Raising the Curtain: In-process Updates from the PhotoEx Development Labs

Moderator Wendy Levy opened the second panel of this year’s Photography, Expanded symposium by inviting presenters to “raise the curtain on a process that is fully in progress.” Pete Pin, Katja Heinemann and Naomi Schegloff, Alissa Quart and Alice Proujansky, and Mark Strandquist are behind the four projects selected for the pilot of a PhotoEx project development initiative. Ready to move into the design and/or digital strategy phase, these artists were paired with design and communications experts for one-on-one meetings to implement a presentation framework. 

“You have to future-trip with these artists, and consider that this is what they’re thinking of, this is where they’re at now, and this is where they’re going,” Levy continued, and introduced the first of the brave panelists willing to reveal the secret stresses and unexpected hurdles behind their projects, and how they plan to overcome them.

Four years ago, photographer Pete Pin set up a makeshift portrait studio in his grandmother’s garage so he could photograph and interview her and learn about her first hand experience as a survivor of the Cambodian Killing Fields. That process helped him establish a more tangible connection to his own family history and inspired the project I Am Khmer.

“There’s a profound sense of loss, and a fragmentation of family and historic narrative,” Pin said. “We are disconnected because of intergenerational trauma, elders who survived the killing fields and their American children having survived the killing field of the inner city, in addition to language and cultural barriers between first and second generations.“ 


Slide from I am Khmer presentation

Pin said his initial vision was to create a mobile platform where people could show and share the family ephemera that he said was essential to forging intergenerational connections, but discovered that a participatory, grassroots approach was more effective and helped foster stronger relationships. By setting up workshops and providing a series of guidelines to participants, Pin was able to train people to gather personal stories and historic information from their elders. The interviews and images they collected have inspired more workshops that Pin hopes will help build a stronger sense of community among Cambodian-Americans. “There’s an incredible sense of urgency, because this generation is passing away, further fragmenting the historical and personal narrative. I believe this project can bridge that dialogue,” Pin said in closing.

In another project that explored the complex identities of an aging population, photographer Katja Heinemann and health educator Naomi Schegloff are focusing their efforts on AIDS and HIV survivors. The Graying of AIDS captures the struggles and growing pains of older AIDS and HIV patients and the lack of public health services dedicated to addressing their specific needs.


Graying of AIDS presentation

“AIDS is getting old, and in many ways, that’s a beautiful problem to have, but aging with HIV can have its own unique challenges,” Schegloff said introducing the project. “This is a historic shift in the AIDS pandemic, and it will have implications that researchers are only beginning to understand.”

The project began as a multimedia piece that explored 12 stories about adults living with HIV, and has grown into a global outreach effort, compiling portraits and interviews from 17 countries, with more in progress. But that evolution and exponential growth, while exciting and inspiring, forced Heinemann and Shegloff to step back, and carefully consider their goals and intentions.

“Sometimes people have a hard time understanding what we are,” Heinemann said. “They hear we’re a documentary and they think we’re a film. They look at our website and assume we’re an organization. And maybe we were a little confused ourselves. We really needed to step back and take stock.”

The mentorship provided by PhotoEx helped the pair refine and reestablish their approach, and helped them identify what they could feasibly accomplish, and where collaborations with existing AIDS outreach and media organizations would give them access to a larger audience, and provide different opportunities for people to engage with their project. “Different kinds of users find different parts of our project useful,” Heinemann said.  “Where our reach becomes more global, our approach needs to become more simple and straightforward.”


Slide from The End of the Middle presentation

Despite the multitude of options available for showing and sharing stories, presenters Alice Proujansky and Alissa Quart said they were also striving for simplicity in their project, The End of the Middle. Tackling what they called the underreported struggles of the shrinking middle class in America, the team decided to focus on what they felt their strengths were, and how they could bring the stories they collected to life online.

“I realized that the decline of the middle class had symbolic importance. When the middle class takes a dive, so does the American Dream,” Quart said. “We felt we could best spread awareness of this quiet crisis through simple, beautiful, sharable, well reported images, but do it without the elaborate bells and whistles.”

By creating a custom website that could serve as a landing page for people to contribute to the conversation, Quart said they also hoped to raise awareness about the declining middle-class to key policy makers and other funders and institutions who could provide support and solutions. “We felt we could move the conversation if we could move people,” Quart said. “Empathy is our metric.“

Mark Strandquist’s work has been largely driven by that same metric, making personal connections with his subjects and using their own narratives to drive socially motivated collaborative art projects. “The process, for me, is deeply political,” he said. “It creates a political framework for engaging with really complex issues.” His latest project, Performing Statistics, New Monuments, envisions criminal justice reform devised by those directly impacted by incarceration, and brings those ideas to artists, activists, policy makers and community organizers to produce large-scale but grassroots advocacy workshops and public art projects. 

“There’s a ton of different components, all these people, ideas and projects, and there’s a beauty to how and why they’re coming together to engage in these incredibly complex issues, so we needed a multidisciplinary collaboration to happen,” he said, adding that the designers he was paired with through PhotoEx helped him organize ideas and data in a way that allowed what he called the “social aesthetic“ of his project to remain intact. 


Slide about the design collaboration process from Performing Statistics, New Monuments presentation

Each presenter stressed that collaboration was key, not only with their subjects, but with their PhotoEx mentors, who provided invaluable guidance through difficult territories, and helped clarify huge concepts and lofty ambitions into concise goals and beautifully crafted, visually compelling projects. While each project is at a very different point in it’s lifespan from idea to reality, the challenges they face speak to a larger shift in the way stories are told and consumed, because it takes more than one platform, and more than one person, to tell a truly multi-faceted story. 

Very special thanks to Takaaki Okada, Sophie Hou, Anna Nolan, Christopher Taylor Edwards, Juan Francisco Saldarriaga, Joe Wheeler, Kiersten Nash, and Eulani Labay for their generous mentorship support in the development of and design facilitation for the Photography, Expanded labs and symposium.

This is the third post in a series that will recap and reconsider the issues and ideas presented at PhotoEx. Our next post will feature highlights from the Creative Strategies for Human Rights Campaigns panel with Boniface Mwangi and Thenmozi Soundararajan.

Written by Krystal Grow

Krystal Grow is an arts writer, photo editor and producer based in New York. She has written for TIME LightBox, TIME.com, LIFE.com, the New York Times Lens Blog, Stranger Than Fiction, and the DOC NYC blog. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @kgreyscale.

Simone Salvo