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Social Justice and Environmental Justice Intersect
Any links between mass incarceration and environmental abuse might not be immediately obvious. But they exist and the Prison Legal News, the Human Rights Defense Center and Nation Inside are combining resources to talk to this unlikely but potent and dangerous intersection of issues.
The Prison Ecology Project is creating tools to dismantle toxic prisons.
Ask people in Appalachia who have watched prisons such as FCI McDowell built on exhausted mountain-top removal mining sites. Ask folks out west who’ve watched prisons plonked down upon fragile desert ecosystems. Ask those in the rust belt, who’ve seen prisons brought to town for the sake of jobs after heavy industry and mineral extraction have left town. When one would think regions couldn’t be stripped and abused anymore, the rape of communities follows that of the environment. In Pennsylvania, a prison built on a toxic coal ash dump is crippling those locked up inside.
Prisons, historically, have gone up where desperation for employment has meant little-to-no oversight, public discussion or even opposition. No one forecast problems because they didn’t want to imagine them; prisons provided an answer to your uncle Frank’s four years of unemployment.
“The prison industry has a long history of ecological violence. Rikers Island prison in New York City was literally built on a trash heap, and evidence suggests a high incidence of cancer among guards and prisoners,” writes the HRDC. “In California and Texas prisoners have little recourse but to drink arsenic-laced water. In Alabama, an overpopulated prison habitually dumps sewage into a river where people fish and swim. In Kentucky, construction of a new prison is poised to clear 700 acres of endangered species habitat. Stories like these are too common. The issues impact millions of people in and around prisons across the US but are largely ignored.”
GIVE ‘EM YOUR MONEY
The Prison Ecology Project is raising $15,000 on IndieGogo to boost its capacity to research and analyse data. They are uncovering abuses and amassing a clearinghouse of information on over 5,000 prisons nationwide which we can all use to fight poisonous prisons!
HRDC’s work in this chronically understudied area will “keep pressure on an industry notorious for its lack of transparency.”
They’ve got the chops. HRDC is the publisher of Prison Legal News which has exposed environmental problems and covered stories of whistleblower litigation in prisons for over 20 years.
The first target of HRDC is a federal prison planned for Letcher County, Kentucky. Its construction would demolish 700 acres of endangered species habitat in Appalachia while imprisoning people hundreds of miles from their families.
WHY THE WORK?
“Incarcerated people are some of the most vulnerable and uniquely over-burdened demographics in our nation,” explains HRDC. “Almost all of the prison population is low-income, and people of color are disproportionately represented by wide margins in every state. Most people whose lives have been impacted by the criminal justice system have not engaged with the environmental movement up to the present time.”
The Prison Ecology Project changes that dynamic.
Operating prisons stresses the environment. Recognising that provides yet another reason to fight the toxic philosophical underpinnings and racism of a broken and out of control system. Decarceration is good for your lungs!
It’s not so much as convincing players in one political action to adopt another, as it is exercising closer bonds between movements of the left that operate in opposition counter to the abuse and social exclusion of lower income groups. It’s about recognising new allies and being collectively stronger. I love this type of imagination.
IN THE PRESS
- Federal Agencies Ignore Environmental Health Risks for Millions of Prisoners, by Mike Ludwig, Truthout, July 2015
- Ninety-Three Organizations Challenge EPA to Consider Prisoners in Environmental Justice Plan, by HRDC, Nation Inside
- In the Face of Drought, California Prisons Are Restricting Inmates’ Shower and Toilet Use, by Jessica Pishko Vice, July 2015
- Proposed Letcher County federal Prison brings opposition by Ryan Adams, WYMT, March 2015
- New Federal Prison Proposed on MTR Coal Mine Site in Eastern Kentucky by Nick Szuberla, Earth First Newswire, March 2015
- Panel Explores Prisons, Ecology And Police by Camilla Mortensen, Eugene Weekly, March 2015
Verint Israel and NICE System Monitoring Center, Astana, Kazakhstan 2014.
