Susan Sontag wrote that “in deciding how a picture should look, in preferring one exposure to another, photographers are always imposing standards on their subjects.” For as long as photography has existed, the morals and merits of the medium have been debated. Many photographers in the realm of documentary or “street” photography have been accused of exploiting their subjects, objectifying or exotifying them to be consumed by viewers hungry for a glimpse into another life. In response to this critique of the assertive authority of the photographic gaze, photographers over the last half century have developed projects and programs to bring their subjects into the creative process and enable them to present their world through their own eyes. The scope, intention, and success of these projects varies widely and significantly. While some photographers believe the medium possesses a special social and political power, others simply aim to gain further perspectives, crowdsourcing the task of seeing, and hopefully better understanding, the world.
Take photographer Wendy Ewald. As early as 1969, she was embedding herself into new environments, from Appalachia to South Africa to Mexico, and teaching the children she met to use film 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 Appalachian kids resulted in haunting images accompanied by personal narratives that revealed a perspective previously unseen in art. In an interview with PDN, Ewald said, “I believe as an artist I can get something through collaboration that I couldn’t get any other way. And I’m always looking for fresh ways of seeing.”
In the last several decades, versions of this project — what is often called participatory photography — have proliferated. They take many forms, and have many different goals, including providing educational opportunities, engaging the public, raising social awareness, creating more interesting art, or attempting to get closer to a person’s subjective reality. Can these projects counter the pitfalls of photography as an exploitative or voyeuristic medium? Done well, yes. But the temptation to over-promise the impact of this kind of work is great, especially when it comes from artists outside of the communities they’re working with.
In many cases, as in Ewald’s work, the subjects-turned-photographers are children from impoverished or difficult backgrounds. The appeal of teaching young children photography is undeniable — it’s an accessible and direct way to show them that how they see the world matters, and that their choices about what to include or leave out constitute the making of art. The images children produce offer unique access to a view of both their inner and outer lives, not filtered through the adult gaze.
In these projects, we see that the framing of an image is just as crucial, if not more crucial, than the image itself. Beyond the authorial power of whoever takes the image, the curatorial power determines how 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, the viewers, must look outside the frame to understand the complex realities out of which these photographs grew.”
Take Born into Brothels, a widely acclaimed documentary film that followed photojournalist Zana Briski as she taught children in Calcutta, India, to capture their environment. While the moving story was not without successes and charms, projects like this have the potential to further entrench the myth that an individual savior can swoop in and solve massive systematic problems. A response in The Telegraph Online from a sex worker in Calcutta called Born Into Brothels a “one-sided portrayal of the life of sex workers in Sonagachi. It shows sex workers as unconcerned about the future of their children. This is not true […] We fear the global recognition of such a film […] may do a lot of 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 children’s photographs themselves.
Through Positive Eyes addresses the issue of framing by accompanying and contextualizing pictures with written, personal narratives. The global project created by photographer Gideon Mendel in partnership with the UCLA Art and Global Health Center foregrounds moving and mundane images of and by people living with HIV/AIDS around the world. Mendel spent 20 years documenting people impacted by HIV/AIDS in a more traditional photographer-subject role, and had been criticized, according to The New Yorker, for “present[ing] his subjects as powerless, nameless people headed for death.” With Through Positive Eyes, Mendel explained that “the time had come to shift power relations and hand the camera over to people living with HIV, so that they could make their own photographs and tell their own stories.”
This type of participatory photography project acts as a political and social PSA. Though the images are at times 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. “The people I know did not go looking for AIDS. AIDS showed up in their lives,” wrote Aninha from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. “I have heard of people who were killed for having AIDS, for being gay. We cannot go on in a world like this.” Her photographs include an image of lacy white underwear on a faded floral carpet, small figurines accompanied by a red AIDS ribbon, a sandwich sliced diagonally on a plate, two shaving razors overlaid as if in an intimate embrace, and an orange seen whole, then sliced, then splayed open.
Photographer JR has taken on large-scale public projects, wheatpasting billboard-sized portraits on buildings and other public outdoor spaces. For his Inside Out Project, which is billed as the “largest global participatory art project,” he aimed to remove himself from the artistic process by creating a format and providing tools for others, but not actually photographing or pasting any of the work himself. People and communities are invited to take selfies, which are printed in black and white and designed to be posted in public spaces, in theory drawing attention to topics or people otherwise overlooked. Since it was launched in 2011, more than 400,000 people have engaged with the project globally.
JR’s collaborative film Faces Places, made with director Agnès Varda, highlights his Inside Out Photobooth trucks, a mobile way to reach more people on the streets and across the French countryside. Each participant enters to be photographed. The photo is then printed large-scale, and pasted in a nearby area. There is no single acting artist; the “photographer” is the photo booth (though the body of work is still widely attributed to JR). Together, these portraits create a visual community that celebrates the everyday lives of a broad range of people on a large scale. Though the premise feels gimmicky and facile, it’s still refreshing to see public space reclaimed for the public, rather than for advertisers and celebrities.
A recent effort by Brooklyn-based nonprofit worthless Studios also shows the continued interest in photography as a collaborative exercise with its project, FREE FILM: USA. It encompasses an Airstream trailer with a dark room, and an ambition to visualize a nation divided. Between August and December 2019 the team at worthless Studios handed out a free roll of 35mm film to photographers across the country with the prompt “red, white, and blue.” 990 rolls of film were returned to the trailer for free developing and scanning. The lofty goal, as stated on the worthless Studios website, was to “democratiz[e] the documentation of our ever-shifting realities.” By diffusing the process of documentation, they were able to cover a broader expanse of experience, thus transforming the solitary act of looking into a collective experience. The impact of the project comes from the curatorial choices of the team, who selected from over 35,000 images to compile their photobook, placing children with toy guns in Salt Lake City next to those with toy guns in Minneapolis, individuals obscured by their newspapers from Philadelphia 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, protests and police. In LA, a children’s drawing of palm trees perfectly parallels a landscape of palm trees in San Diego.
In the United States today, nearly everyone walks around with a camera in their pockets. Our lives are relentlessly recorded, and film photography is expensive, clumsy, and slow. It’s hard to imagine that installing and operating a darkroom out of the back of a van is the most convenient way to gather imagery from artists. But it’s the concept of the project, its labored technical process and ambitious scope, that is enticing. About the medium of photography, Ewald told PDN, “I think the analogue process gave the kids a real focus and it slowed them down — and me too.” Today, the turn to analogue reflects a trend toward nostalgic formats, a desire for something tangible in an otherwise disembodied digital world. Maybe we’re craving a collective that isn’t just online, a narrative that brings the fractured pieces together between the two covers of a book, or pasted to the sides of our buildings, the hope that something might unify us, even if all we have in common is our own subjectivity.