To be surrounded on all sides by Wendy Ewald's portraits of Durham schoolchildren can be a bit disconcerting. Close your eyes to the unwavering gazes and you can imagine a dozen hands raised in the air, insistently saying, "This is who I am. Who do you want me to be?" Although Ewald's eye looked through the lens, her hand adjusted the focus, and her finger released the shutter, more than 50 other sets of eyes and hands and minds and memories brought these images to the surface. "Durham: Collaborations with Children" is a show teeming with the lives that went into it and the lives that will be altered, even clarified, through similar collaborative projects initiated by Ewald and being carried out today in 14 Durham public schools.
By the time Ewald got to Durham in 1990, she'd been traveling for more than 15 years, taking pictures of children and teaching them how to photograph their own worlds. A two-week workshop in Durham at George C. Watts Elementary and C.C. Spaulding Elementary snowballed into an amazing and unlikely partnership between a nonprofit organization, the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, and a public school system, resulting in Literacy Through Photography (LTP)--voted this year by the Harvard School of Education as one of the 10 most sustainable arts partnerships in the country. Without collaboration, LTP would have slipped quietly out of town like so many curricular healers that arrive with great fanfare and promise.
For Ewald, the art came first and still does. The fact that the photographic process and product can be used to teach writing was at the time incidental. In a Kentucky coal-mining town and villages in the Gujarat region of India and Chiapas, Mexico, she'd been photographing with children and had used writing as an instrument to help them focus in on the image. In Kentucky, Ewald discovered that the photographs could actually be talked back to; they channeled an unforced introspection that was nearly impossible for the students to resist. From this discovery sprang "a program that would influence an entire school system and serve as a laboratory" for her own work.
Each year CDS trains around 30 LTP interns, volunteers from Duke, UNC-Chapel Hill and NCCU, to go into classrooms and carry out a project incorporating images and words. Ewald and LTP Project Coordinators Dwayne Dixon and Katie Hyde just led a summer workshop for teachers interested in designing an LTP curriculum for their classrooms. Once it's understood that the photographs taken by elementary and middle-school children represent the raw material of their lives and their writing, and that not even the children themselves can fully predict or control how the project will evolve, once the adults in the room are content to sit and wait--the rest is simple. They teach technique first: framing, detail, vantage point, and timing. Next, in a school darkroom built specifically for LTP projects, students learn how to develop their own prints.
After technique, the talking begins, about dreams, family, and each other. The class struggles with how to set up, visually and technically, pictures of their night-dreams--some horrible, of an uncle shooting a sister, some strangely wonderful, of parents turned into a slice of pizza and a rat. Students learn how to capture in light and form the dreams of who they want to become, how to photograph the feel of being another race. Because photography is a more youth-accessible medium of visual expression than painting or sculpture, children become fluent quickly and their images easily pass in the adult world. In Into the Light, a PBS segment on Ewald's work in Durham, she says to her young collaborators, "When you're taking a picture, you have to pick out the most important thing." There's barely a beat, when from the front row, a girl says with clear-eyed assurance, "I want to be the most important thing."
This first local exhibition of Ewald's collaboration with Durham children shows the best work from three school projects over 10 years. Portraits from Ewald's first workshop at Watts and Spaulding (1990), from the Black Self/White Self series (1994), and prints from the Alphabet Project with several ESL classes (1997) reveal the fairy tale and the nightmare of childhood. Her subjects trust the person behind the camera and like all of us, they can only speak from where they are at that moment, from emotional postures of hope, hopelessness, defiance, and beckoning. "The truly unsettling thing about the children's imagery was that, despite their inexperience with what adults may call rational thinking, their images tapped into certain universal feelings with undeniable force and subtlety," explains Ewald.
When asked to compare her photographic work with children from rural America (Kentucky) and urban America (Durham), Ewald says the difference lies in composition and visual range, which she feels is shaped by the landscape and tenor of life in Appalachia versus life in Durham, an old but growing city. Most of the family and community photographs taken by Durham children were inside their apartments and houses. They can't roam the woods, follow a river, or take a picture of their fathers headed toward a mineshaft. Initially, Ewald admits, the Durham work was not as playful or imaginative as her work in Appalachia. There was a restrained wariness that may have been learned from the violent communities in which many of the students grew up. Ewald remembers it came as a surprise to the students to be given responsibility for using and looking after the cameras.
