Archive for December, 2009

An interview with Ian MacLellan, winner of the PhotoPhilanthropy Student Activist Award

Ian MacLellan is a 19-year-old sophomore at Tufts University in Boston, Massachusetts. He’s studying biology and geology. With a strong interest in international development, those subjects translate into water systems and strategies for public health.

“I had worked for nonprofits locally in my town and in Massachusetts, and I love to travel,” says MacLellan. “I found this group called International Bridges to Justice through Idealist.org. They had hosted a competition for justice makers and needed journalists to go out and document the projects they were funding.”

“IBJ was really, really supportive in linking journalists with appropriate projects,” says MacLellan. In fact, Jeff Kennel’s photo essay on PhotoPhilanthropy came about through a connection made by IBJ as well.

Jeff Kennel

MacLellan was also impressed by the way that IBJ clearly laid out their goals, in contract form, and delineated who would have what rights to the photographs, who had liability, and other basic parameters for the partnership.

When he arrived in Kisumu, MacLellan’s began thinking about how to tell a compelling story about this nonprofit. It’s hard to do. “Most of the work of any nonprofit is office work,” says MacLellan, “So you have to come up with your own creative projects to help tell the story.” That takes a while to figure out. But in some ways, it’s time well spent.

“It’s really great to not take pictures a lot of the time. You need time to learn, to find out people’s stories. Because the stories are what tell something about the nonprofit. They tell the spirit, the value, the meaning behind everything—in my opinion.

“I think semi-positive stories can be a great vehicle for social change, like the story of the newspaper—the Kakuma News Reflector. I think that it’s important to show something unique and not just show suffering. I don’t think people pay attention to stuff like that anymore. I think 30 years ago they might have, but not now.

“I’m not against the James Nachtwey’s and Zoriah’s of the world—don’t worry! They show both sides.

James Nachtwey

“I think a lot of people starting out think the James Nachtwey style is THE only way to tell stories. But I think after they get exposed to more work, they sort of see the other side of storytelling and image making.”

And what’s next, for Mr. MacLellan? He’s continuing to apply for grants—the next project he’s proposed is about energy issues in Scotland. And he’s participating in a group at Tufts called Exposure where “we try to have mature conversations about the state of journalism.”

“For students,” he says, “It’d be great if there were more small grants for domestic work. More small grants could be a great tool to promote journalism because newspapers can’t pay for those [small-scale, local] stories anymore. So that’s a void the nonprofits could fill.”

December 30, 2009 at 2:08 am 2 comments

Loving pictures, loving people

Portraits are limited. They can mischaracterize someone as easily as they can accurately represent a person. And who decides what’s accurate? The subject? The photographer? Or someone else entirely?

How often has someone taken a snapshot of you that didn’t look like you at all? Or that didn’t look the way you want to look?

So why do we make pictures of each other? If you know that a portrait can never say everything that you want or need to say about a person, why make one?

I ask myself this question a lot.

My answer has to do with loving pictures. Loving them for what they can do, and not feeling frustrated with them because of what they cannot do.

Pictures, like this one by Massimo Dall’Argine on behalf of Amicus, inspire the imagination. They help me think about other people. They help me feel commonality, connection and love for others and for the world. They help me feel all sorts of things. Just like a movie, or a book, or an amusement park…I go to pictures to feel more.

This picture is by Ian MacLellan for Christian Legal Education Aid and Resarch. When I look at it, I feel as though I’m meeting this man. I feel as though I am working with him or he is working for my school or my community. I feel interested, and curious about who he is, and, personally, quite respectful.

I find that I am often moved by pictures which are not exclusively about a given challenge or tragedy, but are about the life surrounding it—the familiar, beautiful, challenging, painful life that each of us experiences.

When I look at a picture of a person who lives in a very different place from me, it is hard for me to know what that person’s experience has been. I cannot fully imagine it. And the more the picture makes me focus on that difference between me and the subject, the more I think about how much I can’t imagine.

But the more a picture focuses on what I DO have in common with the subject, the more connection I feel to them, the more I think about how much I can imagine about his or her life.

This photograph for Do One Thing by Najlah Faenny delights me. I feel like I could be friends with this girl–I’ve made faces like that. And in this example, because I don’t know where she is, I am really only looking at her face. And she doesn’t seem very different from me.

And I think social change is built on that feeling of connection. I don’t think it’s built on a feeling of distance and dissonance. When people are empowered to work together, when they have mutual respect and shared goals—that’s when institutions grow and communities get stronger.

