Scenes from one of the country's most violent cities

  • Members of the “Swerve Boy” bike group pose for a portrait on the street in Chester, Pa., left. On the right, a torn American flag and a sign mark the entrance to Chester Park, in Chester Pa. 
  • Children pose for a portrait in the Sun Village neighborhood of Chester, Pa.
  • Police tape flaps in the wind at a crime scene where a young man was shot in the leg inside the William Bennett Homes of Chester, Pa., left. On the right, a man adjusts curtains in a family member’s home in the William Penn Housing Projects.
  • A piece of street art is seen in front of an abandoned building in Chester, Pa., left. On the right, a member of the “Swerve Boy” bike group rides down the street in Chester.
  • A young man takes a nap on the couch in his living room in the Sun Village Neighborhood of Chester, Pa., left. On the right, children play in plastic bins in their home in the same neighborhood.
  • Doretha “Rita” Washington poses for a portrait in her home in the William Penn Housing Projects in Chester, Pa. 
  • Balloons mark the entrance to a baby shower, left. On the right, Alex McDonald, 78, a life time resident of Chester, trims the limbs of a tree in front of his home. 
  • A young girl plays with her dog in the Sun Village neighborhood of Chester, Pa.
  • An empty playground sits next to an electric power plant in Chester, left. On the right, a young man named Damian sits on his front porch.
  • Dinah Bacon sits with her son and daughter on the front porch of an abandoned building near their home in the Sun Village neighborhood of Chester, Pa., in a photograph blended with another image of trees in Chester.
  • A tree in full bloom in Chester, left. On the right, a makeshift basketball hoop is seen on a telephone pole in the Highland Gardens neighborhood of Chester.
  • Three men enjoy the first days of spring in Chester’s downtown.
  • A young girl leans out her bedroom window as she talks one of her friends standing on the street below in the Highland Gardens neighborhood of Chester. On the right, sneakers hang from an electric wire in the same neighborhood.
  • Siblings play in Chester Park, left, and an exit off highway 95 South is seen on the right. 
  • The uncle of Jabrae Davis and Brezhae Davis helps his nephew learn how to tie his shoe at the children’s great grandmother’s birthday party.
  • Sha-fine Bacon poses with a portrait with her friend, Tasha Howard, at her baby shower in Chester, Pa. on April 11, 2015, left. On the right, a bedroom wall of Elena Jo McElwee, whose twin brother Arthur “Art” McElwee was shot and killed in Dec. 2012 in an alleyway off 9th Street, between Booth and Clover Streets, in Chester, Pa.
  • An abandoned building in the Highland Gardens neighborhood of Chester, Pa., an area notorious for drug-related crimes, left. On the right, children play in the same neighborhood, where families live and thrive regardless of the negative stereotypes of the area.
  • Children pose for a portrait in the William Penn Housing Projects, in Chester Pa., a neighborhood notorious for its violence. On the right, a stop sign takes the place of a broken street light that was never fixed.
  • A man sits on the front steps of a local church in Chester, Pa.
  • Members of the “Swerve Boy” bike group are seen riding on the street in Chester.



Violence, crime and economic hardship are a part of daily life in Chester, Pennsylvania. The town, which is about 20 miles southwest of Philadelphia, has one of the highest per-capita murder rates in the country, and residents have a 1 in 37 chance of becoming a victim of violent crime. In the entire state of Pennsylvania, that likelihood is 1 in 273.

Justin Maxon has spent the past seven years documenting the lives of people in Chester. As they worked to get by day to day, the residents have often faced societal challenges recently highlighted through protests in Ferguson, Missouri, and elsewhere in the nation.

“Chester has been dealing with issues like lack of justice and police brutality, various issues that have come to light … for decades,” Maxon told msnbc. “There have been many, many stories that I’ve heard where police officers have murdered young black men and nothing has been done about it.”

When Maxon first headed to Chester, he set out to answer what he called an “infinite” question: “What does it take to unravel the intricacies of racism and oppression?”

Starting first as a silent observer, then becoming an issue-based activist, and now as an artist creating works in various mediums, including collage prints, painting, video, and photography, Maxon has dedicated the majority of his adult life to this small, remarkably violent town.

His latest series of photos, taken during a period of 10 days in April 2015, contrasts starkly from his previous work. Until now, Maxon has photographed Chester in black and white to look “sort of pictorial, sort of blurry, and almost other worldly,” he told msnbc.

“I’m seeing Chester in color now,” Maxon said. “I have just reflected more completely on this collision of forces at work in Chester, from me being a white man and the fact that photography, historically, has been linked to an oppressive perpetuation of negative imagery of the black community.”

Maxon felt his previous technique may have been perpetuating that negative perspective, so he set out “to create something that is more relevant to the conversation of race and racism in America.”

“The color to me is more relatable,” Maxon explained. “It challenges this whole idea of ‘the other.’”

See Justin’s latest video project, “In Broad Daylight,” here. 

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