Susan Sontag wrote that “in deciding the appearance of a photo, in preferring one exposure over another, photographers always set standards on their subjects.” Since photography has existed, the morals and merits of the medium have been debated. Many photographers in the field of documentary or “street” photography have been accused of exploiting their subjects, objectifying them or exotifying them to be consumed by spectators eager for a glimpse of another life. In response to this critique of the assertive authority of the photographic gaze, photographers of the past half-century have developed projects and programs to involve their subjects in the creative process and allow them to present their world through their own eyes. The scope, intent and success of these projects vary considerably and considerably. While some photographers believe the medium has particular social and political power, others aim simply to gain new perspectives, outsourcing the task of seeing and hopefully understanding the world better.
Take photographer Wendy Ewald. As early as 1969, she immersed herself in new environments, from Appalachia to South Africa to Mexico, and taught the children she met to use cameras to reflect their dreams, fears and everyday realities. As Andrea K. Scott writes in The New Yorker, Ewald worked this way “twenty years before the term“ socially engaged art ”entered the lexicon. The artist’s educational work with the children of the Appalachians resulted in haunting images accompanied by personal narratives that revealed a perspective never before seen in art. In an interview with PDN, Ewald said, “I believe that as an artist, I can achieve something through collaboration that I could not get otherwise. And I’m always looking for new ways of seeing.
Over the past decades, versions of this project – what is often called participatory photography – have multiplied. They take many forms and serve many different purposes, including providing educational opportunities, involving the public, raising awareness in society, creating more interesting art, or attempting to get closer to a person’s subjective reality. Can these projects counter the pitfalls of photography as a medium of exploitation or voyeurism? Well done, yes. But the temptation to over-promise the impact of this kind of work is great, especially when it comes to artists outside the communities with which they work.
In many cases, as in Ewald’s work, the subjects who became photographers were children from poor or difficult backgrounds. The appeal of teaching photography to young children is undeniable – it’s an accessible and straightforward way to show them that how they see the world matters and that their choices about what to include or exclude is the making. art. The images produced by children offer a unique access to a vision of their interior and exterior life, unfiltered by the gaze of the adult.
In these projects, we see that the framing of an image is just as crucial, if not more, than the image itself. Beyond the author’s power of the one who takes the image, the curatorial power determines the way in which these photographs and projects are presented in the world and received by the public. In a New York Times article, Teju Cole quotes Susie Linfield: “We viewers have to look outside the box to understand the complex realities out of which these photographs were born.
To take Born in brothels, a widely acclaimed documentary film that followed photojournalist Zana Briski as she taught children in Calcutta, India, to capture their surroundings. While the moving story was not without success and charm, projects like this have the potential to further reinforce the myth that an individual savior can rush in and solve huge, systematic problems. An answer in The online telegraph of a sex worker from Calcutta called Born in brothels a “one-sided portrayal of the life of sex workers in Sonagachi.” It shows sex workers as indifferent to the future of their children. This is not true […] We fear the worldwide recognition of such a film […] can do great harm to the global movement of sex workers for their rights and dignity. This objection seems to have more to do with the artist’s framing of the documentary than the nature of the project or the photographs of the children themselves.
Through positive eyes addresses the issue of framing by accompanying and contextualizing the images with written and personal stories. The global project created by photographer Gideon Mendel in partnership with UCLA Art and Global Health Center showcases moving and mundane images of and by people living with HIV / AIDS around the world. Mendel has spent 20 years documenting people affected by HIV / AIDS in a more traditional subject-photographer role, and has been criticized, according to The New Yorker, to present[ing] his subjects as helpless and nameless people on their way to death. With Through positive eyes, Mendel explained that “the time has come to change the power relations and hand the camera over to people living with HIV, so that they can take their own photographs and tell their own stories.”
This type of participatory photographic project acts as a message of public and social interest. While the images are sometimes well composed or technically skillful, the ultimate goal is to reduce the stigma surrounding the disease and give people a chance to tell their own stories. “People I know have not gone for AIDS. AIDS appeared in their lives, ”wrote Aninha from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. “I have heard of people who were killed because they had AIDS, because they were gay. We cannot continue in a world like this. Her photographs include an image of lacy white underwear on a faded floral rug, small figurines accompanied by a red AIDS ribbon, a sandwich sliced diagonally on a plate, two razors stacked as in an intimate embrace, and a orange whole view, then sliced, then flared open.
Photographer JR has done large-scale public projects, pasting billboard-sized portraits onto buildings and other outdoor public spaces. For his Upside down project, which is billed as the ‘world’s largest participatory art project’, it aimed to withdraw from the artistic process by creating a format and providing tools for others, but without photographing or pasting the work himself. People and communities are invited to take selfies, which are printed in black and white and designed to be displayed in public spaces, in theory drawing attention to subjects or people otherwise ignored. Since its launch in 2011, more than 400,000 people have taken part in the project around the world.
JR’s collaborative film Faces Places, produced with director Agnès Varda, highlights its Inside Out Photobooth trucks, a mobile way to reach more people in the streets and through the French countryside. Each participant enters to be photographed. The photo is then printed on a large scale and pasted in a nearby area. There is not a single acting artist; the “photographer” is the photo booth (although all of the work is still largely attributed to JR). Together, these portraits create a visual community that celebrates the daily lives of a wide range of people on a large scale. While the premise looks whimsical and easy, it’s still refreshing to see public space reclaimed for the public, rather than advertisers and celebrities.
A recent effort by the Brooklyn Nonprofit Nonprofit Studios also shows continued interest in photography as a collaborative exercise with its project, FREE MOVIE: United States. It includes an Airstream trailer with a dark room and the ambition to visualize a nation divided. Between August and December 2019, the Valueless Studios team distributed a free roll of 35mm film to photographers across the country with the “red, white and blue” prompt. 990 rolls of film were returned in the trailer for free development and scanning. The noble goal, as stated on The Studios’ worthless website, was to “democratize[e] documenting our ever-changing realities. By disseminating the documentation process, they were able to cover a wider range of experience, thus turning the solitary act of looking into a collective experience. The impact of the project comes from the conservation choices of the team, who selected from more than 35,000 images to compile their photo book, placing children with toy guns in Salt Lake City next to those with guns. toys in Minneapolis, individuals masked by their Philadelphia newspapers. and San Francisco. An ice cream truck flying a worn American flag in Detroit contrasts with a Confederate flag displayed in Birmingham. We see breakfast plates, basketball and cars, demonstrations and police. In LA, a children’s drawing of palm trees parallels a landscape of palm trees in San Diego.
In the United States today, almost everyone walks around with a camera in their pocket. Our lives are relentlessly recorded and film photography is expensive, clunky and slow. It’s hard to imagine setting up and operating a darkroom in the back of a pickup truck to be the most convenient way to collect artist footage. But it is the concept of the project, its laborious technical process and its ambitious scope that are attractive. Regarding the medium of photography, Ewald told PDN: “I think the analog process gave the kids real focus and it slowed them down – and so did I. Today, the switch to analog reflects a trend towards nostalgic formats, a desire for something tangible in an otherwise disembodied digital world. Maybe we want a collective that is not just online, a story that brings together the fractured pieces between the two covers of a book, or stuck to the sides of our buildings, hope that something can unify us, even though we all have in common is our own subjectivity.
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