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Alexandra Diracles,”Be The Witness” installation view, Houston Street, NYC
Photographic artists who collaborate closely — and as equivalents — with communities to amplify voices and forward political movement are at the forefront of my thoughts right now. As you might now, last month I took part in a discussion about socially-engaged photography practice, at Aperture Gallery, NYC. It would, therefore, be unforgivable for me not to share with you my experience visiting Social in Practice: The Art of Collaboration an innovative exhibition curated by Deborah Willis and Hank Willis Thomas at the Nathan Cummings Foundation, in Midtown Manhattan. It is the best exhibition with this specific focus I have seen to date.
Social in Practice: The Art of Collaboration is teeming with powerful and important works. So many, in fact it makes this review quite a lengthy post. Please bear with me, and if nothing else, use the links herein to dig further into the projects.
The exhibition includes portraiture, documentary photography, audio-visual installations, personal narratives and community initiatives. The first thing that should be said is that the space is not ideal for contemplation. Works are hung throughout the openish-plan offices of the Nathan Cummings Foundation. That said, if you email ahead, you’ll be met out the elevator on the 14th floor by a welcoming staff member. Ultimately, the show will move to NYU in the autumn, so you can take your pick of visitor experience.
Immediately to one’s right upon entry are two small rooms dedicated to desktop presentations of Be The Witness a campaign organized by NYU grads that records the voices of wrongfully convicted exonerees; and Hank Willis Thomas’ Question Bridge an interactive’s trans-media initiative promoting dialogue between black males of all backgrounds in order to redefine black male identity in America. The WiFi was kapput but I was familiar with both these projects previously and know I, we, can experience them from our own home computers. I moved on without asking anyone to reset the router.
Next up was #SANDY, a collection of 12×12 iPhone photos prints captured by photographers in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Organised by Wyatt Gallery and the Foley Gallery #SANDY raised $21,000 for rebuilding efforts in New York City. It was an immediate and effective response, but the engagement here seems to be more with technology, buyers and exceptional trauma rather than with the quieter, ongoing struggles of systemically disadvantaged communities. Laudable but hardly aesthetically or methodologically groundbreaking.
Squished into a corridor were the works of four projects that operate completely embedded within communities.
First, the NY-based Laundromat Project which uses public art classes to reinforce community networks. Everyone should know about their empowering work within NYC. It is a model that needs to be repeated.
Secondly, Sonia Louise Davis ‘ impressive Across 116th Street. Throughout the Summer of 2013, in conjunction with the Laundromat Project’s Works in Progress Art Education Program, Davis gave free art workshops along 116th Str. and hosted sidewalk family portraits sessions with neighbors using her large format view camera.
© Sonia Louise Davis
116th Street runs the full width of Manhattan, from the Hudson River to the East River. Davis seeks to activate communities’ narratives and histories. She provided all participants enlarged prints. In addition, Davis has asked residents to submit their own images of 116th street to a community-authored “ar(t)chive”.
Third, Lorie Novak‘s photographs. Novak has been working in Mexico for over a decade. She uses art and photography to catalyse communities on a wide-range of issues such as anti-violence against women and anti-GMO food crops. The few prints presented were documentation mainly and didn’t provide a deep or coherent summary of Novak’s very good projects — but that is precisely a tension of socially engaged work when the interaction and not an object-end-product is the main focus. With such projects, if posterity and education is to be served, (photographic) documentation is paramount.
Fourth, was a brief overview of Russell Frederick‘s mentorship of inner-city teenage boys. Frederick is well known for his luscious B&W reverent studies of residents of BedStuy, but here he’s encouraging youngsters to use photography for their own ends and means … with the hope of guiding them away from violence. Frederick has worked with the JustArts Photography program in NYC.
JustArts Photography students explore professional equipment with Russell Frederick
Off the corridor, in a side room, on a TV screen is Hong-An Truong‘s video Rehearsal For Education. Inspired by Gramsci, Truong recorded quotes texts and passages with high-school kids. These are the soundtrack to a conceptual montage of images. The effect is mantra like, but I couldn’t access the atmosphere of the piece nor figure out its extended use. The worth, I hope, is in the transformative nature of performance and theatre enjoyed by schoolchildren during the making.
