Putting photography in the hands of marginalized people creates huge potential for social change
When people think of photography and social justice, one iconic image often springs to mind: Dorothea Lange’s 1936 portrait Migrant Mother. Published in American newspapers during the Depression, it articulated the anguish of the thousands driven off their land.
But Migrant Mother is also a problematic photograph: its subject, Florence Owens Thompson, wasn’t named for many years. Thompson never received compensation from image licensing. And perhaps most important, she didn’t get to tell her own story as she saw it. Instead, she was just a symbol for a professional photographer – a powerful symbol, but a symbol nonetheless.
Since then, a movement has grown up to change the balance of power in photography by providing marginalized people with the resources to document their own stories. American photographer Wendy Ewald made waves in the 1970s and 80s when she offered cameras to poor Kentucky schoolkids. In the 90s, rocker Peter Gabriel founded WITNESS, a nonprofit org that trains human rights activists to use video and online technologies to expose human rights abuses. And just last year, the University of Southern California opened the first-ever Institute for Photographic Empowerment.
The movement also finds practitioners in Toronto. Claudia Obreque is the transitional housing coordinator at Sojourn House, a local refugee aid program. She says that making photography part of Sojourn House’s first-ever women’s art workshop was key in helping the disadvantaged and often traumatized people she works with connect and find hope across language barriers.
“They are coming from war-torn countries,” she says, “from Iraq, Nigeria and Colombia, among other places. Some may have lived in a refugee camp or been raped. For most, English is difficult.
Nancy, as photographed by Keneisha, is part of Street Health Stories.
“Photography gets people out of their heads and apartments, helpsthem get over depression and trauma,” says Obreque. “The first few photographs some made were depressing, like images of a dark tunnel. But toward the end of the workshop things were more lively – photos of Caribana, of their kids, of landscapes.”
Obreque says the photography program also helped these isolated newcomers build supportive networks, big time.
“Most of the women who participated became really close friends. Even though they’ve moved on into the community, they visit each other.”
But it’s not just access to cameras that makes for effective photographic empowerment. Context is also key. For instance, the Sojourn House program had photographers choose which images from each roll were most important to them, and discuss why in a supportive environment.
Katerina Cizek is NFB filmmaker-in-residence at St. Michael’s Hospital, where her job is to help place media creation – in all its forms – in the hands of those who rarely wield it.“It’s not just about putting technology in the hands of people,” says Cizek. “It’s also about helping them understand storytelling and getting access to audiences. There’s a digital divide in Toronto, and the aim is to cross that as well as all the media noise.”
Last year, Cizek helped four young mothers who had experiences with homelessness to create their own photoblogs. This year, those young women put some strong human faces on Toronto’s Street Health Report. Their method: taking formal studio portraits of the homeless and combining them with audio interviews about their experiences in the health system.
Though Cizek has made a few documentaries herself, her confidence in the accuracy of traditional film and photography has been challenged by her recent experiences in participatory artmaking.
“I’ve learned there isn’t just one sensational story to tell about people,” she says. “This is what mainstream media and documentary filmmakers need to know. Too often, we decide what the story is beforehand, and we cast people to tell this story. In participatory media, the story comes, even if it’s not what you thought it was.”
Participatory media also, she believes, affords its subjects their basic human dignity.
“In this Oprahesque, world it’s assumed [by documentarians] that confessional is the most powerful storytelling technique,” Cizek says. “But what I’ve learned is that people have a right to privacy, the right to tell their own stories in their own way.”
In the next few months, Torontonians will have more opportunities than ever to see participatory photography projects. Sojourn House’s pictures are available in book form (call 416-864-0515 to order) and show at Metro Hall in June. Street Health Stories can be viewed anytime in video form on YouTube or in installation form at St. Mike’s Bond Street entrance. Finally, Contact hosts separate exhibitions featuring work by Jamestown children, immigrant youth and AIDS-affected teens.
None of these participatory photographers could be pegged as the next Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans or Robert Capa. But then, that’s the point.
Claudia Obreque from Sojourn House talks about how her ORG'S photo program got started:
Claudia Obreque from Sojourn House talks about the challenges people in her program face:
Claudia Obreque from Sojourn House talks about why photo in particular was helpful: