Visualizing Change Through Interactive Photography: Transforming Identities, Transforming Research
December 15th, 2010 • Photo Theory
While researching material for this blog on a broad range of topics, (but with the clear focus of how to present thinking about photography and imagery in new ways) I came across a wonderful piece in the: Hmong Studies Journal, Volume One Number One, Fall 1996 Titled: Visualizing Change Through Interactive Photography: Transforming Identities, Transforming Research written by cultural anthropologist Sharon Bays.
When Sharon wrote this piece she was an anthropologist “gathering hard data from adults” living in Visalia an agricultural town in California’s San Joaquin Valley. As she describes in her paper she was taking a fairly traditional approach to working with and studying this specific group of people. But, via some prompting of two Hmong children to show them how “to make pictures” she realized by teaching them the physical mechanisms of how “to make pictures” with a camera and allowing them to use her camera to express themselves and explore their own identities this would give her further access and understanding into the culture she was studying while “gathering hard data from adults.”
Giving two children access to cameras to explore their own identities gave her an entirely new way to explore their cultural identities both through them and in an interactive way with them. She states:
“It was these very fresh, intimate and compelling images, both the color and the black and white, shot mainly when I was not right there, that convinced me that their photographs reflected their culture and community in a way that mine could not.”
“For Jamie and Pang our project came to be about their struggle as emerging artists that reflected their own unique young Hmong perspectives, which often clashed with those of their elders. Our ongoing dialogues became the grounds on which they tested their ideas about language, love and sex, and, for 15 year old Pang, the courage to redefine “traditional” concepts of marriage. They both tried on aspects of their culture to check the fit, rejecting some parts while embracing others. And they both endured considerable criticism from some members of their community for hanging out so much at my place.”
You ask – Ok, interesting story, but so what? What’s your point?
Photography is often thought about in the following ways or layers:
1.) First, people think about photography in terms of it’s tools. Or the camera.
2.) Secondly, photography is thought about in terms of it’s products. The photos.
3.) But, there are other levels. Like thinking about photography in terms of the process of creating the images and even deeper in terms of relationships that develop in the process of creating images. Thinking about photography in this way could mean that neither the tools nor the products are as important as the process or the interaction. And I would argue that this is more often the case than not.
Using our example above Sharon later explains:
“It was also the work with the children that pointed to the inherent difficulties of turning such comfortable ethnographic traditions on their heads. Once relations had changed and barriers broke down, I entered into a deeply personal realm of interaction that no anthropological text even hinted at how I might proceed.”
Why is this important? Whether you’re a professional photographer, or an editor, or a creative at an ad agency, or any person concerned with the output of images for your job – you have to remember that things change in the process of creating images, relationships change, the meaning behind the images change, even the purpose and function of the images can change. Very often image creators and image consumers don’t recognize the importance of the creation process in terms of the meaning or value of a given image or set of images.
I encourage you all in the future to think deeper about the imagery you create and consume. Ask yourself not what camera was used to create a given image, or even for what purpose, but try asking yourself – what happened during the process of creating this image? You might start to see all imagery in an entirely new way.