On a massive wall at the end of the office space is Jamila Mohamad Hooker‘s Foreign Postcards, a crowdsourced visual rally against xenophobia and Islamophobia. People from around the world have exchanged and posed with the project’s postcards to normalise the sight of the Arabic language. The words? Their own name written in Arabic.
While the presentation of tiled selfies filling an entire long wall is impressive, the emotional connect was much stronger in the first instance among friends and family than I was with me, a detached tertiary audience member. That is why I just submitted a request for a postcard with my own name on it! You can too.
The concept is simple. We are all one humanity. A cute, repeatable and adaptable project.
Examples from Jamila Mohamad Hooker’s Foreign Postcards
If my reactions don’t seem gushing enough quite yet, don’t worry the best is yet to come. Again, placed down the length of a single corridor (taking us back to the front of the exhibition space) are a number of phenomenal projects, many of which I was not previously familiar.
Noelle Theard‘s Sunset Park Rent Strike Photography Initiative, which can be seen at the Galeria Del Barrio website is an audio and photographic collaboration advocating for improvements in living conditions of three Brooklyn residences. Landlords were trying to raise rents on long term tenants and Theard joined their resistance and provided images of the struggle and encouraged communities to do the same.
Over the years, Lonnie Graham has worked in U.S. African American communities and in Sub-Saharan African communities, and in each case on issues of nourishment, subsistence and prejudice. Graham’s political consciousness is global but the effects of his work are definitively local. Before “food desert” was even a term, his Gardens Project was empowering people to grow their own healthy foods bringing with it all the associated benefits. Less obesity, connection with the land, increased attention among children, reduced obesity. The right to food os the right to dignity.
Harry in the garden, 2003. © Lonnie Graham
(A poor) installation shot of Lonnie Graham’s Garden Project. © Pete Brook!
Similarly, Ayasha Guerin project Brownstone Bushwick celebrates the consolidating power of nature in the face of urban blight and/or gentrification. Guerin joined up with the Linden-Bushwick Community Garden to document their activities. Her photographs were accompanied by extended captions from the subjects. Guerin is an academic and a researcher and uses photography within a broader ethnological approach. She celebrates the triumphs of Bushwick’s Afro-Caribbean community in beautifying their neighborhood.
Lara Stein Pardo‘s Mobile Public Studio encourages people to have their portrait taken spontaneously in a public space. I cannot think that the positioning of the surveillance camera floating above the heads of the portrait sitters (standers) was accidental. Pardo is exercising her right to photograph publicly, making the briefest of connections. She’s photographing on the street, but she is not a street photographer as her interactions are longer, not fleeting, involve conversation and mutual understanding.
© Lara Stein Pardo
Christine Wong Yap‘s Make Things (Happen) is one of the few non-photo-based projects included in the show. Make Things (Happen) begins with a wall loaded with free worksheets. Each encourage the public to participate in an artistic endeavor. Pick them up, take them home, do the exercises, share your results with #mkthngshppn on social media.
At first, I was skeptical toward the invite, but soon realised that most of us need a prompt to think about actually making something. An unfortunate number of adults need prompt in order to fire their imagination. This project is never-ending, loose-ended. Something might come of it, something might not, but with the array of genuinely fun and simple actions proposed, the results are on us, not the artist.
People suffering from HIV/AIDS in Ethiopia face a huge stigma. Eric Gottesman ‘s repeated and long term projects works alongside youth in Ethiopia to make photographs and videos to raise awareness about the epidemic.
Sudden Flowers is a collective of young people in the Shiromeda/Sidist Kilo neighborhood of Addis Ababa. In cahoots, Gottesman and the youngster install their works in their neighborhoods and throughout the city. They’ve been doing this since 1999. Always getting the voices of the kids out into the communities that will either support or ignore them. These pop-up shows aim to make it the former, not the latter.
“Each of our projects is like a ‘lyric’ in larger poetic structure,” says Gottesman who continues the work still.
