Posts tagged ‘social change’

The key? Intimacy.

Kathleen Hennessy is the Director of Photography at the San Francisco Chronicle and has just joined PhotoPhilanthropy as the Activist Award Director for 2010.

I asked her everything that came rushing into my head. What is your editing process like? And how do you think photography creates social change? And what advice do you have for people submitting photo essays to PhotoPhilanthropy?

Here’s what she said:

Some of the essays I looked at from last year’s submissions were not as strong as they could be because they don’t really have a focus. What I’m seeing is that people are photographing things that are happening around them, but I don’t know what the story is. I don’t know what they’re trying to say.

If you were going to document a pediatric surgical team, for example, it would be really great to have some theme that you follow—maybe a doctor, or a patient—so that you connect with somebody.

I think it’s really important to establish that connection with another individual. Because if you don’t, if the viewer doesn’t get to connect with any person in a deeper way, then everybody becomes sort of anonymous. And that’s a problem. I think you get a much more emotional reaction when you really feel like you got to know someone and their story. And then that one story illustrates the larger organization and the larger issue.

When I was working with Deanne Fitzmaurice on the Pulitzer prize winning story, she got very close to the subject.

It was as story about an Iraqi boy named Saleh, who picked up a bomb he thought was ball. It exploded, killing his brother and severely injuring him. He was eventually brought to Oakland, California for treatment. She worked on that story for about a year and got close to the family. It was impossible not to.

And even though she didn’t want to, she had to show the moments where he was acting up or getting frustrated because that was the whole story. She had to stay somewhat detached. Because the goal of photojournalism is to have the credibility that you are telling the truth.

An artist, on the other hand, is seeking their own truth, in my opinion.

So when you are doing this kind of collaborative work with an organization, you really have to believe in what that organization is doing. If you go in there and you think, “Wow, what are they doing?” then maybe you shouldn’t do it.

It’s also important to really do your homework. You should talk to people who run the organization, who are in the field, and ask them what they see every day. And sometimes you have to be a filter, because they may tell you what they think is a great story, and it may not be. For example, it may not be visual. It has to be a visual story. And it has to prompt an emotional reaction that connects the viewer to the subject

The best thing to do is observe. Spend some time before you ever pick up the camera, observing what they do. You need to think about what it is that attracted you to the story. What is the story that you want to tell?

And take notes. I always say to photographers—who are not necessarily writers—take notes. Jot down words that represent what you are feeling, and then think about how to capture that feeling.

You asked about creating social change as an editor. Well, we were having a staff meeting, and talking about ideas. I wanted to do some stories related to the economy, because that is one of the big issues of the year.

So Brant Ward, one of our staff photographers at the Chronicle, said, “I really want to do something in Chinatown. It’s very difficult to get access to stories there, and there is a lot going on.”

He’s been at the Chronicle for 25 years. He found his own contact and she connected him with the Mo family, who live in a one room flat.  The room has no private bathroom or kitchen so they share with the other families living in the building, which is called an SRO: single room occupancy.

He worked through a community activist who spoke the language and was trusted by the community. I think that’s a very important connection, so that when you are introduced to the community, you are also trusted.

The father, Zhihua, a carpenter and plumber, was out of work. The mom, Lifen, was making minimum wage handing out restaurant coupons to tourists. The grandfather, who lived a block away in another SRO, had a nurse taking care of him but when Zhihua lost his job they could no longer afford the nurse and Zhihua starting taken care of his dad daily.

The grandfather couldn’t walk, and his son told Brant, “When I take him to the doctor, I have to put him on my back and carry him up two flights of stairs.” And so Brant knew that was the picture he needed to get. And so he kept waiting and waiting for that day to come, and it finally did.

When the story was published, it was on the front page with two inside pages full of photographs. There was a real out-pouring of support. Brant received many emails from people who wanted to help, both monetarily and with job offers. Zihua is now working again.

So you hope that you have an impact, and it can be something small like one person getting a job. Or it could be a larger impact, like with Deanne’s story. After her story was published, Saleh’s family received thousands and thousands of dollars in donations and his mother and sisters were granted asylum in the U.S.

And that’s the beauty of documentary photography: hopefully your goal is to have some sort of impact.

Brant told the story of Chinatown through one family. Which gets back to what I was saying in the beginning. You’re more connected through one family than if it was a series of pictures of multiple families who lived in single rooms. I feel more connected to that issue because I know what this one family’s life is like.