Much of my weekend was spent putting a final editing-touches on the latest Vantage article Panopticon For Sale. The piece, details trade between authoritarian regimes (such as Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Bahrain and others) and corporations that manufacture and maintain cyber-surveillance.
The author, Mari Bastashevski, spent 12 months researching this shady industry — trailing paper work, filing FOIA requests, interviewing and protecting sources, and corroborating statements. Many previously unreported (but commonly suspected) business relations uncovered by Bastashevski have been confirmed by information included in the July 5th hack of Hacking Team (a company that manufactures surveillance technologies) when the identities of its clients were posted online.
As Bastashevski writes in her closing statements:
Companies like NICE, Gamma Group, Verint, and Hacking Team, who sell this power to governments for which “watched a YouTube protests video” constitutes criminal behaviour become co-arbiters of what is and isn’t a “wrong act”. Yet for the companies, much like for their clients, their own secrecy remains absolute and proprietary: not something for press consumption, researchers, or advocates.
Private corporations are facilitating the unfettered surveillance of citizens by paranoid rulers.
NICE Systems HQ, Ra’anana, Israel 2014.
The comparatively unregulated republics in the post-Soviet region are proving grounds for the shit that the power hungry can get away with.
I’ll stop yelling now, encourage you to read Bastashevski’s #longread, and leave you with an my editor’s foreword to further convince you to take in Bastashevki’s text and images.
This is a narrative built upon information that’s incredibly difficult to verify. Outside of the community of privacy advocates and cyber-surveillance researchers, no-one really saw this story, or necessarily knew what it was or why it mattered. That’s because everything that Bastashevski was looking at — or looking for — is invisible, confidential or both.
When Hacking Team was itself hacked, Bastashevski felt vindicated. Not only did the hack confirm the presence of Hacking Team in countries she investigated, it also confirmed the presence of other companies she knew were providing surveillance to those countries. The lies and questionable dealings of a catastrophic industry were laid bare.
“To photograph or to look at what exists on the verge of catastrophe,” critic Ariella Azoulay once wrote, “the photographer must first assume she has a reason to be in the place of the nonevent or event that never was, which no one has designated as the arena of an event in any meaningful way. She, or those who dispatch her, must suspend the concerns of the owners of the mass media regarding the ratings of the finished product and with her camera begin to sketch a new outline capable of framing the nonevent. Photographing what exists the verge of catastrophe thus is an act that suspends the logic of newsworthiness.”
By virtue of hackers’ actions, and not the logic of the news industry, I find myself in a position to publish Bastashevski’s remarkable findings. A condensed version of this work was exhibited at Musee de Elysee and published in the Prix Elysee catalogue (Musee de Elysee, December 2014). It has since been expanded to include a review of targets and surveillance in Azerbaijan, and cross references of the recent evidence obtained through Hacking Team leak.
This is not a photo essay but rather an essay with photos. Bastashevki makes photographs, in many ways, to show her stories cannot be photographed. These images are way-markers along roads of discovery.
Read the full piece Panopticon For Sale and see more large images.
Ministry of Communication Tashkent, Uzbekistan, 2014.
SNB lunch spot, secure Gazalkent district, Tashkent Uzbekistan. 2014.
Monitoring centre (roof) -Tashkent, Uzbekistan. 2014. Location where data obtained with Hacking Team, Nice Systems, and Verint Technologies is analysed and processed.
PU-data collection point Kazakhtelecom-Almaty, Kazakhstan, 2014.
Presidential Palace and MNS HQ, Baku, Azerbaijan 2013.
Inside Verint Israel HQ, Herzliya Pituach, Israel 2014.
Transaction — Dedeman Silk Road Radisson Blu, Tashkent ,Uzbekistan. 2014.
All images: Mari Bastashevski
Photo collectives are to be admired.
More about network than net worth; more about camaraderie than competition; and more about group-strength than groupthink, I reckon collectives are the best. Being in one doesn’t guarantee an endless flow of fat-paying assignments, but it does guarantee a endless suuply of expertise, friends and feedback. If was a photographer I’d totally be in one.
