Books
March 24, 2014 • 01:03:08 p.m.

McHenry photographer gives others a voice in new book

By JAMI KUNZER - jkunzer@shawmedia.com

No matter the vast differences in their topics or how they're interpreted, Petra Sith's photographs share the same message.

Everyone has something to say.

A mother of two who is having another. Someone overcoming bipolar disorder. A kid who likes chocolate.

They're among the many standing and holding simple signs they created with poster board and a marker. Sith, of McHenry, captured their images in black and white, seeking out her subjects over a year traveling between Chicago and Milwaukee, Wis.

Having gone through some tough times, she'd felt stifled and knew others felt the same. What resulted was her book, "One Person Rally: I Have Something to Say."

"At first, I wanted to pour my heart out to the world with what I had gone through," the 34-year-old explained in the introduction to her book. "Instead, what actually helped heal me was giving people the opportunity to express themselves in their own way. Hearing stories of their courage and strength made those awful feelings fade."

Friends and strangers were eager to participate, gladly putting their thoughts on poster board.

"The Tolerance of Elitism & Racism Changed My Life."

"Dog is Love."

"I'm Loving Life Without Your Drama."

Sith's efforts drew the attention of famed photographer Robert M. Knight, known for his work in the rock and roll music industry. He's photographed Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan and numerous other artists.

Sith, who came to the United States at age 7 when her family sought asylum from what was at that time Communist-led Czechoslovakia, sent Knight the information about her project. Inspired by both Sith and her efforts, he agreed to write the foreword to the book.

"What I really see is the power of 'One'. One person made it from a repressive communist country as a refugee, to come here to choose to pursue a dream to be a photographer," he wrote. "Also, one person with a sign can change or 'destroy' the world; we have seen this over and over. The power of 'One'!"

As Sith writes in her book introduction, she was inspired by her father, who guided the family through several months spent living in tents with barely any money for food followed by nine months in a refugee camp, where they shared a room with 40 others.

The family eventually made the journey to the United States in 1987. Despite his 8 years of college in Czechoslovakia, her father had to re-do his schooling and work cheap labor jobs to support his family.

Having grown up, Sith found herself unhappy, working in a corporate job she didn't enjoy, depressed and suicidal.

"I decided life's really too short," she remembered. "You've got to do what makes you happy."

Also a musician, who now plays bass guitar with the cover band The Rocking Dead, she quit her job and pursued her music and her love of photography. The idea for the book grew out of a political rally she stumbled on while driving one day in Grayslake.

She pulled over and asked to take pictures of those holding signs. She realized how powerful a simple sign could be and set out to create her book.

Having successfully raised money through Kickstarter.com, Sith was able to self-publish a small print run of the book through Blurb.com. A publishing company saw her project, backed it and also published it online, making the book available through iTunes. Efforts are underway to also make the book available on Amazon.com.

"I was just intrigued," said Douglas Hebbard, who published the online version of Seth's book through his new digital publishing company Talking New Media, or TNM.

"I thought it was very different," he said. "It's not fine art photography, though she's very capable of that. It's photography that tells a story or lets others tell a story. You're letting people in the Chicago area basically say what they want to say. I'd never seen a project like that. It's very unique."

Along with social media, Sith drew people to participate simply by asking them on the street. Many wanted to be part of it, to be part of something meaningful, she said.

She is hoping to eventually have a hard cover version of the book published.

"With photography books, a lot of people like to have the actual book in hand, a coffee table book," she said. "I keep pushing and trying."

In the meantime, she's working on another project, called "You're Not Too Far Behind Me Kid." More elaborate than her first, the book will depict subjects ages 16 and older holding pictures of themselves when they're younger.

They're then asked to answer the question: After what you know today, what would you have told the person in the picture?

Like her first project, she simply wants to make people think, perhaps change their perspective a bit and give them the opportunity to express themselves. Based on the feedback from the first book, she's already succeeded.

"Even if I never sell a million copies of anything, just the messages and emails I've gotten about what it's done for people, it make it all worth it," she said.
 


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