If you stay with one story, if you stay with one focus, there’s more intimacy there. And to me that is the key to a successful story or a successful photo essay, intimacy.

And a lot of times you may see a collection of photographs, and they may be beautiful, but I’m left wondering what are they trying to say. Other than, here’s a nonprofit, or here’s a lot of suffering people.

I loved Dmitry Markov‘s story, which won the amateur award, because it was so focused. One group of kids, one place—I really got a sense of what their lives were like. Beautiful intimacy with the shaving of the head, wonderful use of light. I felt a sense of connection with the community there because I could see how the boys reacted to each other. I thought that was really successful.

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March 3, 2010 at 5:30 am Leave a comment

PhotoPhilanthropy in the field: observations from Haiti

This week, PhotoPhilanthropy founder Nancy Farese is in Haiti, documenting the work of NGO’s as they provide disaster relief. She sent us this bulletin:

I am here shooting on behalf of the IRC (International Rescue Committee).  Their primary expertise in emergency response is water and sanitation, though they are quickly laying the groundwork for partnering with Haitian agencies to provide Gender Based Violence prevention programs in the settlements, child-friendly playing areas, and family identification databases to help people find their loved ones.

In Piste Camp a man collects rebar to straighten out and reuse.

There are approximately 500 spontaneous settlement camps in Port au Prince; people gathered out of the desperation of having lost everything in the crumbles of their house, or the simple fear of sleeping under concrete structures identical to those in ruins around them.  There was a 4.5 aftershock on Monday night, followed Tuesday by a 4.7 earthquake from a new source, that had us all running from our beds.

Spontaneous Settlement camp in Port au Prince

Spontaneous Settlement in Villambetta

The settlements are crowded and desperate; erected on every piece of available open land in the city  from parks to golf courses, out of any material at hand. Giant bladders indicate that the French Red Cross and UNHCR are supplying water, and  a cluster of people waiting in lines near a settlement indicates a distribution of tents or food vouchers.  The IRC and UNICEF are quickly building latrines with the help of campers where space is available, but they readily admit that the urban disaster constraints of this many people displaced in such tight confines is unique and challenging. Everyone fears the outbreak of disease if the latrines are not built quickly and used effectively, and everyone knows that each additional day spent in a camp means more resistance to a transfer to a safer, more physically intact location as communities develop and nearby jobs are secured. Everyone fears the onset of rain.

So what is going right?  The compassion and resilience of these remarkable Haitian people.  You can’t help but admire their strength. By far the most positive thing that we see is an openness, warmth, and a desire to connect. People want to talk with me, to tell their story, to hold my hand, to have a few words. There is much appreciation by locals for the help from people around the world.

Spontaneous Settlement in Villambetta

And children are playing in the camps; making kites out of plastic sheeting, toy trucks out of trash, playing soccer barefoot amidst the rocks and debris of an abandoned field.

In Piste Camp a man sells phone charging time, powered off of a generator.

Spontaneous Settlement in Villambetta, a girl takes a quiet moment to read. The schools are all closed, some physically collapsed in the quake killing hundreds of children.

February 28, 2010 at 4:59 am 2 comments

Radical bland: unfolding the New Topographics

My first encounter with the New Topographics did not go well. I was 20, and in college, and stumbled into the Robert Adams show at the Yale University Museum of Art in 2002 when I was there to attend a lecture.

Robert Adams, Pike's Peak Park, Colorado Springs, 1970

I wandered up and down the walls of what seemed like endless, terrifyingly boring black and white images of ugly houses, cul-de-sacs, clear-cutting, and mines. I could not figure out what these pictures were really about, or why anyone would want to look at them. When I looked at them, I just felt depressed.

Robert Adams, untitled, Denver, 1970-74

Ah HA, I now want to say. Hey, Eliza, that WAS the point! That’s what makes them so interesting and disarming and beautiful. We are building a boring world for ourselves. Which, when you realize it, is searingly painful to witness and be a part of. Eliza, Eliza, wake up!

Robert Adams

But Eliza, junior-in-college, is utterly impervious to my shouts. It was not until a few years later, when I found myself in Arizona, a whole new part of the American West than I had previously experienced, that I began to really feel what those pictures are talking about.

