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A photographer wanted to know what his San Diego neighbors think of America. The answers encouraged him.

Todd Bradley hangs up portraits along a white picket fence with American flags on it
Portraits taken by Todd Bradley are displayed along a fence in Normal Heights on July 1, 2023. The photos are part of a project called “Freedom on the Fence” that will be displayed during Fourth of July weekend. Bradley photographed several people in the neighborhood holding a chalkboard with their response to a prompt: “America Is” or “Freedom Is.”
(Adriana Heldiz/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

‘Freedom on the Fence’ project in Normal Heights, on display through July 4, uses portraits to give voice to the community during divisive times

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A year ago, as the Fourth of July approached, Todd Bradley sensed unease in his Normal Heights neighborhood. Many people didn’t feel like celebrating America’s birthday.

Part of it was the U.S. Supreme Court’s controversial decision in June 2022 overturning constitutional protections for abortion, he said. Part of it was the seemingly endless polarization between liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, left and right.

“Everybody was really concerned about what was happening in the country,” he said. “A lot of people felt like they weren’t being heard.”

Bradley is a photographer, so his response to all this came naturally: He picked up a camera.

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He invited people into his garage studio for portraits. They were handed two small chalkboards, each with a prompt already on it. One said, “America Is,” and the other, “Freedom Is.”

Each person filled in the blank on one of the boards and then held it up as Bradley took the picture.

The answers ran the gamut, from hopeful to worried. There was anger, sure — but joy too.

A black and white portrait of a man is hung on a fence
A neighbor of Todd Bradley’s wrote “The State of the Union is fractured” when asked what this country means to him.
(Adriana Heldiz / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Bradley felt he was onto something. When the Fourth arrived, he went to a neighborhood ice cream social and brought his camera. He took more portraits of people holding a chalkboard and standing in front of a U.S. flag.

America Is....

“In Big Trouble,” one neighbor wrote.

“The Greatest Country in the World,” wrote another.

“Where immigrants make us stronger.”

And this:

“My home.”

 A portrait of a woman holding a sign in front of an American flag hangs on a white picket fence
One neighbor opined “America is where immigrants make us STRONGER.”
(Adriana Heldiz / The San Diego Union-Tribune)
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When he was done, Bradley had 34 portraits, enough for a gallery show. He’s had exhibits of other work, including one called “War Stories I Never Heard,” which focuses on a grandfather of his who fought in the D-Day invasion at Normandy during World War II.

But gallery shows are hard to come by, and they are often scheduled years in advance. So with the Fourth of July coming around again this year, Bradley has arranged a unique four-day art presentation.

He’s taken 18 of the portraits and printed them on 2-foot-by-3-foot sheets of vinyl. He’s put grommets in the corners. The pictures are hung on a white picket fence lining the front yard in Normal Heights where the neighbors gather for the annual Independence Day ice cream social.

The project has a name: “Freedom on the Fence.” Bradley sees it as a celebration of the community’s diversity and spirit, and of the ties that bind.

“Unlike politicians, people who talk to each other can see each other as caring individuals and meet somewhere in the middle,” Bradley said. “They have figured out what’s missing from our country — the ability to see each other as people.”

‘No fights broke out’

Todd Bradley stands in the front yard of his home next to a portrait he took in Normal Heights
Todd Bradley stands in the front yard of his home next to a portrait he took in Normal Heights.
(Adriana Heldiz / The San Diego Union-Tribune)
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Bradley, 52, makes his living cutting hair — he and his husband run Walter Todd salon in Hillcrest — but his passion for photography pre-dates that. He’s been interested in cameras since he was a child.

He specializes in macro-lens work, constructing miniature dioramas to tell stories about nature, his family and America. His work has been exhibited in museums and galleries, public-art installations and magazines.

Cameras, he said, are ubiquitous now; almost everyone carries one in their cellphone. So how can the medium be used to tell different stories?

One of the themes he’s explored in various projects is decay — seed pods, structures, society — and that may be why his radar picked up on the dismay percolating among his neighbors last year as the Fourth neared.

“People seemed really upset,” he said.

Some of that showed up in the portraits he took. One man wrote an expletive under “America Is” and extended a middle finger. Others raised pointed concerns about the future of women’s rights and racial equality. One wrote a single word: “Broken.”

three portraits hang on a white picket fence
Portraits taken by Todd Bradley of some of his neighbors, including one dressed as an American Revolutionary soldier, are displayed along a fence in Normal Heights.
(Adriana Heldiz/The San Diego Union-Tribune)
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Not everybody Bradley approached wanted to participate, even though they voiced to him strong opinions about where the country is headed.

One man said he wanted to “banish the immorality that is ruining the country” and suggested more religion was the answer.

“I thought he was talking directly to me as an openly gay man,” Bradley said, “but maybe I was looking too far into his statement.” Ultimately, the man chose not to have his picture taken.

Others told him the whole project seemed “too liberal” to them and shied away. But at least it got people thinking, Bradley said. “And no fights broke out.”

One woman captured the hope behind the project when she wrote, under the “America Is” heading, “Can & Will Do Better.”

“How do we move from extreme polar opposites to a more centrist pendulum swing?” Bradley asked. “We will always have two sides to the coin, but we must find a way to compromise and work together toward a common goal.”

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A work in progress

Portraits taken by Todd Bradley are displayed along a fence in Normal Heights San Diego, CA on Saturday, July 1, 2023.
One woman wrote America “can & will do better.”
(Adriana Heldiz / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The exhibit was installed Saturday morning at the corner of 35th Street and North Mountain View Drive, on a picket fence at the home of David and Mindy Hayes. They host an Independence Day gathering there every year.

Bradley said he plans to keep the portraits up through the evening of the Fourth — fingers crossed. He’s worried, in these divisive times, about possible vandalism or other problems. On a press release announcing the project, he described it as “a family-friendly, no-hate-tolerated event.”

He also plans to be at the ice cream social at 11 a.m. on the Fourth, with his camera. He’ll be inviting more people to fill in the blanks on the chalkboards, to share their opinions about what “America Is” or what “Freedom Is.”

And to have their portraits taken.

“This is definitely a work in progress,” he said.

Kind of like the nation celebrating another birthday.

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