Imagine my double-bliss when Boreal Collective invited me to the Boreal Bash which is itself is all about collectives.
Two pictures of Boreal Bash 2014.
BOREAL BASH 2015
The 2015 Boreal Bash is in Toronto from August 14-16th. What is it? It’s portfolio reviews, presentations by guest speakers, an exhibition, a thought experiment, and an important workshop. It is “a place where photographers can come together, learn from each other, drink and be merry,” they say.
And, if you can get yourself there, it is FREE.
Photo collectives MJR, Prime and Dysturb will be there.
DOLLARS, CANADIAN DOLLARS
Here’s the thing though, Boreal needs to cover overheads. I donated a sketch but that Kickstarter incentive was already snagged, so I can’t tempt you with that. Head over to the Boreal Bash Kickstarter page and let them convince you. Below are a bunch of prints, postcards and newspapers to get you revved up.
Sled dog eats moose leg. 12×8″ Rafal Gerszak. Yukon, Canada. 2015
New to this bash is the workshop. For this, Boreal Collective’s first ever documentary photography workshop THE ART OF BEING AN INDEPENDENT STORYTELLER you get two days (Fri Aug 14th – Sat Aug 15th) of intensive workshopping. They’re going to let you in on the secrets to make it as an independent photographer. They want you to have a project in progress — something for y’all to get your chops into. If I was a photographer, I’d totally be signing up.
The workshop ain’t free. But it can be. If you’re young and hungry and have the time to submit your work, there’s a scholarship spot up for grabs. I’ve got word from the inside that submissions have been slow (blame LOOK3) so statistically, your chances are good. Get on it. You’re one email from hobnobbing/editing with very talented photographers. One email from certain fame and glory.
Boreal are “united by a desire to document humanity and its intricate realities in our rapidly evolving world. […] At a time when the photographic industry is being dismantled, Boreal seeks to rise to the challenge of taking an active role in its redefinition.”
They are Laurence Butet-Roch, Aaron Vincent Elkaim, Rafal Gerszak, Brett Gundlock, Johan Hallberg-Campbell, Matt Lutton, Eamon Mac Mahon, Mauricio Palos, Jonathan Taggart and Ian Willms.
Could be yours:
Ian Wilms. Scarecrow Family, Poland (2012) From the series Why We Walk Framed, 12×18 Giclée Print on Fine Art Baryta Paper, mounted on archival foam. Edition 1/12.
A Boreal 4×6″ postcard
Sleeping vigilante fighter. Brett Gundlock. 2013. 8×8″ Digital C-Print.
Amusement park in Prishtina, Kosovo. Matt Lutton. 2008. 11×14″ Digital C-Print.
Christmas Tree, Alligator. Mississippi. Brandon Thibodeaux. 2012 – 6×6 Gelatin Silver Selenium Toned Print ed. 20
Niviaqsi and net ball, Iqalugaaqjuk, Nunavut. Jonathan Taggart. 2013. 8×12″ Digital C-Print.
Berkut in Mariinskiy. Kyiv, Ukraine. Brendan Hoffman. 2014. 11×14″ Edition: 1 of 10
Hunter at Caddo Lake, Texas. Lance Rosenfield. 2014. 8″x8″ Digital C-print
Boreal SUBJECT(ive) newsprint. 12 pages full colour.
Métis Hunter at Big Point, Fort Chipewyan, Alberta (2010). Ian Willms. 8×12 Chromogenic Print.
Boreal TENSION newsprint. 12 pages full colour.
View of the open air pit from the lookout. Thetford Mines, Quebec. Laurence Butet-Roch. 2009. 11×14″. Archival pigment print.
My latest for Vantage:
When Stockton filed for bankruptcy in 2012, it was the largest city in US history to do so. Kirk Crippens has spent the past three years photographing its residents.
It seems unlikely Kirk Crippens’ portraits are really going to affect the lives of the residents of Stockton, California. It is their portraits that make up his series Bank Rupture. Rather, it will be food banks, loan relief, and Stockton’s fiscal restructuring that will deliver much more direct — negative and positive — effects.
