The magazine of photography and ideas
Photography, Expanded: Conversation with Chris Boot
Guest editor Susan Meiselas discusses how documentary photographers can respond to a transformed media environment by utilizing the new tools and opportunities for connection offered by digital platforms.
Throughout her career, Susan Meiselas has combined her work as a photographer with an interrogation, from both philosophical and practical perspectives, of the terms of documentary and journalistic practice. Through projects such as Kurdistan (1991–), an ongoing study on the history of the Kurdish people told through photographs, maps, and other forms of documentation, and Nicaragua (1978–), on the country’s 1970s revolution and its legacy, Meiselas has grappled with questions concerning the production, transmission, and reception of photographs, as well as the complex set of relationships that govern interactions between photographers, subjects, and viewers.
In her leadership role at the Magnum Foundation, which campaigns and fund-raises for photographers working on long-term documentary projects, Meiselas was instrumental in conceiving, with the Open Society Foundations and New Arts Axis, the “Photography, Expanded” symposium held at Aperture Foundation last year. Susan and I have maintained a long-standing dialogue about issues of mutual concern, and in the following pages we continue that conversation.
Chris Boot: What is the idea underlying the “Photography, Expanded” program that led to this issue of Aperture magazine?
Susan Meiselas: We are concerned with innovation in narrative long-form and in-depth visual documentary work that’s socially concerned and driven by the passion of wanting to know more about something, particularly in today’s shifting, and even occasionally hostile, media environment. Before the culture of free image exchange that we have now, magazines would partner with image makers on stories, supporting a community of independent image producers with recognized value attached to the reproduction of photographs. Now that that infrastructure is gone, we as photographers need to understand where and how to partner in different ways. Rather than feel fearful about what’s been taken away, we need to figure out the potential of what’s available. New distribution channels are constantly emerging and creating a range of possibilities for storytelling. None of these platforms is singular or dominant, so we can employ multiple modes of visibility. There’s also so much visual noise that it’s hard to make work that is distinctive and focuses the attention of the crowd in a sustained way. So “Photography, Expanded” was an attempt not only to learn about some of these new tools—such as social media, aggregation sites for crowdsourced content, open data, and mapping software—but also explore how to use them effectively.
CB: So the purpose of “Photography Expanded” was to empower image makers to experiment with new distribution mechanisms that will build audiences for their work?
SM: Yes, but it wasn’t just about getting more eyes on the work. We were trying to inspire new collaborations and distinct forms of photo-based narratives, such as participatory or interactive storytelling, in order to broaden the reach. Beyond that, we wanted to explore how these new tools and collaborations could engage audiences. How can we take people beyond the act of looking, sharing, and commenting, and inspire them to participate in a way that is sustained, substantive, and has the potential to lead to social change?
Our initial inspiration for “Photography, Expanded” came from some innovative projects coming out of the documentary film world, where filmmakers were partnering with designers, game developers, and other technologists to create multiplatform social engagement campaigns based on their work. We were also responding to the fact that photographers were already experimenting with new distribution tools but were hungry for a common space to share their ideas and meet others who are building and mobilizing audiences.
We wanted to create a symposium that wasn’t about what we already know but about what we want to learn. We wanted to stimulate cross-pollination and collective thinking. So we developed “Photography, Expanded” with partners outside the photo community, such as Wendy Levy, director of New Arts Axis, who has developed programs that merge documentary filmmaking, technology, and social justice, and the Transdisciplinary Design program at Parsons, which trains designers to work across disciplines to address pressing social issues. We brought together more than three hundred photographers, filmmakers, designers, social-media experts, and technologists and looked at examples of image makers who’ve succeeded in building new audiences. Ben Lowy, for example, talked about the way he built an Instagram community that promoted his work as a journalist and the issues he is concerned with, such as the aftermaths of the revolution in Libya or Hurricane Sandy. He talked about the unforeseen consequences and ongoing challenges of his success, of creating a beast that needed constant feeding. We also profiled projects that successfully bring together documentary photography, community-based organizing, and technology, such as Emily Schiffer’s 2013 See Potential, which uses large public photo-installations and a text message campaign that solicits and maps votes in support of community driven revitalization projects on Chicago’s South Side. We asked questions: Do you know who you are making photographs for? How will the photographs serve the communities they portray? Photographers often start with a very passionate engagement with their subjects, but an audience can easily get focused on the narrator, at the expense of the narrative. For a photographer to be effective, they must face both of these questions.
CB: Don’t these concerns have their roots in much older questions to do with how to work as an independent author-photographer and the ethics of storytelling? In your career, you’ve always been concerned with these questions, whether in the context of Magnum, or as an editor, or collaborating with groups.
