Monday, March 27, 2017

Always at Least Two

In these times of political turmoil, museums are faced with a question. How do they acknowledge that turmoil and the environment which many of us find disturbing, yet do it in a way that is appropriate and encourages dialogue. I recently returned from the conference of the Council of American Jewish Museums, where this question occupied center stage. Our local MIA has found a creative way to respond with their exhibit Resistance, Protest, Resilience.  The exhibit presents 60 photographs of protests and their accompanying movements both nationally and internationally.

The Artists' Lab met at the exhibition where Krista Pearson and Paige Dansinger led us through a series of thoughtful exercises as we digested the content and responded to it from our own experience. The exercises are based on Global Thinking Strategies and Project Zero.  We were asked to break into small groups, explore the gallery and select a photograph to which we responded.  We were then asked to consider the 3 Ys, 1) Why this topic matters to me? 2) Why might it matter to people around me? and 3) Why might it matter to the world?

A photo nearby caught my eye and I motioned to my group to join me.  In the center was a woman, obviously expressing displeasure to a group of men who appeared to be trying to figure out how to respond to her.  Some were laughing, others had their arms crossed over their bodies protectively. Most were young men, but one older gentleman out of Central Casting was looking askance.  I read the nearby text which reported that the photograph by Danny Lyon was in downtown Atlanta in 1963. Demonstrators were protesting segregation and unfair hiring practices while a mob began to abuse them with kicks and burning cigarettes. Note the young man in front holding a cigarette. Was he one of the attackers? A woman was walking by with a box of typing paper and bravely chose to confront the mob. Someone yelled, "If you feel that way, why don't you marry one of them?" She sat down and joined the demonstrators.

The question that confronted us was "Would we speak out?"  I thought about when I was preparing to attend the DC Women's March and read that you should record a phone number on your skin with a pen in case you got arrested.  My first thought was, "I'm not going to get arrested!" That was quickly followed by the thought, "What if I did? How would I feel about that?"  We live in our safe bubbles, but protest is not always safe.  At what point do we put ourselves at risk to support something in which we believe?

The woman in this picture had clearly made that choice. Her physical safety was somewhat protected by the snide "little lady" attitudes expressed by the smirks of some of the men. They were ill at ease with a woman confronting them, but hemmed in by society's expectations of how one treats a lady.  She was a white woman confronting white men, whether that restraint would be true for a black woman is more questionable. I liked her hand on her hip and the way she leaned forward, occupying her space. I would hope that I would be that brave, but am not sure if I would.  The men felt disempowered by her confrontation and tried to attack her verbally, but she was having none of that.  This image is about the power that one person can exert.

We also spoke of the photographer as witness. He was standing in the same spot we now stood when he took the picture. I wondered if the young man in the center smiling was responding to the camera. The photographer chose what to photograph and the perspective he wished to reflect.

When we looked at the broader world, we talked of the recent photograph of the Republican legislators around a conference table. This roomful of men were discussing the exclusion of  women's health care as a requirement in the recently defeated health care bill.  We noted that in many ways it hasn't changed much since the 1963 photo was taken. Men continue to hold the power and women need to continue to challenge.

We gathered as a group and shared our responses to the different selections. Jonathan  offered this pithy reminder courtesy of Ansel Adams who was asked why he never had people in his photographs. He responded that there are always at least two people, the photographer and the viewer.

Our second exercise was about beauty and truth.  We were asked to select a photograph and respond to these questions: 1) Can you find beauty in this story? 2. Can you find truth in it? 3) How might beauty reveal truth? 4) How might beauty conceal truth?

We found this one more difficult and struggled with how to define beauty. Was it a well constructed photograph? We were drawn to a photograph that was quite strong in terms of composition, but also puzzling.  We soon abandoned the questions, and instead considered how we evaluate it when we don't know the context.

The photo was titled "Demonstration Against War in Vietnam," seemingly straightforward, but less so when you realize it was taken in Beijing by French photographer Marc Riboud in the 1960s.

On the placards are images of Ho Chi Minh and Mao.  We assumed these were anti-American demonstrations. The partially cut off man in the corner, the man with the Mao hat in the middle echoing the image of Mao and the raised hand and open mouth of the third were powerful. The image rose in stair steps with a clear upward arc.  We spent a lot of time trying to figure out the story behind the image, only recalling bits and pieces of the history we had lived through.

It made me consider the fact that for each of these photographs, my first assessment was who were the good guys? Who were the bad guys? Often it was an assessment of who had power and who didn't. Race and gender were visual clues. Without a firm knowledge of the context, we were sometimes unsure in that assessment. Not knowing how to frame the image was unsettling. In these times of political turmoil we make much the same assessment, dividing the world into good guys and bad guys.

As we regrouped and discussed the different images selected, some talked of another photograph by Marc Riboud with a young woman holding a flower before soldiers. They asked the question of what if the woman was black or wearing a burkah. Just as in our original photograph, it would alter the perception of danger, the power dynamic.  Sometimes the story is not just about who is there, but who isn't and how that would change the story.

The process by which we interacted with the photographs added a dimension that we would not have experienced had we just walked through the show. The show runs through April 2nd.  Stop by, find a photo to consider and try these questions. 

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