Grand statements and big claims aren’t Crippens’ style. Modest and curious, Crippens uses image-making to investigate and connect with the world. He photographs to establish relationships beyond his immediate working and daily experience. It might sound trite, but Crippens employs photography to show he cares. Having interviewed Crippens numerous times I’m confident in the claim.
“I served as witness. I immersed myself for a time and took some photographs along the way,” says Crippens.
Read the full piece and see a larger selection of images larger.
There are very few organizations like AS220 Youth.
Sure, there’s lots of teen-focused arts organizations across the country but few have achieved the long-lasting and diverse roster of programming and results that AS220 boasts. AS220, similarly to many orgs use arts to connect and empower youth. Very few organizations, however, go into juvenile prisons to deliver photography education. AS220 does.
Very few organisations go into juvenile lock-ups to begin programming in order that they may continue it upon release of the teen with whom they work . AS220 does.
Such continuum is practical AND hopeful. It says ‘We are with you, wherever you are. We share your goal to live free once more.’
AS220 Youth, based in Providence, Rhode Island, gave me the warmest welcome a few years ago. They opened the door so that I could do a workshop with their incarcerated students. I gave a public lecture on my developing ideas about prison imagery. I interviewed the staff and helped students with portfolio reviews. My eyes were open to what a community can be.
Not only did the people stay in my thoughts, the work did too. In late 2013, I included light-paintings made by youth incarcerated at the Rhode Island Training School in Seen But Not Heard (Belgrade, Serbia) a photography exhibition about U.S. juvenile detention. If AS220 Youth did not exist we wouldn’t see these views of the world created by kids who are locked up.
I’ve written about AS220’s youth programs before. I have noted how rare it is that photo programs are inside juvenile detention facilities. AS220 is doing things no-one else can do, or have the imagination to do. You’ve no reason not to help them out.
For the first time in AS220 Youth’s 15-year history, it is conducting a individual giving campaign. They’ve turned to IndieGoGo to push alternative revenue streams having seen public money dry up. AS220 Youth has about half the staff this time last year, and yet it is serving more students than this time last year.
“Since I have been working at AS220 Youth,” says Youth Photography Coordinator, Scott Lapham, “five of my students have been accepted and have gone to or are going to RISD, one to Hampshire, one to the School of Visual Arts, one to Savannah College of Art and Design and one to Mass Art. All of these students are from poor/poverty backgrounds and all but one are students of color. While I couldn’t be prouder of those stats an equally ambitious and important accomplishment is working with students from what we have termed Post Risk backgrounds to achieve emotional and economic stability as adults.”
Bravo to Lapham, his colleagues and the AS220 students.
MONEY, MOVIES, PHOTOS
Help them continue their valuable work: visit the AS220 Youth Futureworlds IndieGoGo page.
Above is a video about a public art project AS220 Youth made. Throughout this post are images made by youth incarcerated at the Rhode Island Training School.
Photo: Meghann Riepenhoff
I’m one of five jurors for this years annual juried show at SF Camerawork. Y’all should enter. Here’s the blurb …
CALL FOR ENTRIES: HEAT
HEAT registers the volatility and restlessness that comes with long hot summers: violent crime rates increase, leases expire and people seek new homes, global weather changes signal an alarm, and warm summer days bring adults and children alike into the streets, parks, and beaches.
SF Camerawork invites artists to submit work that responds to HEAT: the social, political, and climatic conditions of rapidly changing environments. Following the lead of social and political advocates around the world, SF Camerawork asks artists working at all levels in photography to participate.
Art is politics. Particularly in the realistic forms of photography and filmmaking, what gets assigned, shown or sold reflects political considerations. […] Politics is in the air. All you need to do to get the message is breathe. – Danny Lyon.
Photo: David Butow
Deadline: Monday, June 15, 2015, 5pm PST.
Notification: Finalists will be contacted on July 1st.
Exhibition Dates: July 23 – August 22, 2015.
Opening Reception: Thursday, July 23, 6-8pm.
Application Fee: $50 application fee for up to 15 images.