It helped that I met and studied with Bill Jenkins, the curator responsible for the New Topographics exhibition in 1975, and Mark Klett, one of the foremost landscape photographers working in the U.S. Their personal experiences and their view of life in the Sonoran Desert, fast disappearing beneath box stores and condo complexes, reshaped my connection to landscape photography, particularly photographs of the western U.S.

Robert Adams

And now, when I think about the New Topographics, I think about that group of artists as some of the most serious, purposeful social change photographers that I know about.

One of the things that interests me about them is that they use images in a different way than I might have expected. They use images to create social change by helping their viewers understand what society is, in the first place. They aren’t showing just what’s wrong with it, or what it would look like if things were better—they are showing me what my own culture is. They are telling me stories about myself.

I love that! To me, that is so often what makes a great work of art—the ability of the artist to articulate how I feel, or how life feels, in a way that I’ve never been able to.

And social change is such an ambiguous phrase, and such a nuanced and many-layered process—what a great idea it is to start change by understanding where you are (in space, in time, in community-building) in the first place.

A new show reproducing the original selection of artists, with a few additions, opens this week at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Arizona, with an artist’s talk at the opening reception, given by Bill Jenkins, Joe Deal and Frank Gohlke. There is also a catalogue available, which I just bought. Details below, taken from the CCP website.

Longmont, Colorado, about 1982

New Topographics, February 19 – May 16, 2010
The exhibition New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-altered Landscape, held in 1975 at George Eastman House, signaled the emergence of a new approach to landscape photography. A new version of this seminal exhibition re-examines more than 100 works from the 1975 show, as well as some 30 prints and books by other relevant artists to provide additional historical and contemporary context. This reconsideration demonstrates both the historical significance of these pictures and their continued relevance today.

Opening Reception and Artists’ Talk, Friday, February 19, Reception at 5 p.m., Discussion at 6 p.m.
Join Bill Jenkins, the curator of the original 1975 presentation of New Topographics and exhibiting artists Joe Deal and Frank Gohlke as they discuss the origins and impact of that seminal project. Moderated by Britt Salvesen, Department Head and Curator of the Wallis Annenberg Department of Photography, and the Department Head and Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

February 19, 2010 at 11:29 am Leave a comment

Image as oppressor

What if you had never seen a picture of yourself before? What if you had only seen pictures of yourself that someone you barely knew had taken? As someone who has photographed and been photographed all her life, it is difficult to imagine. But, in that situation, what kind of power does a photograph (and therefore, a photographer) have?

Continue Reading February 11, 2010 at 4:18 am 1 comment

Incarcerated: from Guantánamo to Cape Town to San Quentin, what do we see when we look behind bars?

When we vilify people, there are negative repercussions. Making terrorists look like “terrorists” does not help us understand their motives or perspective. It does not help us find peace. It fuels war.

We are fueling our own wars, not just with money or weapons or soldiers, but with images that do not promote understanding or compassion.

A week or two ago, NPR’s On the Media did a story about a series of images that the International Committee of the Red Cross made of the prisoners at Guantánamo Bay detention camp. The ICRC made pictures of the prisoners to send to their families, and allowed each prisoner to choose which particular image would be sent. Naturally, the images the prisoners collaborated in making are very different from the images we’ve seen of them in the news.

What shocked me is that the reporters (Bob Garfield of On the Media, and Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald, who broke the story) seem mystified at the power these images have. How can reporters be so unaware of how images work?

And I also wonder, in terms of mapping tangible social change made by images, would Guantánamo be closed now if more people had seen images like these? Is it open specifically because we haven’t seen these images before?

Images can have a hugely negative, divisive impact. They are powerful. And understanding that power, and controlling it, is extremely important. Photographs can create positive social change, but they can also create extremely negative actions, perceptions and social structures. Think of the most famous propaganda film of World War II, Leni Reifenstahl’s Triumph of Will.

Photographs can not represent “the truth” because both photographs, and the truth, are moving targets, built from human perception that is diverse and ever changing. Photographs change depending on the equipment you use, the context in which they are shown, the way they are made, the way they are printed, the mood of the person who sees them. They are unfixed. So why do we cling to the idea that they are either “true” or “untrue,” journalism or art, real or fake, posed or unposed?

Prison photographs are a great way to explore this issue, because they force us to confront some of our most basic assumptions about other people.

