Photo shows actually worth seeing? Check. Interactive exhibits and workshops? Check. Free talks given by talented artists? Check. Laid-back Brooklyn vibes set to a backdrop of the breathtaking Manhattan skyline? Check. Photoville, the up-and-coming multi-day photo fair in Brooklyn Bridge Park, has it all.
Photoville is a pop-up photo gallery hosted inside recycled freight containers at Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York. Presented by United Photo Industries, the one-of-a-kind exhibition ran September 19-29, completing its second annual run. (Will it be back next year?) Free to the public, Photoville showed the work of a number of local, national, and international photographers; housed interactive exhibits; provided special classes for local middle school and high school students; offered a number of free workshops for photographers of all ages and skill levels; presented talks by admirable artists; and, last but not least, displayed a heartwarming passion for making photography accessible to the masses. With open arms, every exhibit, workshop, and volunteer welcomed all into their world of photography. And that’s the way art should be.
I visited Photoville twice, once to see a video exhibition for which I’d searched for over a year, and again because I didn’t get enough the first time. Though every exhibit was well worth seeing—and you would have needed several hours to visit Photoville thoroughly—here is what struck me as the highlights of this year’s event.
Question Bridge: Black Males
When I missed the first New York appearance of Question Bridge last summer, I thought I’d never again have the opportunity to see the exhibit. I was contemplating traveling cross-country just to catch it live when I saw that the video exhibit would be projected one night of Photoville. So I skipped my dance class to endure the mind-numbingly long subway ride to Brooklyn from my neighborhood in Queens. I then proceeded to freeze with a couple dozen other spectators in the cold, night air off the East River in Brooklyn Bridge Park. And I finally got to see Question Bridge. It was worth it, 200%.
Question Bridge: Black Males is a video exhibition that critically explores the challenges faced within the black male community. Over 150 Black men in 11 cities, including New York, Chicago, Oakland, San Francisco, Birmingham, Atlanta, New Orleans, and Philadelphia were filmed asking and answering questions. Some of the footage features the subjects listening and responding to video recordings of other subjects, while other footage shows the subjects asking questions of their own. The resulting video project includes over 1,500 exchanges “bridged” between black males living in different geographic, economic, generational, educational, and social locations. By covering topics as universal as true love and marriage to nuanced questions like, “Why is it so difficult for black men to be themselves?”, Question Bridge shows the diversity and complexity of the black male community. Question Bridge strives to undo the stereotypes that strip black males of their individual identities. As the Photoville’s website says:
Question Bridge strives to make it more difficult to say, ‘Black Males are___.’ If we succeed in deconstructing stereotypes about arguably the most opaque and feared demographic in America, then the Question Bridge model can work to overcome limiting assumptions about any demographic, therefore moving the needle on implicit bias.”
At times Question Bridge makes you question yourself as well as the status quo. At others, Question Bridge will make you chuckle and nod in recognition of a familiar feeling. Be on the lookout: the exhibit might travel to your city soon.
One of the most intense and gut-wrenching exhibits at Photoville, Liberia: Remembering featured the work of nine photojournalists who captured the final, brutal months of the 10-year civil war in the West African country that was established in the 19th century as a colony for freed African-American slaves. The images featured child soldiers, bloody streets, and refugees running for their lives, all captured in painful detail. Three of the nine journalists featured in the exhibit lost their lives covering other conflicts. In memory of Chris Hondros, Tim Hetherington, and Martin Adler, and in honor of all those who lost their lives during Liberia’s decade-long civil war, the show was presented by the Chris Hondros Fund.
Photo Requests from Solitary
What would a person in solitary confinement want to see? In 2009 Tamms Year Ten, a grassroots coalition of artists, advocates, family members, and men formerly incarcerated in Tamms Correctional Center in southern Illinois, initiated Photo Requests from Solitary. The project invited the men locked in solitary confinement in Tamms to request photographs of whatever they’d most like to see. After being locked up for 23 to 24 hours a day in small concrete cells averaging 7 x 10 feet in area, the men in solitary confinement at Tamms suffered severe mental problems as a result of a lack of human contact. Mental breakdowns, self-mutilation, and suicide attempts were common at Tamms. To provide the men some respite as well as to raise awareness of this form of torture deemed legal in the U.S, Tamms Year Ten began connecting with photographers to fill the photo requests. Requests included the sacred mosque in Mecca, comic book heroes locked in epic battles, Egyptian artifacts, a lovesick clown, a gray and white horse rearing in weather cold enough to see its breath, and more.
This year, the Photo Requests from Solitary project expanded to California and New York through collaboration with Parsons The New School for Design, Solitary Watch, and the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. The project is now filling requests from these states while supporting local campaigns to stop the use of solitary confinement. The exhibit at Photoville, curated by Laurie Jo Reynold of Tamms Year Ten, Jeanine Oleson, professor of photography at Parsons, and Jean Casella of Solitary Watch, featured over a dozen fulfilled photo requests from men locked in Tamms as well as requests from inmates in solitary confinement in New York and California. Members of the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement were on hand at the exhibit to talk about the campaign.
One of the most humorous, and perhaps relatable, fulfilled requests on display was a picture of JLo’s butt from the music video for “Jenny from the Block.” In one of the most touching requests, fulfilled by the curator Jeanine, one man asked to see a picture of his deceased mother surrounded by wealth:
My mother standing in front of a mansion, or Big Castle, with a bunch of money on the ground. OR if you can’t do that, THEN a substitution is a big mansion or castle with a bunch of money in front of it and a black hummer parked in front of it. I truly appreciate this a lot… Now I know somebody out there in the world cares about us in here.”
When I talked to Jeanine about the project, she told me that after helping fill photo requests from Tamms she worked to bring the Photo Requests from Solitary project to New York. She started a lab course at Parsons where interested students can become involved in the project. To Jeanine, the project is critical on both a political and cultural level as a way to both eradicate solitary confinement and to make photography more accessible. “I think it’s a really important project politically and culturally,” Jeanine said. “Just thinking about who has access to photography.”
The Depository of Unwanted Photographs
We spend a lot of time talking about and celebrating “good” photographs. This means we have a pretty solid (albeit varied) sense of what elements define good photography. But what about “bad” photographs? Do we have a repertoire of words to pinpoint what exactly amounts to bad photography?
The Depository of Unwanted Photographs hopes to build and define our understanding of what makes us find certain photographs displeasing. Conceived by Pete Brook and produced by United Photo Industries, the project is crowdsourcing people’s undesired photographs via email and snail mail and sorting them into categories. Soon, the Depository team will compile the images into a reference book of “Unwanted Photographs.”
Tracie Williams, a student at the International Photography Center, was manning the Depository’s pod when I stopped by. Tracie observed that people deposited photos for one of two reasons. “Some people are discarding pictures because they’re esthetically unappealing,” she told me, “while others want to emotionally disconnect from them.”
I deposited a photograph of a dirty bowl after I had just finished eating out of it. Check it out:
Pretty attractive stuff. You can deposit your own unwanted photographs here. Trust me, it feels good to be rid of the ugly ducklings wasting space on your smartphone.
For more information about Photoville, visit its website.