ENTER NOW ON LENSCULTURE AND CREATE AN ACCOUNT TO UPLOAD YOUR APPLICATION
EXHIBITION AT SF CAMERAWORK: 2-5 finalists will have a 4-week exhibition at SF Camerawork.
LIVE ONLINE REVIEW SESSION: Finalists will receive a one-on-one review with a juror through this innovative platform hosted by LensCulture.
20 JUROR SELECTIONS FEATURED: 20 juror selections will be exhibited on interactive screens at SF Camerawork as part of the exhibition.
FEATURE ARTICLE ON LENSCULTURE: Finalists will be featured in an article on LensCulture.
ONE YEAR MEMBERSHIP: All entrants will receive a one-year membership to SF Camerawork.
HEAT 2015 JURY
Pete Brook, Writer and Curator, Founder: Prison Photography
Jim Casper, Editor and Publisher, LensCulture
Seth Curcio, Associate Director, Pier 24 Photography
Janet Delaney, Artist and Educator
Heather Snider, Executive Director, SF Camerawork
Please email info@sfcamerawork with “Call for Entries” in the subject line.
Founded in 1974, SF Camerawork‘s mission is to encourage and support emerging artists to explore new directions and ideas in the photographic arts. Through exhibitions, publications, and educational programs, we strive to create an engaging platform for artistic exploration as well as community involvement and inquiry.
SF Camerawork is a membership-based organization.
1011 Market St., 2nd Floor
San Francisco, CA 94103
Gallery hours: 12:00 – 6:00 pm
Tuesday – Saturday (also by appointment)
Photo: McNair Evans
My piece For These Post-Soviet Nations, Big Oil Offers Hope and Fear
about Mila Teshaieva’s Promising Waters pubbed on WIRED this week.
Promising Waters documents changes Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan or Azerbaijan — three countries that touch the Caspian Sea and were for 70 years part of the Soviet Union.
“They are going through total reinvention—the new world, new society, and new futures pushed to rise with the help with oil and gas resources from the Caspian Sea,” says Teshaieva. “This idea of ‘new’ gives particular promises to people.”
Read the full piece and see more here.
GIVING POWER TO THE PEOPLE
Sol Aramendi is an absolute force. Community smarts, a big heart and bloody hardwork makes her THE instigator for photography and inquiry among the immigrants living in New York city. Project Luz, an organization she founded, delivers photography workshops. Most are conducted with residents of Queens — the most ethnically diverse urban area in the world.
The workshops function as cultural orientation and serve to empower immigrants who might be hesitant to explore beyond their new neighborhoods. Aramendi helps them out of their shell, onto the subway and into the boroughs. Photography is an excuse to engage with the world.
Aramendi’s moved toward teaching photography workshops after taking inspiring courses herself with Sergio Larrain (2004) and Adriana Lestido in Argentina. Aramendi also campaigns to promote breastfeeding among immigrant women, facilitates community discussion groups about domestic abuse, and provides a space for children with autism to scratch records. She is developing an App for day laborers to report workplace employer abuses.
I am fascinated by Aramendi’s emphasis on the social aesthetic above and beyond any image aesthetic, and so it was great to catch Aramendi between her many commitments and pose a few questions about her background, motivations and relationships.
Scroll down for our Q&A
Project Luz workshops in the field.
Q & A
Prison Photography (PP): How did you get to be here in New York teaching photography and roaming the streets with cameras?
Sol Aramendi (SA): I moved from my hometown in Argentina to Rosario to Buenos Aires where I studied furniture design, film school. Later I trained and worked as an architect. At that time I was interested in black and white photography and sign dup for workshops taught by Adriana Lestido. There was a shanty town in Buenos Aires and I was interested in the many people who lived off garbage — sourcing, salvaging, reselling, recycling.
Simultaneously, I was taking people around the city to photograph architecture. I had a photo-lab in my house and taught from home. This was 1999. There was a financial crisis. Another one! I’d been working as an architect for 10 years and I felt I wanted something different.