Installation shot of Eric Gottesman’s Sudden Flowers
Citizens of Babile, Ethiopia attend “Abul Thona Baraka,” a mobile photographic installation comprised of photographs and texts produced by children of the Shiromeda neighborhood of Addis Ababa in collaboration with artist Eric Gottesman. The work addressed themes of stigma, disease, and grief as well as dialogue and participation. The installation, in the form of a traditional coffee ceremony, travelled to various Ethiopian cities and town in 2006.
The last space to experience is the boardroom in the centre of the offices (the two corridors described above have run either side of it and you’ve circled it). This is a large open space and rightfully it is dedicated to some of the larger and more arty prints.
Kristina Knipe powerful series of portraits and object studies engaged me deeply with the personal struggles of people who have engaged in self-harm. Knipe’s work is mysterious and — while always being respectful — skirts the edges of the issue. It’s as if she is operating from within a deep understanding of her subjects prior victimhood and hard earned relief in recovery. There’s anonymity sometimes and things inferred. There’s no shame involved, of course, but there is the acknowledgement that in unideal circumstances thing unsaid is sometimes just how it is.
There’s a visceral and coherent atmosphere to the series, which is not something I can usually say wholeheartedly about the flat photographic reproductions; the medium rarely allows it. A triumph.
Leannet’s Arm Healed © Kristina Knipe
Finally, we encounter Paul T. Owen‘s Todos Somos Ellas (We Are All Them) photographs that bring attention to the violence against women in Mexico. Owen asks his subjects to pose, seemingly defenselessly before the camera, so as to anonymise them and to bring them and us into solidarity with victims of femicide.
“These are not portraits of individuals,” explains Owen, “but symbols who represent the thousands who have died violent deaths because of their gender.”
After a shocking number of news stories of rape in India, after the kidnap of 200+ schoolgirls in Nigeria, after the UC Santa Barbara shooting and the #YesAllWomen campaign, Owen’s work is as timely as ever. But let’s be frank, grave violence inflicted upon women throughout most societies can only be responsibly described as ‘routine’. As Rebecca Solnit so wisely said, recently, violence may not have a race, it may not have a class, but it certainly does have a gender. In the U.S., nearly 1 in 5 women (18.3%) have been victim to rape. I don’t believe that enough reliable, caring and suitably responsive infrastructures and attitudes exist to reduce this figure, yet. This is unacceptable. Owen’s portraits reflect the desperate and trapped circumstances many women find themselves in.
All women? All people. All of our problem and shame upon which to work collectively.
© Paul Owen
From the inferred silent violence implicit in Owen’s work, we move to photographs that display the best of our awkward and necessary shared being.
The show closes out with 5 or 6 portraits from Richard Renaldi‘s Touching Strangers which has enjoyed widespread acclaim recently. It’s responsible work. Renaldi provides a growing experience for photographer, subject and viewer alike. It gently and endearingly pricks our consciousness by asking us if we’re doing enough to actively see and empathise with the people around us. Touching Strangers is optimistic and it deserves all the plaudits it is currently receiving.
Social in Practice: The Art of Collaboration is hosted jointly by the Department of Photography & Imaging at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and the The Nathan Cummings Foundation.
It is currently on show at the The Nathan Cummings Foundation, 475 10th Avenue, 14th Floor, New York, NY 10019, through October 2, 2014. Reservations are required and can be made by emailing email@example.com. After October, the exhibition will be on show at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.
Photo: Timothy Briner, from It’s A Helluva Town, in Businessweek.
THE BEST SHOT
I was disappointed with early coverage of the Hurricane. Given the superstorm conditions photographers were getting many more misses than hits.
The biggest miss was TIME’s first dispatch of Instagram images the day after Sandy hit. Only Michael Christopher Brown of the five photographers – Kashi, Quilty, Lowy, Wilkes and Brown – had some successful frames. TIME has continued adding to its gallery of Sandy images so the older photos (31 – 57) are toward the end.
Photo: Michael Christopher Brown/TIME. Con Edison workers clean a manhole on 7th Avenue and 22nd Street in Manhattan. Source
BUT, photographers were not at fault. It was editors’ mistakes to publish below par images. Half of the photographers images I saw in the first 36 hours were from assigned photographers carrying smartphones. In low light, blustery weather the smartphones fell way short of the test.