Take the artist Mikhael Subotzky. He grew up in Cape Town, and has made astonishingly beautiful and provocative images of prisons, prisoners and ex-prisoners in South Africa. The people he photographs are both assailants and victims. They have murdered, pillaged and raped, but they have also been subjugated, humiliated, discriminated against, overlooked, and physically harmed by individuals, institutions and social systems.

Human conflict, whether it’s one nation against another or one man against another, is complex. And Subotzky’s images acknowledge and explore that complexity. They embrace it.

Because Subotzky’s images ackowledge the complexity of these prisoners’ lives, he does not vilify them. He gives them dignity. He asks provocative questions about human society, rather than pointing a finger at an individual.

It is no different to look at the prisoners of Guantanamo and see fathers, brothers, friends and lovers in them. No person is simply a villain. As much as we love that idea.

Human beings like simplicity. We want to understand ourselves and our surroundings. We want control. All of our biggest and best fantasies are simplistic—good vs. evil. Think of The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and now Avatar. (I hate Avatar.) All those villains are Pure Evil. Easy to hate. And they never have families.

But the “villains” in South Africa’s prisons, and in Subotzky’s photographs, do have families. They do have relationships. They are part of communities. And their lives are complicated and real. When we look through his eyes, we don’t see villains at all. We see incarcerated men.

Similarly, Peter Merts does a wonderful job of documenting prisoners in a prison-based arts program at San Quentin State Prison in California. His images do not have the sweeping intensity of Subotzky’s, but his aim is different to begin with. Rather than documenting the way a society treats its prisoners, Merts is documenting the way a small nonprofit program functions. His scope is modest, but he also treats his subjects with dignity and tenderness.

His approach also sounds very similar to Subotzky’s. I had the pleasure of meeting him last week at the PhotoPhilanthropy Activist Awards celebration, and the way he described going to visit the Prison Arts Project sounded very much like the long term nature of Subotzky’s projects.

And that is a component of social change photography that I think many people underestimate. It takes time, and the relationships you build while working with people are as important as the images you make. I read a simply stunning piece by Charles Schultz for Vewd magazine, and he expressed this idea so well. Talking about Subotzky, he wrote:

There is no way of getting around skin colors in a society where segregation remains a predominant aspect of everything from city planning to daily social interaction. In such a racially charged, environment I would think it takes a tremendous amount of courage and compassion for an affluent white male to step outside of his social strata and willfully engage and make genuine connections with imprisoned black men. And to do so over and over again displays a level of commitment and integrity that underlies all great social change.

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.

The fact that Schultz recognizes that, and articulates it so well, lifts me up. That process of integrating image-making with relationships, with community building, with breaking down the barriers we have built between ourselves as people—that process feels so right to me. And I think that we need to be looking at “our enemies,” whomever they may be, in a way that maintains their humanity.

February 5, 2010 at 1:33 am 6 comments

Josh Schachter, Tucson’s superhero of community-based art

“To me, great images that are going to create change have a sense of emotion and question our most basic assumptions about the world.”

This is Josh Schachter talking; a community-based artist living in Tucson, Arizona.

Community-based photography, which gained international attention thanks to Zana Briski and the 2004 Academy-Award-winning documentary film Born into Brothels, is when artists lead a community through a process of making and exhibiting art.

“When I was doing my graduate work in Forestry and Environmental Management, I wasn’t that focused on photography,” says Schachter. “And I guess as I started doing urban forestry in New Haven, I realized I didn’t really know what was going on in my own city…

“And so I started really wanting to find out how community members perceived their own community and their own environment, vs. how I would tell the story of their neighborhoods and their communities if I was hired as a documentary photographer.”

So four years ago Schachter began to build the Finding Voice Project, which merges a photography curriculum with a more traditional after-school ESL program for refugee and immigrant teenagers.

Instead of advocating for his students by documenting them directly, Schacter teaches his students how to advocate for themselves, first by creating a story and then by distributing that story to the relevant audiences.

“Great images, that aren’t effectively distributed, don’t create a lot of social change,” he says.

But there are some meaty ethical conundrums inherent in this kind of work. One is how to achieve the appropriate balance between your voice as the artist, and the voices of the community you’re working with. “My own aesthetic preferences do come through in their work. Whether I want them to or not,” says Schachter of his students. “So I think it really has to be seen as a collaboration.”