December 23, 2009 at 4:25 am 1 comment

Looking at leprosy

How do you make images about a debilitating disease that keep the dignity, the complexity, and the feelings of the subjects intact?

How do you create images about this issue without further injuring those people who suffer from it?

In her photo essay for the Turkish Association for the Fight Against Leprosy, Delizia Flaccavento uses a direct, narrative, sometimes impersonal approach. She focuses on the symptoms and scars of leprosy.

I appreciate those photographs. They teach me something I want to know–what leprosy really looks like.

And they take two simultaneous risks: 1. that I will look away because I feel distressed. 2. that I won’t look away because I am interested—not in the people, but in the spectacle of the disease.

They also tell the story of an organization, rather than an individual.

Which, like cropping out or obscuring faces, can occasionally be a more sensitive way to represent a person.

Jan Sochor takes another approach in his photograph of a patient with leprosy in Haiti. He makes this person’s infected feet seem abstract and strange. They are barely recognizable.

This picture dissociates me from the personality connected to those feet. Similar to some of Flaccavento’s pictures, I don’t see a being here so much as I see a disease. The feet are gruesome. I feel revulsion and alarm. (Jan Sochor also has an essay about Haiti posted on PhotoPhilanthropy.org although this picture is from his blog.)

Ehrin Macksey does something very different again. His photographs of a leprosy colony in Vietnam–for Send Me/Kairos Coalition–depict the lives of the people in the village more than they depict the disease itself. In his images, the dock where a woman cleans her vegetables

or the monthly rations of meat each person receives

or the prayers said in a Buddhist temple

are points of entry for a visitor to this town. In his images I am aware of many lives, all intertwined. I’m aware of time: a past and a future. There is a disease in the village, but there are also people.

In spite of the harsh light, this photograph of a man named Bop feels tender. I find my mind lingering, holding onto it for a moment.

Each of these artists tells an important story. Each is searching for a way to gingerly illustrate an issue that can be hard to look at.

December 16, 2009 at 10:39 pm 1 comment

I do love a zoo.

On our way back from the Grampians National Park this weekend, we saw a sign by the side of the road that said ZOO. I demanded that we pull over, despite skepticism on the part of the other passengers. The resulting experience was a huge success. We all got to pat a very sleepy wombat named Wilma. Sublime.

(I didn’t really know what a wombat looked like before moving to Australia, so, for the uninitiated, here’s a photo of one from Flickr by Ben Harris-Roxas.)

When we got back from our adventure, I happened upon Anne Marie Musselman’s photo essay depicting the Sarvey Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. Her photographs’ depth and complexity surprised me. I found her images arresting and nuanced; devoid of the many clichés that photographs of animals so frequently contain.

Her images gave animals the same emotional weight that good portraits of people carry. She made me think about what the animal might be feeling, not just what I felt about the animal.

A lot of pictures of animals—and of people—tend to objectify them, rather than make them seem interesting and real. That is easy to do when you are moving from four dimensions down to two. The very nature of photography is to flatten, to edit, to reduce.

Because of Musselman’s dynamic color and striking composition, I was reminded of artist Jill Greenberg’s animal portraits. (This Musselman photograph of a juvenile wolf could be a Greenberg.)

But the two artists diverge  in some significant ways. Greenberg’s work overall has a very different feel to me. Her work makes the animals pictured seem hyperreal, as though they are maybe made of plastic or silicone or are digitally generated.

She photographs animals using the same studio environment that one would use to make pictures of objects for advertisements. She lights a baboon the way she would light a package of soap, a piece of jewelry, or a toy. Greenberg literally objectifies her living subjects.

And the result is that, when I look at her pictures, I don’t think about the animal as a being. I think about it as a thing. I think about what I want from it—how it entertains me, how it pleases me, how pretty it is.

Looking at these two pictures of hers, I think about the dog as a “dog” and the polar bear as a crazy, mythical, white beast. Greenberg is constantly nodding to clichés, popular mythology, and the way we project human qualities onto animals. Many of her pictures contain human gestures manifested by animals. A bear covering its face, for example;

a pig “smiling.”

Musselman’s images lend her subjects a dignity that I appreciate. I find that I am curious about the animals she renders, and I wonder how they are feeling.

And I wonder about the balance between my species and theirs. Her own statement says it well, “The more I was around these animals, the more I saw their inner beauty and intelligence…the more frustrated I became by our world and how much of nature is neglected or destroyed.”