THE MONEY SHOT
Kenneth Jarecke lays into TIME for their use of Instagram photos. Okay he references Gene Smith where there is perhaps little relevance and lists all sorts of other reasons such as Instagram getting rich of millions off other peoples’ content, but those are not the core of his burning anger. Jarecke is angry because the pictures are poor, and I can’t disagree with him. Of TIME, Jarecke says:
It’s shameful and you should be embarrassed. Not to say these shots weren’t well seen (which is the hardest part), just that they were poorly executed. Which is to say they fail as photographs.
What was weird was that in a Forbes article largely defending TIME mag’s use of Instagram images there was little discussion of the images qualities, more an emphasis on stats and page views.
Time’s photography blog, was “one of the most popular galleries we’ve ever done,” says [Photo Editor, Kira] Pollack, and it was responsible for 13% of all the site’s traffic during a week when Time.com had its fourth-biggest day ever. Time’s Instagram account attracted 12,000 new followers during a 48-hour period.
Pollack’s description of Lowy’s bland, color-field image of a wave chosen for the print magazine’s front cover as “painterly” due to its low res sums it all up; the TIME cover is known to favor photo-illustrations over straight photographs.
THE CHEAP SHOT
Sometimes articles are written as if it is still some surprise that amateur photographs shape our media and consciousness. American Photo describes the lifecycle of a viral photo.
Photo: Nick Cope. Rising flood waters as seen from the window of his Red Hook, Brooklyn apartment.
When we’re all hungry for information and we’re all sharing everything we can get a peek at then an amateur snap, if it is informative enough, will find it’s way to us very quickly.
I admire that American Photo quoted fully from this dude who got that photo.
“It was hard to track [the photo's path to "viral"] — I was also preparing for a hurricane at the time! And for a good part of the morning I was at a cafe in the neighborhood, chatting with the owner who was mixing up Bloody Marys, and so it was a combination of hanging out with folks in the neighborhood and getting prepared for the storm. And then I start getting all these calls.”
THE TRUSTED SHOT
As ever, Damon Winter makes a bloody good fist of it for the New York Times.
The BIG Atlantic In Focus delivers with a typically epic selection off the wires. Crushed cars, boats on boats, burnt embers, friends hugging/crying, aerial shots of devastation, gas lines, strewn debris (homes), rescued old english sheepdog, destroyed pier and amusement rides, phones charging, pitch black streets, canoe in a living room, downed bridge and then this incredible picture by Seth Wenig of food being dumped.
Men dispose of shopping carts full of food damaged by Hurricane Sandy at the Fairway supermarket in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn in New York, on October 31, 2012. The food was contaminated by flood waters that rose to approximately four feet in the store during the storm. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
THE HORROR SHOT
Gilles Peress‘ very personal letter in which he appears to be having a breakdown is shared with the world.
“I have to say that in twelve years, to have shot pictures at 9/11 downtown, and again downtown in 2008 when the financial system collapsed, and now, is intense: big city, big tragedies, and a sense of having entered into a different period of history.”
I really want to know who CK and GH, the letters recipients, are.
Peress talks about homelessness and the poor being forgotten in the delivery of aid and services. Michael Shaw at BagNewsNotes wrote about the homeless being forgotten in the coverage.
Back to In Focus. Today, another good edit by Alan Taylor’s team. These two images stood out.
Photo: John De Guzman. A street lined with water-damaged debris in Staten Island.
John Minchillo photographed a lady who is better camouflaged than the national guardsmen beside her. I wonder what she bought at Whole Foods?
Photo: AP Photo/John Minchillo. A woman passes a group of National Guardsmen as they march up 1st Avenue towards the 69th Regiment Armory, on November 3, 2012, in New York. National Guardsmen remain in Manhattan as the city begins to move towards normalcy following Superstorm Sandy earlier in the week.
THE EVERYTHING SHOT
Everybody’s been very excited about the New York Magazine’s cover aerial photograph of a lightless Lower Manhattan.
It’s only fitting to finish these thoughts with a nod to two perhaps lesser feted Instagram photographers – after all, Instagram had record number of hashtaggles for #Sandy #HurricaneSandy and #Frankenstorm.
Wyatt Gallery has been following clean-up closely.