Studying the display screen on his Canon C100, Saleem Reshamwala looks surprised. He stands under a cloudy September sky at the crossroads of Foster and Corporation streets, surveying the demolition of Liberty Warehouse. "It just looks like a complete wasteland," he mutters before crossing the street for a wider perspective.
From this angle, he can capture the wreckage along with the sky, leaving room for imagination. "I want enough space in the image for it to kind of grow expansively," he explains.
Reshamwala, an independent filmmaker with a flair for the unusual, is scouting locations for an upcoming film titled Dreaming Durham. He plans to film the city's vacant lots and ask bystanders what they would like to see there.
His friend Gabriel Eng-Goetz, a visual artist, will then digitally illustrate these requests on top of the original images. "It's playful, but it's also a commentary on the extreme change that Durham's undergoing right now," says Eng-Goetz.
Ultimately, Reshamwala hopes to hang large prints of the scenes in a gallery setting and invite locals to draw their own dreams for the future of Durham.
Crowdsourcing the community and transfiguring empty spaces are two of Reshamwala's trademarks. Last spring, when a scheduling glitch left the Carrack Modern Art Gallery without an exhibit for a weekend, Reshamwala volunteered to create something within the next 24 hours. He and Eng-Goetz took to the streets of Durham with a camera and a microphone, asking random passersby to describe their ideal art exhibit. The pedestrians spouted ideas ranging from conventional (paintings, kites, kittens) to fantastical (fire-throwers, tornadoes, Matt Damon).
After a mad rush to gather last-minute contributions from fellow artists, Reshamwala and Eng-Goetz premiered "We Take Requests: A 24-Hour Art Slam" the next day at the Carrack. Locals flocked to the pop-up menagerie of musical performances, mannequins, and cardboard cutouts of Matt Damon.
From writing short stories based on prompts from strangers to recording the sounds of people at the farmer's market and mixing those sounds into a song, Reshamwala says he is always looking for ways to collaborate with different people. "The whole point is to make people feel like they can be a part of anything," he says.
This inclusive spirit grew from his youth, when he was often an outsider. His half-Japanese mother and Indian-Lebanese father endowed him with the dark eyes and olive skin that puzzled his mainly white peers in Cary. He recalls being teased by his classmates, who said things like, "Saleem doesn't know if he's black or white" and "The clothes you wear—were they in fashion where you came from?"
Something changed in seventh grade, when as punishment, his teacher assigned him to write essays after getting in trouble. His zany stories were soon being passing around by his classmates and he found he enjoyed entertaining others with his personal brand of weirdness.
Being "the ethnic kid" turned out to be a blessing in disguise as well. "I later found that I had this advantage of being able to move through a lot of different communities with people not knowing quite how to peg me," he says.
The ability to mix easily has allowed Reshamwala to connect with people all over the world, and for each encounter he has a story.
There is the time he was the only male in the otherwise all-female staff at Seventeen Magazine in New York; the summer his father sent him to work in a chemical factory in Toluca, Mexico; and the time he interviewed multilingual saleswomen at a cell phone market in Guangzhou, China. Then there are the years he worked as a web reporter on a Japanese ship, circling the world twice; the day he bought every drink in a Japanese vending machine; and the time in Fiji when he filmed a man who makes music by hitting PVC pipes with a flip flop. At only 35, he's worked, studied, or visited more than 50 countries—enough adventures for more than one lifetime.
After years of globetrotting, Reshamwala returned to the Triangle to be near family and start one of his own. (He married his Japanese girlfriend, Mana, in 2012, and last year they had a son, Raheem Yoshito.) In 2013, he launched his own video production company called KidEthnic, a playful twist on the jeers of his schoolmates.
"The name KidEthnic kind of screens people who might want something more conservative than I'm going to make," he says. A patchwork of personal, nonprofit, and corporate projects, his portfolio covers everything from soccer promos and zombie rap music videos to sexual health lectures and Mexican female wrestling. He also made the Kickstarter videos for Cocoa Cinnamon, The Parlour and Art of Cool.
"His mind is always going a million miles a minute," says Eng-Goetz, who shares a workspace with Reshamwala in American Underground. "I've really never met anyone who radiates such positive energy and creativity. No idea is too big for him."
Reshamwala claims his confidence to try anything has come gradually. "For years I struggled to complete projects. Or I'd worry about how do I become this, that or the other." He's found it helpful to have tight deadlines, and to share authorship with others. "You're going to make someone unhappy no matter what," he says.
"I know what I want my best work to do," he wrote later in an email. "I want it to make people feel happy and strange."
Beyond nurturing the inner kid in others, Reshamwala is a social alchemist. He has a knack for introducing different groups of people to one another, like the hip-hop community and the startup scene.
"If I die tomorrow and they say any one thing about my time in Durham, I'd want it to be something along the lines of, 'Man, he helped a lot of different kinds of people collaborate who I wouldn't think would normally collaborate,'" he says.
After scouting out Liberty Warehouse, Reshamwala drives to the top level of the parking deck at the Jack Tar Motel at Corcoran and Parrish streets. From there, he can capture an aerial view of the nameless park backed by a tall green wall. Though it's scheduled to be buried under a 26-story skyscraper, the small patch of grass is fertile with many other possibilities in Reshamwala's mind.
He points to the CCB Plaza around the corner. "The Parlour basically woke that spot back up," he says. "I think that's actually really important, thinking about businesses that have a multiplier effect on the area around them." He thinks that with a little care, the green lot could uplift the surrounding area as well.
I ask him how he'd change the green space, if he could. Peering over the side of the parking lot, he mentions adding benches, food carts and outdoor karaoke, maybe a fruit cart. "They could do movies on that wall," he adds. On the other hand, he likes the simplicity of grass and trees. "I don't mind this staying as it is."
Learn more about Saleem Reshamwala's work at kidethnic.com. Check out:
PBS' Beat Making Lab series: Young musicians all over the world learn to produce and record their own beats under the guidance of Pierce Freelon (of The Beast) and Apple Juice Kid. Reshamwala has so far filmed in Senegal, Ethiopia, Fiji, Panama and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Durham Glass: a film about Durham locals testing Google Glass, in collaboration with Austin Henley
Dreaming Durham: a documentary about re-envisioning Durham's vacant spaces
This article appeared in print with the headline "Reimagining emptiness."