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How to Photograph a Pothole: A Guide to Illustrating Your Advocacy

In the depth of winter, as messy as it is, there are a lot of improvements to wish for on our streets. Despite the many merits of our current season, our hearts ( and calves and lungs) yearn for spring to come. One way to stay attached to the free-spirited feeling of warm-weather walking and riding is to work on pet projects during the winter. Advocacy makes the heart grow fonder, or something like that. We attend meetings, and we write emails. But how can we better get our points across? One way is to take more and better photos.

For example, my pet project a few years ago was improving St. Paul’s Pelham Boulevard. During my years on the neighborhood association and district council, I focused on calming the traffic that races up and down the Pelham hill, especially at peak traffic times. We collaborated with Friendly Streets, and through surveys we discovered that the neighborhood supported traffic calming.

A stroke of luck came when our local initiative happened to coincide with the city’s push to build bike infrastructure. First came the bike plan. I informed the neighborhood that bike infrastructure would help improve traffic behavior. Residents flocked to the comment section in support of bike lanes. Our luck couldn’t have been better, I thought, when I heard the city was ready to finish off the Grand Round of which Pelham is a part. However, Pelham was rife with cracks, chips, and potholes–this would have to be fixed for Pelham to ever become truly bike-able.

During one presentation that I gave on this topic, I fell into a detailed discussion with several bicyclists from Minneapolis about specific potholes on Pelham. This conversation reaffirmed by conviction that the Pelham’s disrepair was a detriment to cyclists’ safety, and so I decided to do something about it.

Before this initiative would ever get off the ground, however, we knew we needed to brand the project in a way that would catch the attention of local politicians.  We have nice maple trees along Pelham that turn a beautiful gold in the fall, so we thought we would call it The Golden Mile. But that mile would be expensive to rebuild–$6 million or more. So we figured The Golden Mile could be misleading and we dropped it. Pelham’s brand was right in front of us: potholes!

My advocacy work turned to the long-shot fundraising of Capital Improvement Budget, or CIB funds. I’m glad I got to play that legendary lotto game before they ended it. It was a crazy process. We needed to convey to the judges the condition of Pelham and why it was a priority over all of the hundreds of projects they were hearing about.

From my background in journalism and photography, I knew one of the most effective ways to raise interest and support is a well taken photograph. People can’t resist a good photo. A photograph conveys a lot of information: perspective, proportions, scope, and emotion. So I set out to get some photos for our presentation. The pictures below are some examples of photographs I took to support our initiative and communicate the scope of this issue to local politicans.

The spray-painted circles around the potholes, I later learned, were made by staff of the Saint Paul Classic Bike Tour. They inspect the route ahead of time and mark potholes that will be hazardous to cyclists during the race. Albeit unintentionally, however, they also acted as an added touch in my photographs. 

 I put the bike next to a seam in the pavement to illustrate the width of the tire-grabbing seams. The bike lanes were located on the side of Pelham that has the best concrete. However, there is a seam like this that runs down the hill in the middle of the downhill bike lane.

Rear wheel of bike next to road seam

While you’re looking at the problems that need fixing on your streets, it’s important to view it from different perspectives and at different times of the day. Because the camera lens on your phone probably has a wider perspective than your eye, the images will look better if you exaggerate the perspective and capture the reason behind your proposal. 

In this picture, I got down on the street level, which allowed the bike wheel to act as a metric for the depth of the pothole. A soft back light brings the shadow to the viewer.

Wheel of bike several inches below road surface


The ruler shows by comparison the relative size of the pothole. The muted light also adds to the bleakness of a street in disrepair.



I did take some photographs with people riding their bikes by these potholes at the same time drivers were passing in their cars. Photographing people always helps personalize the image. But in the end, I think the helmet did that in a more effective way. It had an emotional impact on viewers. The still-life style kept the focus on the Pelham brand: potholes.



Through this work, I became more familiar with the role that Pelham plays in the larger network of bike routes. By navigating natural obstacles (e.g. the river) and human obstacles (e.g. the interstate and the railroad yards), bicyclists from both Minneapolis and St. Paul use Pelham as a connecting leg in their routes. 

Although we weren’t successful in raising enough money to fund a complete rebuild of Pelham, we were still successful in advocating for better bike infrastructure. The city made a long-term plan for the Grand Round and successfully implemented an albeit short-term solution for Pelham. The city built the “first bikeway of notable length that used delineators to create an in-street protected bike lane,” according to St. Paul transportation planner Reuben Collins.

Pelham remains in need of improvement, and it undoubtedly will be expensive. However, we now have a plan in place for future improvement of the Grand Round. With persistent advocacy, Pelham will someday look like Wheelock with an off-street path for bike riders.

These photographs helped to grab people’s attention. In a world heavy with reports and plans, photographs are a welcomed relief. Although this issue isn’t yet fully resolved, we now have substantial progress in the right direction. Despite the cliché, a picture is worth a thousand words, especially if it’s taken properly.




About Drew Ross

-writer, editor, researcher -19th century history, photography, Twin Cities -served 8 years on Union Park District Council, with interests in transportation and co-chair of Environment and Parks Committee

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