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Live Active Cultures

Welcome to Bithlo: art show at Orange County Administration building opens eyes

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The first element of the Welcome to Bithlo exhibit incorporates historical photos of Bithlo from the 1920s through 1970s. Many of the long-departed subjects pictured are anonymous, though a black-and-white image of a stoic cowboy was enthusiastically identified as "old man Dietrich" by a lifelong Bithlo resident at the opening. The final portion consists of collages created by children at OCA, visualizing aspirations for themselves and their city.

But the central segment of the show – a series of prints by award-winning Tampa Bay Times photojournalist Willie Allen Jr. – is the most moving. Allen captured BMX-riding 14-year-old boys with stick-and-poke tattoos, young girls at play in the shadow of leaching landfills and a grandmother embracing her grandchild inside a cluttered trailer (which O'Connor aptly described as a "religious painting" and "an allegory for the community").

When I marveled at Allen's ability to capture such intimate images without feeling intrusive, the subject of the last photo overheard and interjected, "Willie's … not a stranger; he's somebody that you don't have to get close to him, you already are." She tearfully relayed to me that Allen's hope was that through his photography, his subjects could see that "there can be a better tomorrow, and they don't have to settle just for what's been given to them."

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