I had a continued relationship with one family who survived from working with garbage. I traveled with them on the train to the dumps. It was called tram blanco – the ghost train — because most people never even saw it or knew it existed. It was invisible. Worse still, the operators charged more money than a regular ticket … just to go to work with garbage.
PP: It sounds like you relocated to New York relatively recently?
SA: Yes, and I knew I wanted to continue the work. It had to be for the local community. I wrote to all the museums — MoMA, Queens Museum, and so on — asking for free tours in Spanish for immigrants.
Queens Museum immediately called me back. They had just received a half-a-million dollar grant for community engagement. The museum was empty. It was a huge building, but immigrants using the park thought it was abandoned.
We did a class. On the final day and closing presentation of my course, there were 100 people. Afterward, the Queens Museum gave me the position of that person I had been asking for! I began guiding tours in Spanish at the weekends.
PP: Since, you’ve also been contracted by MoMA, also.
SA: MoMA has 20 community partners. I am one of them. It’s only 30 hours a year, but you can get a lot done in that time. Our project—inspired by Carrie Mae Weems—is about family.
PP: What do you do in your workshops?
SA: I bring people to the museum. We look at images. We make images. Color, black and white, then film, now digital. I’ve learnt how to engage the community, about how to listen; that is the most important thing. I was teaching them basic things but always relating it to art. Everyone can have an opinion about art.
Various workshops from down the years. Sol has been involved in programs for everything from street photography, to studio portraiture, to lighting, to post production to classes on theory and photo history.
PP: What’s your approach?
SA: We learn through art but mostly we’re getting to know the city. The photography is an excuse!
Immigrants come here and they live in an imaginary space. They want to come here, but they don’t “arrive” here. They are in limbo. Through storytelling, I help them to imagine a more *real* place and being. I want them to feel a belonging to the city and to the spaces.
I had a woman who had lived here for 8 years but she did not know Manhattan. Migrants travel all this way, across borders, and then they are paralyzed in the place that they are. They don’t know more than 10 blocks around. Little by little they discover their own potential. After our MoMA visit, one student asked “Do we have another VIP tour, this week?”
People change themselves. We open a door and from there, they walk themselves. Many of them live subject to stereotypes. Understandably, some of them are embarrassed but they can know their community and space by describing it.
PP: What is the outcome of your workshops?
SA: We make publications in both Spanish and English. One for each workshop series. We’ve made 25 publications.
SA: The format is set, so it is just a case of inputting the photographs and text we create. It’s newsprint. Together, we pick the subject of the publication and always relate it to immigration and place. We made one with union workers, one with day laborers, we encouraged a conversation between those two groups.
We made a newspaper with the New York Public Library. Some publications are in Mandarin. I encourage participants to distribute. We print many and I give participants a lot to share at public events.
Aramendi (center) with children from one of her ‘Through the Lens’ workshops pose for a group photo.
PP: You seem to share everything you make?
SA: I do a lot of portrait projects. If there’s a community event, I set-up an outside studio, make portraits, upload them on Flickr. People can download for free.
Christmas portrait studio (top); “Spooky Halloween” portraits studio (bottom).
SA: Project Luz teaches classes on social media and encourage immigrants to use it to communicate. They make virtual “tour guides” for their families back home. So when we visit a place, we’re thinking how to describe it visually and later publish online.
PP: These are all immediate benefits for participants. What is the secondary audience for their photographs? Here in NYC or further afield?
SA: I made an installation inside an old bank vault which included 300 portraits of migrants at work. It was about money and security and labor. After seeing those pictures people said they realized just how many jobs around them are completed by migrants — bus driver, delivery, everything we eat and drink — from morning to night, it goes through immigrant hands.
Portraits made by Sol and her team during a Migrant Day Open House.
PP: What are the main issues that immigrants face?
SA: Access. I do a lot of work for people to go to a museum, but that work can end at the front desk … because of the way staff look at them. It can be enough to make them stop. After they cross that barrier — it is a lot, but really nothing — they realize they can do a lot of other things.
