”
The “Wilson in Squares” project is a big change from another photography project he undertook a few years back, “The Wilson Project,” where De Perlinghi stood with his backdrop on the street and waited for people to walk by so he could ask them to pose for a portrait.
“This project has not a single person in it,” De Perlinghi said. “The locations are basically a set, and it’s something I’ve done before in my work in all different states in America. That project was called ‘Fading American History For Sale.’”
While living in and visiting cities around the world, De Perlinghi noticed a major difference in the way the United States treated the structures built in it.
“More so in America than in many other countries, we build something and let it live 20 years, and then we abandon it and just move on,” De Perlinghi said. “Although when we abandon it, it’s still in good shape, and after that it’s falling down and falling apart and you wonder, ‘Why did you move like a half mile or a mile away?’ I know it’s a problem for main streets and downtowns everywhere. Businesses are moving to malls that are only a few miles away from here, but then it’s too late. You left it, it’s falling into disrepair, and then it becomes like a ghost town.”
“I see a lot less of this in Europe,” De Perlinghi said. “In Europe, its more about the economic decline of, for example, some steel towns where they lost a big mill, and so on, where here (in the U.S.) it’s more general. It’s more like a decision to move all the stores and all the banks out of the town and so on. This has nothing to do with a steel mill disappearing. It’s more like a mindset of the way this country is built. ‘We have to move on.’
“This project is a bit of a statement where I record the moving landscape of our city. And because I live here it’s easy for me to come out any time of the day.”
De Perlinghi serves as artistic director of the “Eyes on Main Street” photo exhibition and knew early on in the pandemic that the May opening of the sixth annual exhibit would have to be postponed.
“The Eyes on Main Street festival is ready, and while there’s always a bit of work attached to the festival, the main work has already been done. The work to be done now is hanging the photographs. It is ready to go, but for obvious reasons we decided we couldn’t do the festival now.”
The projected opening is scheduled for Aug. 15 of this year.
Multi-week residencies in Wilson by photographers around the world also had to be canceled because for fear of spreading and catching the coronavirus. But De Perlinghi sees this time as a sort of artistic residency for himself.
“This is almost like a real residency,” De Perlinghi said. “Even if I don’t photograph, I walk with my dog and I’ll look around, so I know exactly where I want to be (to take a specific photo). I get up usually very early and I think, ‘What photo are you going to take today,’ and so you try to imagine it. You can’t do that in a place you don’t know.”
‘A DIFFERENT EYE’
“Wilson in Squares” obviously highlights Wilson locations, but De Perlinghi says he realizes that the abandonment of buildings as cities move outwards from their starting points happens all over America.
“Downtown Wilson is very much a part of this project, and I want to show downtown with a different eye,” De Perlinghi said. “Some of it is very beautiful, like the train station, and some of it is a bit sad, like finding family photos in an empty house that was less than 100 yards from the public library. That’s the part that I sometimes don’t understand.
“People think that they (abandoned homes) are going to be far away from them, but it’s right here. There are many houses all around downtown that, with a little love and attention, would actually make fantastic, fantastic houses. We need to find a way to save some of the houses. This is the time to do it because if we wait another few years they will be totally gone.”
“So this is a visual project for me, but at the same time on different days with different photographs, it’s also a political statement. I’m aware that this is happening everywhere, so this is not a critique of the city. It’s broader than that. I’m not blaming anyone. I’m just saying, ‘It’s a mentality. Can we change the mentality? Can we be an influence? Can we save one house? Can we make our streetscapes better?’ This is a message to everyone.”
De Perlinghi is now a Wilson resident but hails from Belgium and has traveled extensively around the world.
“I’ve been to 65 countries, and the United States is by far the richest country,” De Perlinghi said. “And I think a little more sharing would help a lot.”
De Perlinghi posts some of his “Wilson in Squares” photographs on his Facebook page, but a more extensive collection of his work can be found on his Instagram account, @jdeperlinghi.