Artist Interview - Eric T. Kunsman

What a project, Eric!  Payphones?

In 2017, I relocated my studio to a different part of Rochester, NY. Colleagues immediately started making comments along the lines of: “...that area's a war zone.” But my experience with the new neighborhood was positive, so I wanted to discover what visual cues others might be seeing as indicators of a dangerous environment. Several people had mentioned the number of payphones in the area, inferring that only criminals use payphones these days. There really were a lot of payphones in my neighborhood. I began documenting them and quickly saw that, far from being used by criminals, these phones served as a lifeline for some of the poorest residents in the area.

Felicific Calculus?

The felicific calculus is an algorithm formulated by jurist and reformer Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) for calculating the moral rightness of an action by balancing the probable pleasures and pains that it would produce. Bentham, a utilitarian philosopher, believed this calculus could, in principle, help determine the moral status of any considered act.

In many cities, policymakers have opted to view payphones as a social indicator of crime, unfortunately leading to ignorant or even dangerous decisions. Looking deeper, I found the story behind Rochester's payphones reflected an unusually altruistic 'felicific calculus' by Frontier Communications. Instead of focusing on profits, they had decided to maintain the payphones in poorer neighborhoods for the good of the community.

The project is both fine art and sociology.  How did you do the social science?

I photographed payphones and mapped their locations, then overlaid them with census maps, showing economic status, ethnicity, age and sex, and then I applied the city crime map.There

was an immediate, direct correlation between the poverty level and location of the payphones. Areas with the most payphones coincided with Rochester neighborhoods where the average family incomes are lower than $20,000 annually. There was also no correlation with high crime neighborhoods. Through the Felicific Calculus series,  I hope to challenge negative perceptions of social markers that conflate poverty with crime. Though they are relics to most of us, payphones remain important for residents trapped in lower economic circumstances.

Portrait - Eric Kunsman

Things forgotten and ignored catch your eye, right?

I am always attracted to objects left behind, especially those that hint at a unique human narrative, a story waiting to be told. Although there’s no “given” formula for what demands my focus as a photographer, I was born and raised in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and, in high school, I was heavily influenced by the death of the steel industry and its place in American history. I’m as drawn to the landscapes and neglected towns of the American southwest as I am to the tensions of struggling rustbelt cities in the U.S. northeast. These relics, Rochester's payphones, hiding in plain sight, tell a much different story than most would expect.

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