We talk about society, domestic violence, and I also teach them about the law of what they can photograph. I tell them to photograph at all the train stops. I tell them they can photograph the police. We cannot take pictures in the school. But everything else we can do. We look at the lawsuit between Philip Lorca DiCorcia and the Hasidic Jewish man who objected to his image being made on the street.
I ask students always to discuss and to defend photos or issues. Maybe they can later do the same at their work-place. Maybe they can tell their boss, “No, I only have to work 8 hours, not 12.” I let them know that it is okay to have healthy doubt and to question.
Sol has led workshops for printmaking for women.
PP: What are immigrants’ relationship with law enforcement in Queens like?
SA: This is their city – they’re living, working and contributing so they can use the public transport, public spaces, art spaces. But it’s not always so easy. For example, the park around the Queens Museum is frequently used by migrants for celebrations such as Cinquo de Mayo. Two years ago, the police started doing raids. May 2nd, 3rd, 4th; they started in Queens, so on the 5th people didn’t come out. We all know where the immigrants live.
Immigrants are convenient for the economy but they are also required to keep quiet — to stand in the corner and to look down. No.
PP: How many of your students are legally documented?
SA: I don’t ask. It is not my preoccupation. But I would guess 80%. There’s 12 million undocumented immigrants in America so there are many in New York.
A lot of the students work as photographers at the weekends photographing the community events. There’s many events and parties. One group from Project Luz created another group called Latinos En Foco so they’re getting together and learning more lighting. They’re students teaching new students.
PP: Latino communities have a lot of events. Does photography play a ritual role?
SA: They’re taking photographs all the time. It used to be you only had a photographed mad once a year in the main house, with the man with the donkey. So there is clothing and performance in photography that is very ritualistic. Photography gives the ability to communicate it immediately with the family back in the home country.
PP: Is photography ever a threat for undocumented individuals?
SA: We talk about it the first day. I go with them the first time they go out in Corona. People on the street think you’re from Immigration, but we talk about how ICE works. ICE is not going out on the street to take your photo; they know where you are.
Images from a weekend of Migrant Camera workshops at the 2014 Open Engagement conference at Queens Museum, NY.
PP: Can you measure the benefits of Project Luz’s workshops?
SA: It’s difficult. How many of them are empowered? What is empowerment? For sure, they know more about photography. Can talk about themselves and express their opinion? This, for me, it is the most important thing. I can agree or not, but at least they are expressing themselves.
PP: I’m presuming Project Luz serves people from all Central and South American countries as they are all present in Queens?
SA: In Queens, it is mostly Mexican and Columbian. Some Ecuadorian and other nationalities less.
PP: How did this all begin?
SA: I started the social practice program that Tom Finkelpearl (former Queens Museum director) did with Greg Sholette. I know I wanted to do something that gave frame to Project Luz. I am one of five social practice artists in residence and I teach on Saturdays. I have a partnership projects with United Photo Industries in Brooklyn, and with Prerana Reddy at the Queens Museum.
Photographs from Sol Aramendi’s portrait project promoting positive images of immigrant women breastfeeding.
PP: What did you think of the Open Engagement (2014) conference. What do you think of the art and social practice ecosystem?
SA: I worry about diversity, that Social Practice is too white.
Community arts have been going on since the sixties and now we’ve white students coming to the communities with credentials and think they know [how to construct a project]. There has been this debate. But not everything is like that. I understand that everyone was talking about diversity. It is a preoccupation. I would like it to be more diverse.
I worry because some artists go to immigrant communities and they use them. Tokenism. It can seem like it collaboration but it is not. There were several projects that came to Queens that proposed to make portraits of immigrants, and of “the American Dream.” Several … so that makes me nervous.
Images from Project Luz’s “Seeing With Light” workshop at El Barrio, NY.
PP: Is a long term project necessarily a better project?
SA: In my experience, things take a long time. You make mistakes and it takes a long time to get to know a community. Are we listening? This is the question I ask of myself all the time. Are they doing what I want or are they doing freely what they want? For me, long duration is good. Create leadership and then let the community go; let it build its owns groups and make their own mistakes.