Sigh… I love you, Wilma.

December 11, 2009 at 4:10 am 8 comments

Beginning again

I just moved to Melbourne, VIC, Australia from Phoenix, Arizona, U.S.A. and today I was cranky. Here I am again, with no way to print pictures, no studio, no scanner, no structure, no particular project going, no knowledge of local nonprofits and local issues, and no idea how to tap into the artist community…besides getting tattoos on my calves. (I saw a woman today with two aggressive nymphs staring each other down from each of her calves.)

It is the same old problem that all artists deal with, on micro and macro levels, all the time. You have to make art in order to get support. And you have to get support to make art. You have to know people to meet people. You have to have money to get money.

So I started wandering into galleries, asking questions. I found the Gertrude Contemporary Art Space, and wished desperately that I had found them just a few weeks earlier, when it would have been BEFORE their application deadline. So typical.

A lot of the organizations that help emerging artists are community-based, like that one. In Phoenix, I received a lot of support from the eye lounge, which is an artist-run coop gallery; and Contemporary Forum, which is a group of people affiliated with the Phoenix Art Museum. Best way to find equivalents in your community is, of course, through word of mouth and google. And by looking at the resumes of other artists in your local community, and figuring out who supports them.

However,  I’ve been keeping my eye out for non-local organizations that support emerging photographic artists for a while, so I have a few to list below, for anyone else that might be searching for a boost. (And let me know what else is out there with your comments.)

I think the same problem applies to anyone trying to tap into a network for the first time, and volunteerism is no different. There was an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal recently about the trend toward taking both short trips and mid-career sabbaticals to volunteer abroad. PhotoPhilanthropy offers one way to make connections if you are looking to donate your time as a photographer through the Volunteer Opportunities tab in the Creative Momentum section. And the WSJ article’s author, Steve Mollman, compiled a list of organizations that facilitate non-photo-based service.

For anyone looking for a meaningful way to give back via the arts, I think philanthropist Ted Decker is an excellent example. His Catalyst Fund, set up in 2003, is designed to help artists market themselves—an expensive and yet crucial component of getting your work out into the world and moving your artistic career forward. He supports both international artists and Phoenix-based artists, and is a strong presence in the Phoenix arts community. His often-small—sometimes less than $300—grants make a huge difference. By helping a few individuals, he builds stronger ties between many people within a disparate city.

So, the nitty gritty—arts organizations that give emerging artists a boost:

1. Humble Arts Foundation New York is a not-for-profit organization that works to advance the careers of emerging fine art photographers by way of exhibition and publishing opportunities, limited-edition print sales, twice–annual artists grants, and educational programming. @humblearts

Bar Tender | San Antonio, TX | 1-Person Household | Goes to sleep at 8AM and wakes up at 4PM daily. by Mark Menjivar

2. Jen Bekman’s 20×200 print editions: (limited editions x low prices) + the internet = art for everyone. And Jen Bekman also has a blog (she is another arts entrepreneur whom I idolize, obviously). This is unrelated, but I love her Thiebaud + O’Hara pairing…”You are trapped in a croissant factory. And you love it.” @20×200 @jenbee

The pictures above and below are from 20×200, and are just the kind of image I’m immediately drawn to–the feral house illuminates a social issue that I’m aware of but haven’t really seen in this way before. And the fridge, in its demonstration of an extreme, reminds me of how unsustainable many of my own patterns are and yet how many other people I share them with. They are also bizzare and funny–a pleasure to look at.

Feral House #7, James Griffioen

3.  The Puffin Foundation seeks to provide support to artists who are outside the mainstream because of their race, gender or social philosophy (grant deadline Dec 9th!)

4. Artist-A-Day highlights a new person every day and sends out info to a large following.

5.  Women in Photography offers grants and exhibition opportunities. This photograph, part of  a series currently featured on the WIPNY site, delights me.

I throw myself at men #1, Lilla McElroy

6.  Saatchi Online, Photography is another chance to post your work and engage with a community of artists, collectors and gallerists.

December 2, 2009 at 12:55 am 2 comments


"In this way his work is more powerful in its moments of creation, when real human interactions are eroding racial stereotypes, than in its exhibition. And if the work succeeds, it is not because Subotzky can use a camera like no one else, it is because his photographs embody his efforts to confront social injustice on a personal level." --Charles Schultz on Mikhael Subotzky

PhotoPhilanthropy’s blog is written by Eliza Gregory

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