Sam Shaw Sees Hope in Good Bones

Where others see empty, abandoned buildings in Elmira, New York, Sam Shaw '22 sees potential. His optimism for the city led him to put together a photo book called 'Good Bones.'

Shaw, a psychology major, began taking photos of local, abandoned buildings and defunct storefronts for his Introduction to Photography course, taught by Jan Kather, media artist. He didn't really have a plan at first and only envisioned the book after a theme emerged in the photos he took for the course. He was also inspired by the conversations he had with residents who noticed him while he took pictures.

"I think ultimately the book could serve as a reminder that just because something is abandoned, or something had to foreclose, it doesn't mean it isn't a viable building," said Shaw. "The structures are great and very unique. If people would upkeep and renovate they could be cool stores."

"I see the book as a reminder to invest in the local economy."

Shaw didn't always feel this way. When he first arrived at Elmira College he didn't appreciate the social and economic factors that led to area buildings falling into disrepair. In his hometown of Portland, Maine, real estate is booming and, even in poorer neighborhoods, an empty building is difficult to find.

"My 18-year-old self thought that people must not have worked hard enough or had gotten in trouble," he said. "But now I understand there are a lot of factors that hinder people from finding work and, at the same time, prevent them from leaving the area to find more opportunities."

"But I feel there is hope here," he said. "With changes and tweaks, the area could improve. It would be nice to see some of the buildings used to start mom-and-pop shops. I would love to see the Water Street area become a little hub where people go to eat and hang out."

"I know there are initiatives to revitalize the city," he said.

"Sam's book represents the optimism many of us working to revitalize Elmira have," said Jennifer Herrick-McGonigal, president of Chemung Chamber of Commerce. "I applaud Sam's positive perspective on the City of Elmira, an outsider looking into our community and realizing that there's potential. There have been a number of residential investments, bringing people to new spaces in the downtown area. And we are prioritizing a revitalization of the older buildings and hope to restore them so that commercial investors can also see the potential and beauty they hold."

While Shaw intends to become a social worker, this art project has inspired him in various ways. He originally got into photography after picking up his dad's camera in high school. But the hobby fell by the wayside once he got more involved in his academic and athletic pursuits. Then, when he needed to fulfill an art requirement, he saw the Introduction To Photography course.

"Over the course of the project I've recognized how powerful an image can be in telling a story," he said. "I would like to keep incorporating photography into my work, whether as a side project or directly tied to my work as a social worker. It would be great to publish other books in the same light as 'Good Bones.'"

"The combination of my photography and psychology degree, particularly given my plan to complete social work, could be combined into a really powerful tool to promote social change and promote communities that are struggling economically."

Learn more about Shaw, his book and his photography at

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