Today we hear from Amy Yenkin, the director of the Open Society Documentary Photography Project, based in New York City.
You’ve been working in photography and activism for many years. What first got you interested in photography and when did you realize the power of photography to advance social change?
I came into this field by luck. It was 1997 and I was working at the Open Society Foundations as the Associate Director of U.S. Programs and we were moving to a new building with a lot of wall space. I heard that photography might be installed and I wanted to get involved. Before I knew it, I was running the Moving Walls exhibition. But I had a lot to learn! I was fortunate to have our two curators, Susan Meiselas, a Magnum photographer, and Stuart Alexander, of Christies, to teach me.
After a few years, I developed my expertise and hired a professional staff. The program grew from there but the idea was always that we were not just supporting photography for photography’s sake but rather for what it could do to advance human rights and social justice issues. Over time through our support of many projects we’ve learned what makes a project strong. Visuals and a compelling message are key, of course. But you also have to know what you are trying to accomplish with your photos (beyond general awareness) and who you are trying to reach.
You helped establish the annual Moving Walls exhibition. How has that evolved over the years? Can you talk a bit about what it means to honor these photographers in this public way?
When Moving Walls started over 15 years ago, many long term projects were being submitted for consideration. I mean, photographers working on projects for 5, 10, 15 years. At that time, there was still support through mainstream media for production. Photographers were able to make a living working for news outlets but still had resources and support to pursue personal projects. The issue was more with distribution as there were not many places to show a large body of work, either physically or within magazines. That’s all changed. Support for production and distribution have fallen away. I’m not seeing as many long term projects. Photographers just don’t have the time, space, and funding for this and it shows in the overall quality and depth of the work out there.
In this context, Moving Walls feels more important to me than when it started since it validates and recognizes long term documentary work (and the photographers who are doing it) by giving the work a place where it can be seen physically, not just online. The physical experience is important because you feel a different connection when you see the work together in one place, rather than moving slide by slide.
How is the rise of mobile photography changing your work?
We are interested in visual storytelling, no matter the method or platform used to produce or distribute. I am not seeing many long term projects being produced using mobile technology but I think that will evolve. What we are seeing is photographers using Instagram to form a direct connection with their audience and that’s exciting.
You’ll be taking part in a PhotoPhilanthropy workshop about photography and empathy. What comes to mind when you think about the role empathy plays in photography?
I think we need to move beyond generating empathy by giving viewers a path to respond. Many photographers want to “do something” with their work so that it can have an impact on an issue. The challenge is to move beyond eliciting a strong reaction or connection by giving the audience a way to get involved. I do not care for what I call shock photography – images that are very upsetting but that do not do anything more than just make you upset or feel helpless. The best projects empower both the subject and the viewers and do not rely on the same visual tropes that we often see repeated.
Who are some of the photographers whose work you’ll be sharing during the workshop?
I’m going to be discussing several projects during the workshop – I can name a few here.
I’ll be showing Shannon Jensen’s images of the shoes worn by Sudanese refugees as an example of a project that has had a tremendous response from viewers. Shannon initially shot more typical news images of refugees but could not get any media to respond. When she shifted her camera to the shoes, something different happened – people responded, the media responded. Something so simple ended up becoming so powerful. We can all relate to shoes and by not showing us the people wearing them, we are left to imagine their faces, their stories.
I’m also going to show how Eric Gottesman (who photographed people living with the stigma of HIV/AIDS in Ethiopia) and Pete Muller (who photographed women who had been sexually assaulted in the Congo) worked closely and creatively with their subjects to protect their identities.
Finally, I’m going to show two innovative projects that used photography to bring about changes in the criminal justice system: Laurie Jo Reynolds and the Tamms Year 10 Campaign (to close a supermax prison in IL and end the use of long term solitary confinement); and Lori Waselchuk who photographed and exhibited a prison hospice program.
Any thoughts on the upcoming Activist Awards?
As I reviewed the proposals, I was pleased to see that, despite cutbacks in funding, there are so many photographers who are committed to working on hard issues and partnering with NGOs. I really admire the commitment. Also, I’ve judged a lot of contests but have never done it live, in real time, in front of an audience, so am excited – and a little nervous – about that experience. I think it will make all of us focused and thoughtful.
Join us on March 8, 2014, for the live-stream of the 5th Annual Activist Awards. More information and full program here.
Take a look at this video of Amy Yenkin’s mentor and Moving Walls co-curator, Susan Meiselas, talking about the power of social documentary photography: