• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Thursday 26th April, 2007

When what you get is what they see

Anyone connected with child development research and the outward flow of knowledge into social policy and practice will know something about the difficulty of portraying the children and families who are the focus of the work.It is not such a big problem for the researcher, who may feel the world she is investigating does not need visualizing; but beyond the boundary of the study, wherever a finding is to be broadcast or implemented - right here on this screen, for instance — there is an irresistible need to picture it.The arguments about visual representation are very complicated, but at a simple, practical level it is tough enough for the civil servant, the service designer or publicist to have to ensure that the age, gender, ethnicity, dress, likely social background, attitude or physical demeanor of a particular adult or child in a certain picture does not prejudice his message. He must not seem to exclude, categorize or condemn.Little wonder that the publisher will often go for the set-up shot in which the ingredients, down to the smile and the level of the gaze, have been modeled — even if everyone will know very well, even from the most cursory contact with the scruffy realities of life that what is being portrayed is entirely fictional and grossly 'unscientific'.Not to suggest it is the answer, but there is an alternative approach to the problem of portrayal that can come from considering where and whose the examining ‘eye’ should be. In the case of the Government campaign or the school prospectus, we are asked to see childhood or parenthood from the point of view of the cautious, well-meaning manicurist. But what if we were turn the camera around?Wendy Ewald is an unusual combination of artist-photographer, educator and social activist. She collaborates with communities and with communities of children, often in the poorer places of the world. She allows — and empowers —them to use the camera to indicate their own perceptions of their own lives. There is ambiguity in her approach, too — the results can look as disconcertingly artful — but she strives after something fundamentally different, nevertheless: she hands children a camera in order to give them a voice.So, for example in Richmond Virginia, she worked with a group of second, third, fourth, and fifth graders at George Washington Carver Elementary School to make images and texts about their perceptions of self, home, and community. The students directed her photographs; they added their own texts to the portraits. Then 29 monumental portrait banners were made for the Carver neighbourhood, each measuring 10 by 8 feet, hanging in 12 outdoor locations. The intention to show whose eyes are doing the looking could hardly be clearer.• the Carver neighborhood of Richmond Virginia was settled by European immigrants in the mid-1800s, it later became a predominantly African American community of freed slaves. Many residents owned and worked in small businesses, but with the shift of residential demographics during the 1950s it began to decline. By the 1970s, it had fallen into disrepair and was struggling for its survival. Barbara Abernathy, a longtime resident who heads the Carver Area Civic Improvement League says: ‘For the past 25 years, residents of Carver have fought to revitalize our neighborhood and make it a place where families can come together,’ she says. ‘We've worked hard to make it a place where people will want to raise their children.’• Wendy Ewald has collaborated with children and adults around the world, working in communities in Labrador, Appalachia, Colombia, India, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Holland, Mexico, Canada, North Carolina, and New York. Born in Detroit in 1951, she is a senior research associate at Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies and an artist-in-residence at the University’s John Hope Franklin Center. She is also a senior fellow at the Vera List Center for Art and Politics at the New School for Social Research in New York. She has received many honors in recognition of her innovative creative practice, including a MacArthur Fellowship and a Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Visual Arts Fellowship, as well as grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, New York Foundation for the Arts, Andy Warhol Foundation, and the Fulbright Commission.

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