Tools For Sharing: Wendy Ewald In Conversation With Anthony Luvera

DSC_0141Published by Photoworks
November 2013

 

Anthony Luvera (AL): Was there a particular experience in your education or childhood that enabled you to see learning, teaching and participation as tools for your photographic practice?

Wendy Ewald (WE): I think my interest in education evolved naturally from helping to rehabilitate my brother after he was hit by a car when he was five. He suffered some brain damage, and my sister and I were enlisted to assist him with exercises to help him regain speech and motor coordination. I was about ten years old and it seemed very important to try to do this well. I made up a game using a stoplight for his wheelchair while he was pushed around in the hospital library. My goal was for him to use the light and say stop or go, to help him hook his coordination and speech together. He loved it and I remember being told it was very successful. My sister and I were then given charge to help him connect back to school and we had to do exercises together. We took it seriously and were good at it. When you’re a child you understand the urgency of things and this can have much more of an input than something you learn for a specific purpose.

In my senior year of high school I started doing photography but I thought I would go on to be an educator not an artist. I thought artists were sort of exotic, not people like me. I went to college to get a degree in education but after taking one or two courses I found I wasn’t as interested in doing this as I was in studying photography. It wasn’t until after graduating that I became conscious of my educational practice and I read books about education and educational theory. To me this was about politics really. I never saw education as something apart from society or apart from my art-making process. It was later, around 1981, when I began teaching university students for the first time and I had to write a syllabus that I realized I had always done this intuitively. Through teaching and reading about the things I was interested in with students I became more conscious about what I was already doing.

AL: What writing about education and educational theory are you interested in or influenced by?

WE: I’m attracted to the writing about education that describes human development. Vivian Paley, for example writes mostly about how younger children acquire language and storytelling skills, and how storytelling is a form of socialization. She does this through individual stories, which I find wonderful. What I find attractive about Lucy Calkins work is that she writes about the different stages of learning to communicate and how, in the beginning, kids draw, draw and draw. She uses stories and children’s drawings to illustrate this. It started me thinking about how photography can come into this equation. Children lose the ability to draw perhaps because of our demand for writing but I don’t think the desire to make images leaves them. Photography, which doesn’t have the same demand for eye, hand coordination, can make drawing accessible to them again.

Lisa Delpit’s writing was thrilling to read. She’s written a lot about race and education, and her book Other People’s Children has been important to me. She describes how liberal educators can confuse their African American students by using unwritten cues  they often don’t understand.   For example, a white teacher might say “Would you like to sit down?” An African-American kid may not understand the question as a cue to sit down and say “No”.  This can hamper his role and ability to succeed in the white liberal classroom. Of course, this occurs in cross cultural situations all over.  Delpit also wrote about ebonics at a time when ebonics was totally discredited in education. I found it helpful when I was making American Alphabets.

I started using the ideas of progressive education as a starting point from which to create new work. But in doing so I’d visualize what I wanted to make.  Then I’d think of a process that could bring the people I was working with along with me so that we could make the images together.

AL: You’re alluding to an interesting distinction in your practice here between process and the finished work. How important to you is it that process is represented or contextualized in some way?

WE: I think the aesthetic of process is as important as the aesthetic of the finished piece and they both work together. As far as contextualizing the work in an exhibition, I’ll do this with the minimum of background material because I feel if the work is done right it will communicate this. For example, when I show Black Self / White Self, the images are presented together almost in a grid. A white child’s self-portrait will be shown next to her self-portrait as an African-American girl, and the title would be ‘Heather Rhodes, White Self / Black Self’. If the self-portraits are of an African-American child I’ll do the opposite; ‘Damien Barnett, Black Self / White Self’. I try to let the work tell the story. However, there have been times when the work is presented as illustrations of the process. In Literacy and Justice Through Photography: A Classroom Guide each chapter presents the making of an artistic project as a model for use in an educational context.

I get frustrated with critical writing about collaborative art or photography that views the process and the product differently. By working with others, the finished piece contains several layers that wouldn’t exist if it was made by a solo artist. Even when people try to write sensitively about collaborative work they often focus on process only, which can be another way of marginalizing it.

AL: Can you speak a little more about how you go about making work with participants? What kind of challenges have you faced?

WE: It’s been different at different times. Sometimes I ask children or adults to make self-portraits, then to photograph their family and their community. This is followed by photographing their dreams or fantasies. At each stage they learn new ways of making pictures but still stay very close to their experiences. This is how I start but every situation is different.

Sometimes I make mistakes.  When I was working in Morocco and I asked participants to photograph their communities using Polaroid cameras with positive / negative film. The camera equipment made them quite obvious. I asked a local artist who was working with me as a translator, “Are you sure we can do this? Is it going to work? Is it appropriate?” Everybody said, “Yes”. When the pictures came back they were blurry. I knew the children knew how to use the cameras but I wasn’t getting any answers. I finally said to the translator, “Let’s have a conversation about this and record it. I want you to translate it all back to me so I understand what’s happening here.” It was a revelatory conversation.  It turned out the kids were getting stones thrown at them among other things. I felt I should have been more sensitive by not asking them to do this in the first place. Yet the students were happy to break this photographic taboo.

