ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Business has been slow both behind and in front of the camera for Albuquerque photographer and actor Emi Seiler – pandemics not being conducive to big weddings, family portraits, head shots and Hollywood productions.
So with time on her hands, a mask on her face and a need to escape her quarantined walls, Seiler went looking for signs of life.
She found plenty of them in front yards across the city. Signs handmade and mass-produced, political and profound, it appears that residents are using them with greater frequency to communicate with the outside world.
“It’s a way to have our voices heard when no one can get together,” Seiler said. “We may not have those social events, but we have our front yards.”
Seiler started her Signs of Albuquerque project in late July and has so far amassed photos of about 200 unique signs from the West Side to the Heights, the North Valley to the South Valley.
She continues to head out almost every day, photographing signs so as not to identify addresses or locations for the privacy of the residents.
What she has found in her signage sojourns is something of a sociological study.
“In the beginning, I found lots of signs thanking health-care workers and first responders,” she said. “Signs that address what people are feeling under COVID-19.”
One of those signs reads “Go easy on yourself, you’re doing great, this is really hard.”
“Then came political signs, and then it swayed from political to the social climate of where we’re at, like those in support of Black Lives Matter and against white silence,” she said. “And I started to think, hey, I have something here.”
She found signs that paid homage to Breonna Taylor and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and signs that encouraged others to buy local, remember the unborn, praise teachers, support postal workers.
Typically, where one sign is planted other signs bloom throughout a neighborhood, while other neighborhoods are devoid of signs, she said. Exclusive enclaves and pockets of severe poverty are typical of the latter.
“My assumption is that wealthier residents are either bound by neighborhood association rules or feel they’re already heard,” she said. “In poorer places, those folks are just trying to get by and don’t think politics hears them.”
Some neighbors seem to be engaged in a competition.
“It’s like sign wars,” she said. “One neighbor puts up a Biden sign, then another neighbor puts up a Trump sign or another Biden sign, as if they are saying ‘I don’t agree with you’ or ‘I am on the same team.'”
Some neighborhoods are clearly on one team. Ridgecrest, for example, is heavily peppered with Biden signs, while Corrales favors Trump signs, she said.
But some neighborhoods are filled with signs from both political camps and in some of them she can feel a tension. One neighbor, she said, told her she was afraid to put up a Trump sign for fear her house would be burned to the ground.
So far, though, Seiler said she has not seen evidence of rampant sign vandalism.
“We seem to have a healthy sign culture,” she said.
Seiler noted that yards with signs for left-leaning candidates tend to be paired with signs of inclusiveness and unity such as those rejecting racism or choosing happiness, whereas yards with Trump signs have only Trump signs.
And yes, some of the signs are salty. Among those suitable for publishing in a family newspaper include “Trump 2020 – make liberals cry” and “Vote him out then lock him up.”
Many signs simply encourage people to vote. “Own your power and vote,” reads one sign. “Vote – our democracy depends on it,” reads another.
The most common yard sign? By far, Seiler said, it’s the “In this house we believe …” sign.
Beyond the serious and profound, some signs take a lighter, decidedly apolitical bent. One yard features the likenesses of the five Grateful Dead bears. Another reads “Politicians are temporary, Wu Tang is forever.”
Of all the signs she’s photographed, Seiler said her favorites are the handmade ones.
“It’s like it mattered so much to be heard that they found anything they could to make a sign,” she said. “Like all they had was a piece of wood, a wooden spool, a planter box, whatever. But they got their message out on their front yard.”
Seiler’s initial plan had been to hold onto her photographs as a sort of visual time capsule to be opened up years from now.
“But then I thought, I’m seeing something here that should be shared now,” she said. “This is the social climate of where we’re at.”
Signs in an election year are not uncommon sights. But this year is anything but common. We are living in a time of isolation and division, hunkered down in our silos, reduced to reaching out through social media, Zoom meetings, chats behind glass, words behind masks.
We have no water cooler. But we have our signs. They let us tell each other that we are still here and we are still asking each other to listen to us.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Reach Joline at 730-2793, email@example.com, Facebook or @jolinegkg on Twitter.