It’s Valentine’s Day, 2013 and Chris Randall is sitting all alone in his apartment. Leftover snow from New England’s biggest winter storm in decades still covers the ground. Feeling isolated, Randall ventures out into the Connecticut cold in search of some company. He takes with him a stack of printer paper, a box of colored pencils, and his Canon camera.
“Can I take your picture?” he says to anyone who walks by. The question is a catch phrase of Randall’s—sometimes more a formality than a legitimate request for permission. People often seem uneasy at first, but it’s hard to doubt his toothpaste commercial smile. Before he takes their photo, Randall hands them a piece of paper and the box of pencils and tells them to draw a Valentine’s Day card to New Haven. One man fills his paper with a boxy gray camera. On the lens he writes, “New Haven—I’ll capture your heart.” He holds the drawing up proudly in his right hand, gives a thumbs up with his left, and Randall snaps the shot.
Randall has done tens, if not hundreds, of photo projects like this one. Over the last few years, he and his photography have reached near-celebrity status in the Elm City. His camera is a second shadow—a gadget that almost never leaves his side. I imagine walking the streets of New Haven with Randall is not so unlike accompanying a B-list star in L.A. Everyone seems to know who he is.
Randall posts his work to ilovenewhaven.org—a website he created one year ago with the help of his neighbor Jeffery Kerekes. What started as a spontaneous side project has since become a big hit. Their little site now draws nearly 2,000 visitors a day.
“I love New Haven,” is not something that’s said often of the crime-ridden city. Yale students, in particular, feel New Haven is not so much a town to live in as it is an urban jungle to fear. Freshmen are forced to attend multiple street safety workshops during their orientation week, which basically amount to New Haven survival training.
It’s no mystery why the city has such an awful reputation. The high school graduation rate is low and the number of shootings, high. In the 1990s, New Haven had one of the highest violent crime rates per capita in the entire United States. And several years ago, it was named one of the country’s most dangerous places to live.
The Elm City may have its fair share of problems, but true to his website’s name, Chris Randall really does love New Haven.
“To me,” he said, “it’s home. I’ve been here all my life. I feel connected here.”
Randall grew up during the height of New Haven’s crime wave. Indeed, he is in many ways a child of the city’s mayhem. As a kid, he loved snapping photos with his father’s old Minolta. But at thirteen, he left photography behind and began drinking heavily.
It took ten years and a tragic accident for Randall to kick his alcohol habit. He was driving drunk down a highway in 1999 when he glanced down at his new stereo system and smashed into the back of a tractor trailer. Randall panicked and ran away from the scene, covered in his own blood.
After serving a 30 day jail sentence and a stint in rehab, he pulled himself out of his decade-long slump and returned to his job at New Haven’s Winchester Arms Factory—an industrial complex that has been manufacturing weapons since just after the Civil War. Randall worked his way up the ranks at the factory, but found the job less-than-rewarding. In time, he began to burn out.
He left the factory and took a position at the New Haven Land Trust (NHLT), a nonprofit that promotes the preservation of natural resources in the community. A few weeks into his job at the NHLT, Randall made what proved to be a simple but life-changing observation: the organization needed better pictures. Remembering fondly the days he spent with his father’s Minolta camera, Randall decided to return to his old hobby. But it wasn’t long before his photography became much more than just a side gig.
Randall’s star began to rise as New Haven’s crime rates fell. The city has changed significantly, and he’s evolved right along with it.
“I used to suck things out of people,” he said. “Ever since I stopped trying to do that and started contributing to where I live, my life has become a lot better. And so has the city.”
Despite his recent successes, the unorthodox photographer certainly hasn’t lost his rebellious streak. The smokestacks of the Winchester Arms Factory breathed their last wheezy breath when the building was closed down for good in 2006. But that hasn’t stopped him from going back. When he’s feeling particularly adventurous, Randall hops the fence to the factory and snaps as many photos of the abandoned building as he can. He fancies himself a vigilante photographer, an artistic protector of the people.
Once bustling with activity, buildings like the Winchester Arms Factory now sit vacant all over New Haven. Businesses moved manufacturing jobs overseas, leaving behind massive structures that nobody besides Randall quite knew what to do with. These buildings have outraged local environmental activists; many of them were once old coal burning power plants and are now contaminated with hazardous lead and PCBs. Even so, Randall keeps on exploring.
“The public has a right to see what these places look like. These particular spaces have been through many different definitions of identity within the community. And I get to take pictures of them,” Randall explained.
He likes to say that New Haven has not been vandalized, but “randallized.” He’s never given the word a clear definition, but he seems to like the ambiguity. It means different things at different times, different things to different people. Randall’s philosophy offers a clue: he believes wholeheartedly that photography has the power to bring people together and force conversations that might not have happened otherwise. If nothing else, perhaps “randallizing” is about helping people see beauty in a city that’s not normally known for its charm.
For Randall, the city is an urban polaroid of sorts; with every passing year it gets more vibrant, more colorful. With the push of a shutter, he makes downtrodden New Havenites feel joyful and abandoned industrial buildings look beautiful. Randall isn’t sure if he has it in him to continue doing vigilante photography for much longer. But no matter what he turns to next, New Haven will have been forever randallized.