A lens on the meaning of People’s Park

Covering controversial issues as a journalist often means that your subjects are going to pressure you to see things the way they do. Regular people are savvier than ever at trying to convince journalists to represent their personal interests, or those of their employer, making it challenging to present a balanced analysis of the facts. And often, the more dispassionate and neutral the journalist’s analysis, the less compelling their finished piece becomes.

In Berkeley, California, a 3-acre park with a storied history of activism and occupation, again became a community flash point between unhoused residents of the park and their community allies, and the University of California Berkeley, which owns People’s Park and is one of the city’s largest employers. The long saga of People’s Park took an abrupt turn in January when police barricaded the park in the middle of the night, in order to prepare for building student and low-income housing on the site.

Ximena Natera, a visual journalist and Report for America/CatchLight corps member with Berkeleyside, took a long-term approach to her coverage of the unfolding crisis and spent more than a year producing a deep look into what the park means for people in Berkeley.

“Before I started photographing, I started researching – I read every single thing that Berkeleyside had already published about People’s Park,” Natera said. “The park sits at an impasse between interests: what the university wants that space to be, what people who have been part of the park for 50 years want the space to be, and what new arrivals who have very little history here but have attached themselves to the park want this to be. That’s what stuck to me, that there were so many different people who have so many different attachments to this tiny park.”

Luna Oxenberg, People’s Park neighbor. When helicopters started circling the park she ran to and protected one of the trees signaled for demolition. (Photo by Ximena Natera for Berkeleyside/CatchLight)

The different visions for the park clashed during January’s intervention, with the police chasing out the homeless that had set camp in the park; protestors attempting, and failing, to interrupt the procedures; and university-hired crews using forklifts to create a wall of shipping containers enclosing the park. An ongoing lawsuit in the state’s Supreme Court prevents the university from starting construction but allows it to raise a fence around the park.

With such a dynamic socio political landscape, a dynamic reporting approach seemed warranted. As a photojournalist, Ximena generally spends her energy portraying things photography is well-suited to representing – intimacy, proximity, mood, and the texture of light. It is unlikely you’ll ever see her take a very literal or didactic approach to photographing a story, as photography just doesn’t function well in that way. Even her still-life images of seemingly minor details are exquisitely composed.

Osha Neumann, lawyer, artist and activist. Neumann painted a mural depicting the foundation and struggle of the park. “Berkeley needed a monument to its history.” (Photo by Ximena Natera for Berkeleyside/CatchLight)

“I love photography and there are so many things that can be done in photography and I’m here for it,” Natera said. “But there is something that I love about journalism, which is like, listening to people’s stories. So I was very interested in this deep, deep connection here where people link their identities to the park.”

Ximena started photographing People’s Park with a series of portraits of people who are defending the park, but she said it quickly felt like that strictly visual approach wasn’t enough to convey the complexity and specificity of their story.

“I think a portrait is about how people present themselves to the camera – not like a violent confrontation, but it’s a confrontation. You are looking at somebody and usually, they look back at you – it’s a very staged interaction,” Natera said.  “I need to know a lot about a person to make an honest portrait, so I’m talking with them, recording these interviews and the answers were just so fascinating. Then I realized, yes, we can see the person, but we also need to hear them.”

The result is an intimate, confronting, complex presentation for Berkeley side that includes not only the portraits and interviews but another picture essay that Ximena built over the course of a year reporting in the park.

People listen to music and speeches during the 54th anniversary celebration at People’s Park. April 23, 2023. (Photo by Ximena Natera for Berkeleyside/CatchLight)

While you can often tell when you’re looking at one of Ximena’s pictures, she doesn’t hesitate to change her aesthetic approach when the story calls for it. For a piece about how Berkeley has been trying to avoid the post-COVID “doom loop” of business vacancies affecting many other cities, she set out to capture the mood using disposable cameras.

“The story was about mood. Like what was the wood of downtown Berkeley? How were people feeling around it? Trying to understand what this idea of the doom loop is. The story is not about what downtown looks like, but it’s about what downtown feels like,” Natera said.  “I wanted to show downtown the way I look at it when I just walk past the place. And I thought we could break from some of our conventions, that the public thinks about what photography is.”

The first set of shipping containers was placed at the park on Bowditch Street, as seen from inside the park. Arborists chopped down the trees before construction crews placed the containers. (Photo by Ximena Natera for Berkeleyside/CatchLight)
Corrina Gould, spokesperson and chair for the Confederated Villages of Lisjan and the co-founder of the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust. Archeological records put Native people in the Bay Area at least 5,700 years ago and genetic evidence, 2,000 years ago. Indian and Mortar Rock, two massive boulder public parks in the Berkeley Hills, are places of contemplation, ceremony, gossip, and industry for the Ohlone indigenous people and a symbol of a destroyed cultural landscape for indigenous life across the Bay. The boulders are also revered among the climbing community as the birthplace of modern American rock climbing. (Photo by Ximena Natera for Berkeleyside/CatchLight)
A young man nestled in one of Indian Rock’s nooks watches the sky as sunset approaches. May 10, 2024.(Photo by Ximena Natera for Berkeleyside/CatchLight)
Scott Frye at Indian and Mortar rocks. (Photo by Ximena Natera for Berkeleyside/CatchLight)
Gloria Arellano-Gómez is a former council member for the Muwekma Ohlone tribe. The Arellano family is part of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe, descendants of Indigenous families in the Bay Area who survived the Spanish Missions and the violence of the Gold Rush. (Photo by Ximena Natera for Berkeleyside/CatchLight)
People climb down Indian Rock after sunset. (Photo by Ximena Natera for Berkeleyside/CatchLight)
A man walks past permanently closed stores in Downtown Berkeley. Downtown Berkeley’s pandemic recovery is uneven, but far from a ‘doom loop’. Around Downtown Berkeley, photographed on a toy camera, a point and shoot. (Photo by Ximena Natera for Berkeleyside/CatchLight)
A restaurant worker takes a smoke break on Addison Street in downtown Berkeley. (Photo by Ximena Natera for Berkeleyside/CatchLight)
Berkeley High students walk past a construction site on Allston Way, toward Shattuck Avenue, during their lunch hour. (Photo by Ximena Natera for Berkeleyside/CatchLight)
Berkeley Highschool students walk to downtown during Lunch Hour. Around Downtown Berkeley, photographed on a point and shoot film camera. (Photo by Ximena Natera for Berkeleyside/CatchLight)
“Did I get married? No, I went climbing. Did I have kids? No, I went climbing,” said Scott Frye, a staple of Indian and Mortar rocks for half a century. He recently exchanged climbing for ping pong. (Photo by Ximena Natera for Berkeleyside/CatchLight)