Several times a week, Saskia Levy-Sheon and Sati Faulks meet at Farley’s East in Uptown Oakland. After a cup of coffee and a conversation, they head out to interview people. Today, local Oakland artist David Kim picks them up and drives them to his West Oakland warehouse studio. Inside, Levy-Sheon takes out a small tape recorder, places it on a nearby stack of papers, and tells Kim “to just get comfortable.” As they settle onto their stools, Faulks pulls out his 35mm still camera and starts clicking.
Levy-Sheon stares up at Kim with wide eyes and begins asking barely audible questions:
“Where and when were you born?”
“What are you most proud of?”
“Where do you see yourself in twenty years?”
Over the next hour or so, Kim traces the intimate details of his life so far—he tells them about gang life in Los Angeles, joining a fraternity in college, quitting his well-paying job to be an artist, finding God. The interview ends with a high-five from Faulks.
“I feel so connected to you,” Kim tells Levy-Sheon after the interview.
“That’s the point,” she says.
The interview is one in a series called Projet En Vue, which Levy-Sheon and Faulks started about two months ago. The project, currently consisting of a website with about 20 audio interviews with accompanying text and still photographs, is meant to document the people that make up the diverse Oakland community.
Saskia Levy-Sheon is an 18-year-old Oakland native who graduated from Oakland Tech last June. She has lived in the same Glenview home since she was 4 years old. She describes herself as an introvert, and is mild-mannered, almost timid. Sati Faulks is a 23-year-old who has moved around a lot, spending time in San Diego, Los Angeles, Portland, and Oakland. He’s lived in Oakland several times; this stint began 8 months ago. Well over six-feet tall, with brown-square glasses, he’s the sociable one.
They met two months ago in a downtown law office. Levy-Sheon was leaving her job, Faulks was her replacement. During a week of training, Faulks showed Levy-Sheon some of his photographs. Saskia mentioned her interest in recording oral histories and interviewing people. They decided to work together on a project “in the future.” But, to Faulks, “the future is irrelevant,” so the project started the next day.
The idea is simple: They walk around Oakland and find interesting people to talk to. They document the interviews on their website, building an online gallery that reflects “an eclectic, vibrant, interesting” Oakland community.
That first day, walking around downtown Oakland, they quickly came across Bubb Rubb (yes, that same whistle-tip loving Bubb Rubb) and Leif, two guys drinking a beer. Levy-Sheon asked them about their lives and Faulks took pictures. They did five interviews that day. Looking back, they’re amazed at how easy it was. Faulks describes the first interviews as “really natural, fluid, and fun.” At the end of that first day, they went home and immediately got to work editing the audio and pictures. Their website was up the next day. These first interviews were uploaded soon after. The project was underway.
Faulks suggested the name “project in view.” Levy-Sheon liked it, but thought it should be in French. “It’s about putting all these people in view,” Faulks explains. “It’s about listening completely, and it covers the whole spectrum of Oakland.”
Two months in, they’ve both taken away different lessons from the project. They’ve interviewed a diverse mixture of people—teenage graffiti artists, longtime crossing guard Lordleon Revels, 70-year-old coach James McGill—which are sporadically uploaded to a growing online archive. “People’s life experiences are valuable and important,” Levy-Sheon says, “and just as valid as the perspective of some historian.” For Faulks, it’s more about building community. “I think the project is inspiring people to have serious conversations and to engage with the people around them.”
Both of these meanings mesh well together, as do the styles and strengths of the project’s two founders. Faulks is outgoing and doesn’t hesitate to approach strangers on the street. Once he makes the initial contact, Levy-Sheon’s quiet approach leads to intimate conversations. She edits and transcribes the audio interviews, and Faulks preps the pictures and handles the aesthetics of the site.
The one thing the duo has in common is their ambition. In addition to the website, they released the first of issue of their zine, which features interview transcriptions and photographs, last Friday. The second issue is due out May 24, and coincides with the opening of a gallery show at Upstream Art/Lit, located at 4529 Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. They also have aspirations to put out a book and to form a non-profit. “It’s definitely a lot of work,” Levy-Sheon says, “but we inspire each other to keep going. It’s great to have a partner that’s as passionate as you are. It keeps you going when your drive falters.”
After finishing their interview with David Kim, they walk around West Oakland looking for someone else to interview. Faulks says most people are usually receptive and open to being interviewed, but the pair seems a little out of their element here. This is their first time trying to get interviews in West Oakland, a neighborhood they’re not very familiar with. Faulks approaches a few people, and is turned down twice, three times. He constantly scans for people. Levy-Sheon looks up at the sky or down at the ground.
At MLK and 29th Street, Faulks ducks into a busy corner store and buys a beer. There’s a crowd outside, deep in conversation. Faulks returns, beer in hand, and approaches the crowd. “Excuse me, does anyone have a minute to talk to us?” he asks. One man points to a nearby building, and says, “I’ll be over there. Meet me on the corner.”
A few minutes later, the man, who gives his name only as Alex, walks over and the interview starts. Alex, an African-American in his late-twenties or early thirties, says he moved to Oakland from the south several years ago and now earns a living cleaning out houses after tenants die or are evicted. He wears a T-shirt that reads: “Stand up, change history.” His voice is low and gruff, and his answered are mumbled, but unexpectedly profound.
“Where do you see yourself in twenty years?” Levy-Sheon asks.
“I see myself on top of the world,” Alex answers with a smile. “I want to be a prime figure out here, making a difference not just in words, but in what I do.”
“Do you have any advice?”
“Any advice, hmm… I’d say: get your money, live your life, and be happy.”
Levy-Sheon and Faulks finish the interview and walk down the street looking for more people to interview.
Check out all of the interviews and photographs at ProjetEnVue.org.