The idea for the Black Self/White Self series grew out of the merger of Durham city (predominantly African American) and county (predominantly white) schools in 1992. Ewald wanted to explore racial identity, and the seeds were sown. She co-labored with teacher Robert Hunter and his class at Shepard Middle School, and with fifth-grade teacher Cathy Fine and her class at Pearsontown Elementary. For this project the students wrote self-portraits and then, after much discussion, wrote themselves again, but as the other race. Ewald photographed each child twice; the students directed the shot, posing themselves in their selected costumes and props. On Polaroid black-and-white, large format negatives, they imprinted the two images with words and shading. "Because we were working with negatives, which reverse the polarity of black and white in the world as it is usually seen," says Ewald, "they had to think carefully about scratching the emulsion in order to produce a black line, or adding a black mark to make a white line."
These portraits hang in the main gallery of Partobject. The prints are adult-sized or larger, and though the composition is simple, one figure looking directly out at the camera and at us from a print "distressed" or "textualized," its effect isn't unilateral. "Snow White" is probably the closest shot and is of an African-American child's white self from the waist up. All of her exposed skin is scratched white and she appears to be leaning on a wand. What's striking is the knowing in the girl's eyes, like she understands that most fairy tales are just dolled-up stories of abandoned children. Her classmate is a few yards away. It's impossible to tell if the child is a girl or a boy, but the image is definitely the black self, holding a camera on Ewald or us. Everything else in the figure, except fingertips and camera, has been scratched black, as if to say that the way we perceive one another is always about race, but through this lens we can envision a colorblind world.
The Alphabet Project is Ewald's most recent work in Durham. For years North Carolina has been a stop on the Central America-Texas-Carolinas migrant stream. Many of the Spanish-speaking children Ewald collaborated with in ESL classes at Bethesday Elementary (teacher, Emelia De Croix) were children of migrant workers who had "settled out." In this LTP project, Ewald and the students created a visual alphabet with Spanish words. The children chose the visual representation for each letter (objects and gestures) and again directed the shot taken by Ewald. From A to Z in the long hallway of the gallery, the images are framed in compelling pairs, like H for hola (hello) with I for impostor (spy) and M for máscara (mask) with N for nervioso (anxious). Throughout the process, children spoke of their alienation among their English-speaking classmates and how they faced mistrust and anger when they spoke to one another in their own language. The Alphabet Project is an attempt at meeting in the middle of the language divide.
From the beginning, Wendy Ewald was drawn to portraiture, intrigued by the concept of an implicit collaboration between artist and subject. In her early 20s, Ewald asked herself the question that would shape a lifetime of work: "Who really makes a photograph, the subject or the photographer?" Even though this collaborative work has an undeniable social consciousness, she insists that the images must first be aesthetically exciting and judged accordingly. Collaboration just adds more layers to an already layered process: "In working with others I had to learn to recognize what they were seeing and what kind of questions their vision asked of the world," she says. "I no longer wanted to frame the world according to my own perceptions. I wanted instead to create situations in which I allowed others' perceptions to surface with my own."
Robert Rauschenberg currently has a show of paintings on the road, and, in each town, he invites a group of new people to come to the museum and hang his work. Collaboration in visual art is surprising, but not unprecedented. It's probably more rare in photography, though, where the point is to stop time and fix light. Ewald's willingness to allow others to set up shots, pose themselves or scratch words on the negative is radical, but ultimately transforms her work beyond mastered technique and jarring beauty. Through collaboration with children, her photographs move in the world, taking on mysterious lives of their own that she could never imagine. Ewald prefers working with ages 9 to 13--children mature enough to manipulate the camera and develop film but not old enough to censor themselves. Photography as a medium both engenders and captures that uneasy transition we all go through into self-awareness, barbed sometimes with painful self-consciousness.
Ewald has just returned from the opening of a major retrospective of her 30-year career in photography at the Winterthur Museum in Switzerland. Looking through the gorgeous catalog, one is struck with the lucidity and power of her collaborations. So many discussions, decisions, histories and perceptions went into each image; still, the artist's message is singularly clear: It is crucial that we understand one another--child to adult, black to white, foreign to native born. In their making, the photographs were mouthpieces for the children, letters to a world that appreciates their buying power but not their opinions. With time they accumulate the weight of evidence and become letters to themselves about where they came from, who they were, and who they hoped to become.