Centre for Contemporary Photography, 404 George St, Fitzroy

October 11 – October 27

Words – Karla O’Connor

Photos – J Forsyth

People often make the mistake of thinking that I’m cool. I think it’s because I dress well and have quite a lot to say about quite a lot of things, plus I’m guilty of saying ‘man’ and ‘dude’ fairly regularly. But the truth is I’m a total nerd that is absolutely in love with social research and all things social science. I believe this has something to do with why I found Wendy Ewald’s Making Models exhibition a magnificently poignant collection of artwork.

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Wendy Ewald is an American photographer and educator who has used her fancy for photography to craft avenues for communities around the globe to conceptualise their own worlds. This process allows concepts such as identity to be challenged and questions about cultural differences to be probed. A great example of her work that is currently showing at the Centre for Contemporary Photography is a series of photos she took in North Carolina from 1994 to 1997.

A little before this time, public schools along city-county lines were segregated, and in 1992 African American city schools merged with predominantly white county schools. Wendy worked with students in these newly integrated schools and asked them to write about themselves, in effect, creating self-portraits. She then asked the students to write another self-portrait and alter negatives to create images as if they were the other race. Not only did this allow her young students to explore their own identity and question stereotypes and differences, but it also challenges the concept of who is actually making the art. Is it she, the photographer, or her students who are altering the negatives and creating something new? We have to ask ourselves, who is the artist and who is the subject? This is precisely why this current Australian Premiere of her work is titled Making Models: The Collaborative Art of Wendy Ewald; it is collaboration at it’s most meaningful level.

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Wendy often uses written narratives of people she is working with, combined with her photos and the photos of her students and this is exactly where my social research love affair comes into play. Participatory Photography (or PhotoVoice) has been used in research projects in the field of community development since the 1990s because of its power and potential to be a flexible and empowering tool for gaining insight into the lives of people in different communities. It is a method that combines photography with grassroots social action.

PhotoVoice is a collaborative participatory methodology in which often marginalised participants are encouraged and supported to generate their own photographic work in order to share their lived experiences and present the world as they see it. It allows groups of people to conceptualise their circumstances and their hopes for the future. This process is accessible, it is communicative and can be therapeutic and influential in creating change. So not only is Wendy Ewald a prolific artist, she is a master researcher, who has been representing different communities from the inside out or decades; long before any social scientists developed the technique.

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Ewald’s work tells the stories of people experiencing rapid change and who find themselves living trough situations of social conflict. In 1991, for instance, she held a residency in Chiapas, Mexico, where the Tzolzil Indians, descendants of the Mayans, had lived side by side with the Ladinos, descendants of the original Spanish explorers. Her powerful images were taken just one year before the Zapatista movement demanding equal rights for Indians.

From Israel to Colombia, to India, Saudi Arabia and South Africa, Wendy Ewald has produced an extraordinarily unique body of work that recognises not just that which she sees, but perhaps more importantly what other people see. This highly recommended exhibition has the potential to show you a world from an artists eyes and also see and feel the world out of the lenses of people who live and breath it. Their visions raise questions worth asking, so go… see… ask… question… consider… enjoy!

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