This was written for the online blog of Power in Whose Palm: The Digital Democratization of Photography for Salzburg Global Seminar, you can read it on their website by following this link
“Photographs can be an engine of teaching. They can pose as an intermediary between a teacher's voice and a student's voice”. Wendy Ewald
Nii Obodai, a photographer and educator, moderated a complex field addressing the role of photography in education. Obodai, who is currently developing a new school, in Africa—Nuku meaning wonderful surprise—spoke candidly that there is currently not enough critical thinking, creativity and inclusion of postcolonial photography in Africa.
“I am teaching kids to be more participatory, photography has given me the skills to do that,” he said.
Obodai continued by saying that it is the failure of the education system, that has not addressed the complexities of Africa. A new education system has some hope in addressing existing black and white stereotypes. Visual education is able to make reality a lot more tangible than just facts, figures and graphs. Obodai is dedicated to teaching people and bringing the learning experience to who they are, through the medium of photography.
Eric Gottesman (USA) a photographer and researcher, posed the question: “Rather than arguing whether digital itself is good or bad, we can think about visual listening, in the sense of who gets to speak and how does that affect what we see in the world?” We can see photography as indexing reality so that we can make sense of that reality. Gottesman has been doing photography-based research projects in Ethiopia since 1999 to 2012.
Previous to his field-work, he had a lot of images in mind of what he would find there. Seeing pictures of un-named African subjects often engulfed in famine and war, he felt even more alienated by seeing the photographs than he did before. By exploring the realm of studio photography and practice in Ethiopia, he was able to get a much more intimate view: “This kind of studio photography says a lot more complex story than any of the famine images that were circulating at the time.”
This became part of the project of finding meaning beyond the photograph, its social life. The studios were being co-opted and re-appropriated by people who visited these studios and so there was a whole participatory element to the studio photography that had been absent with photojournalism. The social life of photographs had been awakened and Gottesman had become a part of it.
By using participation observation, stepping in front of the camera and becoming the subject himself, there was a deconstruction of the power relations of the images he was taking. He became the subject and the Ethiopians became the ones looking at him in their environment, so he was becoming part of their social fabric and their ways of making meaning of the world around them. There was a participatory dialogue where both subject and image-maker became interchangeable, making the educative process more participatory.
Wendy Ewald (USA) has collaborated on many photo literacy projects that deconstruct a singular authorship and instead facilitates multiple perspectives in their reading through participatory teaching and exhibition practices. Giving illustrative examples of teachers that she has collaborated with in Tanzania, she spoke openly of how they wanted pictures in their classrooms, as visual aids so that they could include the reading of images into their curriculum practice. The final project accumulated in a series of ten posters.
“I went to visit a teachers college so that they could design their visual aids,” she explained.
“The teachers made up the questions that led them to read what makes a photograph interesting. By all of us working together we decided what these pictures are and collaboratively created a design for each of these pictures.”
There is a mandate in Tanzania that the classroom should be participatory. Photography became the intermediary between a teacher’s voice and a student’s voice which can be very empowering when there are challenging topics such as HIV and AIDS that must cover a whole lesson.
“The idea is actually to just follow things and let them lead you, rather than you directing it too much,” added Ewald.
“The Pictures Woke People Up” is a collaborative project between Gottesman and Ewald with the indigenous Innu people of Labrador between 2007 and 2012. The project explores preservation, repatriation and the emerging practices of social collaboration. Innu people had been placed on a reservation that had arguably created social problems. One of the first things that Gottesman and Ewald did was to go onto the reservation and show pictures of the community that Ewald had first taken in 1969. These were then collected into an archive and exhibited in 2007.
They had a participatory way of how to represent these pictures. The people in the community got people to vote. By voting about the actual pictures that they wanted to show, they co-curated the actual exhibition themselves. Banners of the exhibition, placed in public spaces marked what was going on and they had a week of discussions. The community had felt that they needed to be heard and finally they had a platform in which they could speak out.
A lot people in the community wanted an archive, so Gottesman and Ewald started posting photographs to Facebook. There were many comments about photographs of people that they recognized. There was a photo of a shaman; the comments that were posted were very different from what had been in the museum. The caption in the museum had just simply described the name of the shaman and his role. On Facebook, however, the Innu community who had known him were posting all sorts of personal amusing anecdotes such as, “He was such a player” “This guy was really magical and powerful.” To re-include their perspectives that had previously been excluded, Ewald and Gottesman printed out these photographs with the Facebook comments and exhibited them in the gallery, allowing multiple perspectives to flood into the exhibition space.
Enrico Bossan (Italy), the Editor of Colors magazine, took the floor and asked rhetorically who checks their social networks first thing in the morning and who, alternatively, checks the newspapers? There has been a great shift in whom people are willing to trust in the media. Citizen journalism has actually become a hugely important aspect of our social fabric and our way of understanding our world. We are no longer, as we were in the past, bound whole Kodak ownership. It seems we are only just beginning to understand the importance of this shift. Can mobile phones be this new device for sharing and understanding the world? Bossan poses this question as an important one.
His visual understanding of the world is that at an apex of “Social meets art, art meets social.” He emphasized that being a photographer is not about only developing a technical skill, nor it is just about the pleasure of the image. Visual literacy is about deciding what is important to be documented and how it can be documented.
Giving examples of young photographers that have collaborated with him through Fabrica, he spoke sincerely of how these photographers had touched him with their courage in subject matter, honesty of view-point and thoughtful, artistic composition. This is something that has become very important to him in the way in which we understand the whole participatory practices of photography.