Bus drivers Harry West & Kasandra Ellis, photographed by Michael Lease (all images courtesy the artist)

Bus drivers Harry West & Kasandra Ellis, photographed by Michael Lease (all images courtesy the artist)

The identity of any city is reflected in its mass transit, and who better to communicate it than the transit operators themselves? Driving Richmond: Stories and Portraits of GRTC Operators is a multimedia project that profiles the bus drivers of Richmond, Virginia, through photography, sound portraits, and audio.

Vintage maps of the Richmond bus system

Created in a collaboration between photographer Michael Lease, environmental artist Benjamin Thorp who did the audio portraits, and Professor of American Studies at the University of Richmond Laura Browder who conducted the interviews, the project is now online after making its debut earlier this month at the RVA Street Art Festival, which actually took place in a former GRTC bus barn. And while the interviews and portraits are focused on the first-hand stories of bus drivers, history plays a big part as well. As Jennie Bullock, who drove a bus for over 25 years, recalls of her early days at work:

Some people didn’t want to ride with the women. When you pull in, they would say, “go ahead, I’ll wait for the next bus.” They think that you couldn’t drive. I was tested a few times out there. But I think word got around that Ms. Bullock was a strong woman and she didn’t play.

There are a surprising number of women in the portraits for a profession that was not too long ago predominantly male, but as Sheronda Hill states in her interview: “I’ve had people get on the bus and say, ‘you don’t look like a bus driver.’ I ask them, ‘What does a bus driver look like?’” Yet although the personal and local stories are strong, there are also wider issues involved in the project like the importance of being unionized, and the position of transit in social tensions that are especially pronounced in the southern United States, with driver Marshall Avent noting that when he came to Richmond it “was predominantly white and that was the way of the world. I came in ‘73. I’m told that when African-Americans first started driving the buses that white folks used to call the police on them. Said they stole the bus.” And there’s also the ongoing the difficulties of sustaining mass transit under the continued threat of the convenient car.

Marshall Avent & Jennie Bullock

Using portraiture gives this all a direct, documentary tone, capturing stories and people together in a narrative that is often overlooked. One subject, Bruce Korusek, had himself created something of a portrait of the Richmond GRTC with his own archive of materials that appear in the online project, which are aligned with his focus on advocacy for the system. But as he states:

I wish I’d taken pictures of people. Because it’s like the buses, you don’t think anything of them when you see them every day, year in and year out, and then suddenly they’re all gone. There are no more like that left. Same with the people, you see them day in and day out for years. And then they pass away.

David Edmonds & Marcia Schmiegelow

Sheronda Hill & Eldridge Coles

Driving Richmond: Stories and Portraits of GRTC Operators is viewable online.

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...