I made another mistake in Morocco. What the children wanted to photograph most of all was monuments. I thought this was very un-kid like and they hadn’t understood they could be much more playful with the camera. Finally I realized when they talked about monuments they didn’t just mean stone monuments, they meant monuments to their culture, such as dress, food or gestures.

I try to be as open as I can but I do start with something. I try to understand what works and what doesn’t. I ask participants what they want to photograph and why they want to photograph it, and I think it’s crucial  to work with someone in the community to have their input or an organization so that what we’ve done can be kept going in which ever way the people want. Whenever I can I try to leave equipment, books or other resources behind.

AL: The term community can be associated with your practice in a number of ways. What does the concept of community mean to you?

WE: I work with communities but I also work with individuals. I ask my collaborators to represent their community, which is difficult because it’s largely something that can’t be photographed. So I choose to talk about it by using symbols. When I was working in Nazareth, it was fraught with tension for people to photograph in their communities. They don’t have the tradition of going out and photographing people they don’t know or of being outside with a camera. So I asked, “What do you like about your community?” and we wrote all the answers up on a blackboard. Then I asked, “What don’t you like about it?” This question always yields a lot more conversation. The things they didn’t like were surprising to me, dealing mostly with guns and violence. I’d perceived Nazareth as a wonderfully open place (a Palestinian city) but out of this conversation came the history of tension between Nazarene families that resulted in blood shed. It wasn’t from conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, as I’d imagined. We chose one of the topics they didn’t like and made a list of photographs that could be created in ways that were safe yet revealing. If they had to act it out, they could act it out. At certain times I feel I’m an activist, in the sense of giving people the tools to look at what’s happening, to confront these things and to think about solutions or changes.

AL: You were involved in setting up the Half Moon Photography Workshop in London in the early 1970s. The Half Moon later became Camerawork which published an influential magazine of the same name. This community photography project is often referred to as an important forerunner of grassroots photography activism and the critical photography debates that emerged in the United Kingdom in the following years. I’m curious to hear about some of your experiences and observations of the community arts movement from this time in relation to now.

WE: The concept of community art is culturally specific. In the United States I think it’s largely considered to be about making work that is only for the community and therefore not to be more widely accepted. Some of the language surrounding community art is troubling. Many artists wouldn’t want to be considered working for a community. I would probably say that too because it can limit the way people perceive the art.

The Half Moon Photography Workshop wouldn’t have existed in New York. At that time in New York there was Light Gallery and it was commercial. It was considered one of the centers of photography whereas the Half Moon was a public gallery as well as a community venture. I remember when a group of us curated a women’s photography show at the Half Moon, at first it was hard for me to understand what was going on. As an American photographer I had a very different perspective than the more social documentary view of the other women. We were definitely in two different camps. I was more interested in portraiture, but I learnt a lot from them, not that I completely changed but I recognized my cultural bias. When asked about my influences, I would say being in Britain at this time is one of them.

When I came back to the US I went to work with Appalshop, a community art organization that was started as part of the Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty in the late 1960’s. Twelve film workshops in areas of the US with minority populations were opened; one in New Mexico that worked with Latinos, another in Chicago that worked with an African-American community and I worked with one in Appalachia. The idea behind it was to train local people for jobs in the mainstream film industry and therefor change the make up of Hollywood. It was a 60’s idea! I had the good fortune of going to work with young artists like myself from Appalachia. The program was based on representing the local culture and community. I worked there for five years and I learnt so much about writing grants, getting money and working with people. I had a peer group to work out my ideas with—to look at how we could work together effectively outs of the mainstream.

AL: Much of the work you have created has been commissioned or supported by organizations that may have an agenda for wanting to work with you. How do you negotiate their interests?

WE: I don’t like to be put in a category or in a hierarchy of artists. If I’m considered on a par with solo artists, that’s fine or if the organization values the community’s input as much as the artist’s.

Towards A Promised Land was created as part of a bigger program by Artangel in Margate which included the making of a film of  Exodus, which I was happy to do because Penny Woolcock who directed the film is a good friend of mine and I really respect her. When some of the exhibition banners we produced with the refugee community were attacked Artangel was uneasy about negative publicity. They had such an investment in the larger project and understandably wanted to protect it. Equally, I didn’t want to give the National Front any more publicity but on the other hand I felt very conflicted. We had a community meeting, however I wanted more than this to happen.

AL: What is your understanding of ethics in relation to your practice?

WE: It involves explaining the project to participants with as much context, information and background as possible. The process of making the work is part of the ethics of the work.