SM: In my own practice, whether it’s been about me speaking through my pictures along with subjects speaking on behalf of themselves, or about working collaboratively with other photographers, as with the El Salvador and the Chile book projects, the evolution has been gradual. But things feel different now, because of the scale of what’s happening, and the speed. It feels like we have less time to figure things out. Take my akaKURDISTAN website from 1998, which involved a form of crowdsourcing by creating a virtual repository of professionally produced, archival, and family photographs that was designed to grow through photographs and text contributed by the site’s visitors. This was back before there were smartphones. If that project had happened ten or so years later, it would have been phenomenally different. Now it would have to have a much more dynamic framework of exchange from outside and within the Kurdish community. I would be turning to someone like Jonathan Harris, who I think is a true visionary. He creates brilliant “immersive” experiences and understands where storytelling meets an algorithm. He’s created Cowbird, a website and “public library of human experience” that allows anyone to submit and share stories and contribute to the conversation about themselves or about other themes. But if Instagram had been available when I was working in Nicaragua in 1978, I’m sure I would have wanted to use it as a way of reporting directly from the streets during the insurrection.
CB: In the past, the magazines decided whether your project was of interest to an audience or not. You relied on a relatively small number of gatekeepers to audiences. Now it seems an incredible liberalism applies.
SM: Yes, before, we depended on those gatekeepers for exposure whereas now, photographers, stories, and perspectives that may have previously been deemed undesirable have multiple avenues for self-distribution. That said, while gatekeepers limited the types of stories being told, they did provide the financing needed to support the kind of timeframe required for sustained storytelling. I did the Nicaragua work over twenty-five years, with different stages of engagement. I don’t know that I would be able to produce that body of work in today’s environment. It couldn’t have happened through Kickstarter, which exchanges a “pledge” for a “product” rather than just supporting a photographer’s process. So what we’re doing at the Magnum Foundation and through “Photography, Expanded” is trying to create conditions where longer-term projects are sustainable and effective. Building partnerships, planting seeds, and fertilizing them, hoping to see a harvest in the near future.
CB: How can this issue of Aperture develop that process?
SM: I see this as a continuation of trying to understand the experimental space that we’re confronted with. “Photography, Expanded” explored new tools and strategies for storytelling and audience engagement, but this new terrain raises larger questions about values and ethics. What does this all mean? What is at stake? This issue of Aperture is an attempt to explore some of the broader questions that emerged as a result of the symposium and understand the storytelling experience we are now creating, from the points of view of the image makers, the participants, and the viewers. There’s a certain way in which we understood photography historically—the idea that you go out and picture the “other,” come to know the “other,” and bring back their image. We understand how the subjective first-person narrative works, and the traditional equation of author, subject, and viewer. But how does the medium and the meaning change, when the so-called “other” participates and shapes the end result? And how does that change the reading or the experience for the viewer?
There are many questions about the quality of the online storytelling experience. When you get aggregated content on a website, does a viewer want to engage with a grid of a hundred faces, all who have stories to offer? The scale can be intimidating; how much tolerance, how much patience, how much space do we have in our lives to engage with the anonymous? Are we creating forms that make engagement more likely, or are we risking more overload?
CB: In this context, what happens to authorship?
SM: We as authors want to be more connected, but are we creating the means for greater connection? We’ve created forms where people feel different because they can contribute, but is the reader equally engaged? Looking at Basetrack—a website and social-media reporting project (see “Basetrack: Conversation with Teru Kuwayama”) that combines photographs and reporting from embedded journalists in Afghanistan with images and commentary from the troops and their families—we are excited about a platform that creates multiple perspectives. So we have a war story not only from the photographer’s perspective but also based on contributions from the soldiers and their families. It’s very different from the single-voice narrative we’ve been used to. All of this is the circle that we’re trying to figure out. At the same time, we’re trying to diminish the fear that what photographers do is no longer relevant, valued, or sustainable. Whether we talk about collaboration, or creative partnering, or new tools of technology, or new relations between photographer, subject, and viewer—it’s all about expanding the role of the photographer and finding new ways, both economic and creative, to sustain documentary storytelling. Authorship still matters, but it is shared and in dialogue with others. We know photographers make frames, but we deeply believe they can also create frameworks—more complex narratives that will invite greater engagement from readers.
Chris Boot is the executive director of Aperture Foundation.
Susan Meiselas is the president of the Magnum Foundation. Her ebook Chile from Within was released by MAPP Editions last September.
Announcing Aperture magazine's fall 2020 issue