#PhotoEx blog by Miki Johnson


The Collaboration and Responsibility

We saw it over and over again in the projects presented at Photography, Expanded: a laser-like focus on audience and goals.

Whereas traditional social documentary photography imagines the photographer’s role as bringing images from remote areas to a wider audience, many #PhotoEx projects begin and end with a small community, often documenting itself.

Take, for example, Pete Pin’s project on the Cambodian diaspora. He is himself a refugee from the Killing Fields, and one of the early iterations of his project brought together members of his community to talk about their experiences, using photos he’d made as a starting point for conversations. Now he is prompting young Cambodians to ask their elders for artifacts from the old country as a way to create inter-generational dialogue.

Wendy Ewald, who is well-known for her projects educating communities to document themselves, gave cameras to the Innu people of Labrador when she visited decades ago. More recently she has returned with photographer Eric Gottesman, and they are working hand-in-hand with community organizers to create a game that will engage young Innu with the history of their people.

In these ways, photography becomes a means of empowerment, a way to process trauma, a way to educate oneself, or a way to start a dialogue. At the same time, the photographer’s own documentation can take a back seat to their role as a teacher of documentary techniques.

Another hot topic at #PhotoEx was Human Centered Design (a great primer here). One of its foundations is the importance of bringing together and interviewing all stakeholders as early as possible, including community members, NGOs, teachers, policy makers, technology and design. This helps ensure goals and strategies that serve the intended community, but it can also present needs and strategies that are conflict with a photographer’s more purely artistic ambitions. I’m interested to see how photographers (or multi-platform storytellers of any kind) will evolve in their approach to authorship as their role in such projects becomes more of a director or organizer.

Which seems to beg the question, is the photographer even the leader of these projects anymore? Is anyone? Maybe this is the time to employ a truly collaborative model. Something where several people equally “own” a project.

If that’s the case, it’s doubly important to spell out each collaborator’s responsibility. As we also saw during #PhotoEx  online projects can have a long tail. Sites are being built that are designed to live for five or ten years after their creation. Who will continue to make the small changes and upgrades necessary for that kind of timeline? Who will be responsible for continuing to pay for servers and services? The earlier these questions can be addressed, the more successful a project is likely to be.

-Miki Johnson, blogging for #PhotoEx

Simone Salvo