When I worked with the white girls to make their American Alphabets I was working in a boarding school where I’d been a student. That was unusual for me because I had certain information I may not have had otherwise. I researched the history of the institution and the lives of the students there in the past. I chose documents from the school archive for the girls to work with. We talked about being a girl in the early 1900’s, the language they might have used and the language they use now. We discussed what the challenges were and what are they are now for females in that institution. Out of these discussions the girls chose words to represent the alphabet that they felt described who they were. Then they etched or drew their letter or word on the negative. I don’t just ask the participants to pick out random words. We became conscious in the process of working together how the girls choices reflected them and their place in society. This contributes to the aesthetics of the collaboration.

Exhibiting presents another set of challenges. I think often when people talk about process they talk about the relationship between the work and the audience, rather the work and the people who were involved in making it. I have to be aware that people from the outside may see things differently from how we experienced them and that may affect the participants. In Margate during Towards A Promised Land some of the exhibition banners were attacked and burnt. It was really important that the participants had the ability to decide what they wanted to do about this. With their families they decided they wanted them to be replaced. This part of the process was extremely important for the young people to be involved in. If I’d made a decision without them, based on protecting them,for example, that would have been paternalistic and not in keeping with the way we worked together.

AL: How do you negotiate considerations of ownership, authorship and the commercial interests of the work created by or with your participants?

WE: I’ve thought a lot about this but there are no perfect solutions. Commercially, when something is used or sold, I’ll take money out of the sale to produce the work and split what’s left three ways, between the gallery, the organization I worked with and me. This is agreed before I start working so everyone knows where would the money go if something was sold.

When I was working with the girls in the boarding school on American Alphabets, the school didn’t need the money. I thought it would be more interesting to let the girls decide what to do with the profit from any sales. They decided to donate it to the Aga Kahn Foundation to buy books for girls’ schools in Pakistan. Some of the participants were from wealthy families so I was able to sell those photographs . When I worked with African-American children in Cleveland to make their alphabet, the art room had no supplies and the ceiling had just fell in. I was able to sell some of this work so I could give money to the school to purchase supplies and fix the roof. I see this as being part of the ongoing process of the work.

As far as acknowledgements go, when a child makes a photograph, their name and the title they have chosen will accompany the image. If it’s something we make together, if I take the picture and they write on it, their name will appear with the work. The projects are authored by me.

AL: What projects are you are working on at the moment?

WE: I’ve been working in Tanzania for the last six years. I was invited to give a workshop to 40 teachers there. I thought I’d be helping the teachers use photography with their students to encourage self-expression and creativity. What was more crucial to them was the idea that the photograph was a representation of a subject that could be used in the classroom. They had no books and the only visual teaching aids they had were what they or their students drew.

So I’ve been working with the teachers to make posters and other curriculum materials for each of the subjects taught in primary school. It’s been really exciting to support the teachers in coming up with concepts and then working with them to make photographs of these concepts. The history teachers decided to focus on slavery, colonialism and independence. So we went to one of the buildings on the coast to reenact what might have happened there. I brought a very good graphic designer to help them design the posters and they’re beautiful. Last year I brought a group of teachers from North Carolina to work with the Tanzanian teachers to make a curriculum guide for the posters. This summer we are going back to field test the posters in different parts of the country. Now I have to raise some more money to print enough for all the primary schools in the country.

AL: I understand you’ve also been reconnecting with some of the participants you worked with in Kentucky early 1970s.

WE: I worked with some of the kids in Kentucky for up to five years. I think that’s one of the reasons the pictures are as good as they are. They all had cameras all the time and they had film when they needed film. I thought they should have the same opportunities that a photographer has to make good pictures. I treated them as photographers.

I’ve been going back to Kentucky with a filmmaker who I worked with back then. She and I have found many of the students and interviewed them about what they remember about the time we worked together. We gave them cameras if they wanted to continue photographing. It’s been very exciting because they remember a lot. I’m planning on re-making Portraits and Dreams with the new material. It’s been a really moving experience for all of us to see in what way the photographs have become part of their adult lives.

To be able to continue on with these relationships is important for me. In a way it’s made me feel much more comfortable knowing it’s okay I went on and had the career they had a big part in.

AL: I was struck by the conclusion of Secret Games where you write “if politics addresses the power or powerlessness of people in their everyday lives I want people to understand the powers that use them and the powers they use.” In addressing the notion of power with participants, how do you endeavor to enable their understanding of the power imbalance between you and them?

WE: I hope to give them the tools I have by making my practice clear to them. How, for example, by paying attention to making a title for a photograph, they have the power to direct a viewer to something in the image. But the fact is I’m a white woman who comes into a village in India with a piece of foam to sleep on – which they thought was hilarious and that I must have had it for child birth – I cannot erase that. All I can do is respect them and respect the power they do have.

Some of the kids I worked with in India could not write or read the names of the chemicals used to develop film. Some of them had literally never held a pencil. I tried to use this as an opportunity  by sending them home with paper and pencil to practice. They came back irate saying, “Look, this is not my place to do this. I am such and such a cast and my parents are angry about this.” I had to understand what I asked of them was not right in this situation. My idea about power and what makes power is not necessarily their idea. All I can do is share the things I have in my bag of tricks.