Another issue is the sustainability of each project. Are the skills you are teaching relevant to that community? Will the opportunities you create in a place continue after you leave? “Another big challenge is thinking about how to match the technology with the community’s needs and capacity. So I also often question whether digital photography is the right tool, in a community with no power?!”

Josh laughs as he says that, because it seems so obviously silly. But of course, workshops in rural areas—off the grid—use digital media all the time, and the reasons for it are complex. Sometimes there are generators. Used digital cameras are cheap, abundant, and what donors and workshop facilitators are familiar with. And it’s not that it’s wrong to use them…it’s just that it isn’t automatically right.

“Sometimes people say that most of photography is just being there,” says Schachter. “And I think if you’ve lived you’re whole life in a place, you know where to be. And I think that in itself influences the nature of the images that the communities produce.”

All of the previous images have been made by Josh’s students. Below is one of his own.

And a quick shout out: Andy Levin of 100Eyes is leading a community based workshop in Haiti and needs cameras. It was scheduled prior to the earthquake, and they are proceeding as planned. If you have any cameras you could donate, please email him: levin.pix AT gmail.com

January 21, 2010 at 9:52 am Leave a comment

Avatar: a picture of the noble (sparkly) savage

Last night I went to see Avatar. The Imax screen at the Melbourne Museum is 7 stories tall, 32 meters wide, and featured a prim voice asking us to move to the middle to fill every available seat.

And no wonder. At yesterday’s count from boxofficemojo.com, Avatar had $1,063,151,759 in box office sales. As you’ve no doubt heard, it’s broken the $1 billion mark faster than any other film. Michael Carmichael of the Huffington Post called it “political dynamite” and “powerful art.” Clearly, James Cameron knows his audience.

And doesn’t.

I feel pretty weird about watching a movie that so blatantly returns to an unambiguous portrayal of a perfect, “untouched” indigenous society, dramatically saved from ruin by an outsider (who is, as usual, a white boy). My friend Thom Loubet said it well: “I mean, I feel like a cranky old man complaining about this, because it really is a fun movie, but in 2010, do we still need the perfectly innocent/noble/pure (clueless) native in our fictional narratives?! Give me ‘Smoke Signals’ any day.”

In that clip from Smoke Signals, the story Thomas Builds-the-Fire recounts is from Sherman Alexie’s first book of short stories, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, which is just an awesome book and I hope you buy one right this second and read it.

It’s not that we shouldn’t be interested in other cultures. It’s not that we shouldn’t fantasize about living in harmony with the earth (or Pandora) or building a better society. It’s just that I don’t like being told to idealize a lot of creatures that look like blue, sparkly Masai people who move through life to a soundtrack of Peruvian panpipes.

Because idealizing something is actually not the same as respecting it.

If I respect another culture, I acknowledge both how similar and how different I am to the people living within that other culture. I acknowledge that they have the same emotional range, mental capabilities, desires and potential for being annoying that I have. Idealizing someone sets them apart from you in a way that is false, just as dismissing someone also creates a false division.

And that’s why Sherman Alexie’s work is so fantastic. It is never false. It rings true, and you know it from the first line of the introduction to The Lone Ranger and Tonto. And if anyone is going to save the characters in Alexie’s fiction, it is not going to be some white person who has been to a fancy college, or has been a marine, or who photographs Victor’s father at a protest and wins a Pulitzer Prize.* (See excerpt in comment below)

It’s not the documentation of an issue that solves the issue, it’s the discussion that documentation creates. It’s the feeling a picture inspires; the connections and relationships it engenders; the kinds of audiences it reaches–that’s how a picture creates social change. And, as a photographer, you have some control over the kind of conversation you begin. For example, these two images by Richard Misrach and Edward Burtynsky raise serious cultural and environmental questions, but they start a nuanced conversation.

Richard Misrach

Edward Burtynsky

Avatar, even though it’s in gorgeous 3D, starts a one dimensional conversation. And yeah, I guess it isn’t really documentary work–those hammerhead-elephants aren’t quite that big in real life–but it does have an overt social-change message.

So anyway. It was a fun romp. But I wish it had been more thoughtful. And perhaps contained a single humorous moment. And I agree with Thom. He also said, “The art direction looks like an 11-year-old’s Trapper-Keeper–everything highlighted in purple neon.” My dad was reminded of Fern Gully.

January 6, 2010 at 7:22 am 36 comments

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"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

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