It’s tricky to judge using time as criteria; results depend on the project, the teacher, the conversations, the student. Two months could be good. Two years is very good.
I worked for just two weeks in Turkey on a project and it worked. I didn’t speak the language but I could communicate.
In 2012, a workshop led by Sol visited the Cindy Sherman show at MoMA and later made images of their own based upon ideas of identity, costume and image circulation.
PP: You’re working on a new App. It sounds like true political and activist art.
SA: From a day of discussions with day laborers and NY NICE, one student suggested making an App to report issues in the building trade. NICE was also working on a App for wage theft. My role is pedagogical. I create the questions.
PP: So that employers can’t take advantage of non-documented workers?
SA: Yes. The App includes messaging, a fact-checked and filtered ‘Hall of Shame’ of bad contractors. We presented it to 11 organizations with day laborers to secure feedback as we developed it.
This App is to inform laborers and to ostracize disreputable employers. The fines are low for wage theft, so it happens often. Instead of paying $7/hour, some contractors pay $4. A laborer says they’ll complain, the employer threatens to report them. There’s also a lot of agencies that don’t pay immigrants. A business that has an immigrant worker already saves hugely on their [taxes, insurance] costs.
We have funding and it is in the development stages.
© Sol Aramendi. Meyolotzin Mexica, 2011.
© Sol Aramendi. Welcome to my hood, 2011.
© Sol Aramendi. Dancing with myself, 2011.
In her own work Sol constructs elaborate sets to write one page visual allegories.
PP: Which photographers are relevant? Which do you show your students?
SA: Latin American photographers. Sometimes we are embarrassed of our heritage, so I introduce photographers to make them proud. Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Gabriele Stabile, Miguel Rio Branco from Brazil, Adriana Lestido, from Mexico, came and gave a lecture in Spanish.
Students also have to find photographers. I ask them to research five names and bring them in. We look at contemporary photographers such as Hank Willis Thomas. We’re going to look at Carrie Mae Weems and talk about Latin American culture around the kitchen table as Weems did with her series Kitchen Table.
PP: Paula Luttringer?
SA: I admired Slaughterhouse greatly.
PP: The first project of Luttringer’s I discovered was Wailing of the Walls.
SA: Allesandro Sanguenetti. I always share her work with students. And Esteban Pastorino Diaz who made the longest exposure. Literally! The longest physical negative. Over 30 meters. He makes landscapes look like models. He’s fascinating.
Alejandro Chaskielberg from Argentina, too.
The first exhibition I worked on was ABC DF — a huge exhibition of Mexican photographers.
Daniela Rossell did Ricas y Famosas / Rich and Famous (1994-2002) which I thought was showy and tacky.
SA: I was a student of Lestido. She goes into projects 100% and with her heart. I learnt a lot from her about teaching. As a photographer, I admire Francesca Woodman’s life and work.
PP: And which organisations you admire? That may or may not include those working in photography or the arts.
SA: Organizations that DO something! For example El Puente in south Williamsburg, Immigrants Movement International (IMI) and Tania Bruguera’s projects. I like projects that don’t necessary rely on a strict idea and allow flexibility. It is a mistake to intervene in a community with your own “final” idea. Process is vital — it is important to be able to change through dialogue and engagement. The result almost doesn’t matter; the process is where connections are made.
I look to political groups such as Tucumán Arde, which was a group of previously mainstream artists in the north of Argentina who jointly denounced the Argentine’s military action. Never again has something so radical happened in Argentina.
You have to CHANGE something. You have to DO something that is useful. Life is short so better use time working on something that’s of use.
PP: Is photo central?
SA: It has been, but I am not sure it always will be.
PP: Wendy Ewald says it does none any favors if you give someone the ability to make a bad photograph. You can’t just dump cameras in the hands of people. You empower people by teaching them about photography and enabling them to make a good photograph.
SA: The goal of my work is not to make a good photo. If they can realize a good photo that is good, but the goal is for them to have access, social mobility and they can make their own decisions and they can take leadership.
PP: Long may you continue. Thanks Sol
SA: Thank you , Pete.