Guest blogger Matt Valentine reviews the latest Intersections in Photography –
I have an extremely cool job—I invite famous writers, photographers, artists and journalists to come to Austin for a day or two. I meet them at the airport, bring them to the UT campus to chat with students, then to a library for a public presentation. Sometimes I take them out for dinner afterward with a few colleagues. I’ve been doing this for seven years, ever since the UT Plan II Honors Program received an unexpected bequest from alumna Mary Lu Joynes, which makes all of this possible.
The guests I’ve hosted have mainly been writers—major contemporary novelists, poets and journalists, including Tobias Wolff, Mary Karr, Russell Banks, Anne Fadiman, Chang-rae Lee, Barry Lopez, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and many others. I love contemporary literature, but I also love photography. In 2009, I invited four excellent Austin-area photographers – Michael O’Brien, Sarah Wilson, Dennis Fagan and Faustinus Daraet – to present slides together on a panel at UT. The event was worth repeating, so to organize future photography panels with a similar format, I solicited help from an organization that was just getting started—the Austin Center for Photography.
Last Thursday, I co-hosted the sixth installment of “Intersections in Photography”, a series of panels sponsored by ACP and UT’s Plan II Honors Program. In planning these events, I work closely with Roy Flukinger, Senior Research Curator of Photography at the Harry Ransom Center, and Donna Decesare, an associate professor of journalism. Donna suggested the theme for the evening: “Picturing Crisis: Engaging the Viewer.” We invited three photographers and filmmakers—Mimi Chakarova, Scott Dalton, and Stephen Ferry—to show slides and clips of their work, and to discuss their careers documenting war, poverty, sexual slavery and drug trafficking.
Previous panels in the Intersections series have showcased photographers grouped together by various themes: “Growing Up in Texas,” “The Environment,” “Alternative Processes,” “Visions of Family” and “Creative Collaborations.” I was slightly apprehensive about “Picturing Crisis.” I wondered how our audience—which would include some professional photographers and photo enthusiasts from the Austin community, but also dozens of college students—would respond to photos of people fighting, dying, and suffering abuse.
Scott Dalton, a Houston-based photographer and an alumnus of the journalism program at UT, started the presentation with photos from his decade-long stint in Colombia (Read the ILTP Q&A with Dalton). Then he showed more recent work from the border region around Juarez, Mexico and El Paso, Texas. Working with the square format Mamiya 6 rangefinder camera, Dalton captures deeply saturated images with the characteristically shallow depth of field of the big 6×6 negative. Many of his photos are shot at twilight or in dark interiors, where some details are obscured by the failing light: A weathered old man in a drugged stupor reclines in a shadowy room, his eyes glinting as he turns to the window. An urban street, conspicuously dark, lit not by streetlights or glowing windows, but by the fire leaping from a bombed-out police car. Other photos show the mundane life that continues despite the violence: A young girl in a pink costume trick-or-treating through streets scrawled over with graffiti. A dog in someone’s front yard, oblivious to the murder scene nearby.
Mimi Chakarova, who teaches journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, was the second presenter. Her recent documentary film, The Price of Sex, recounts the experiences of girls and young women from former Soviet republics who have been sold into sexual slavery. Born in Bulgaria, Chakarova immigrated to the United States at age thirteen with her mother, a scientist. In the film, Mimi wonders aloud whether she too would have been forced into prostitution if she had stayed longer in her homeland. She narrates the film herself, and is an on-screen interviewer, speaking to women who have survived sex trafficking, and to men (including police officers) who have paid for sex. For “Intersections,” she showed selected clips from the film with almost no additional setup or commentary, preferring instead to respond to questions afterward.
As he began his segment of the presentation, Stephen Ferry passed around the galley proof of his forthcoming book Violentology, and asked everyone to feel the pages. Printed on pulpy paper, the book evokes the look and texture of the posters that are pasted in public spaces in neighborhoods throughout Bogota. In stark black-and-white, Ferry’s photographs depict recent and historical violence in Colombia. Ferry wants his new book to be widely accessible, at little cost. He’s made portions of it available for free PDF download from his website, and exhibited some of the work in Colombia, pasting the prints to the gallery walls, just like posters in a bus station. A sometime contributor to National Geographic (which accepts photographs made with any technology, from digital to tintype), Ferry still favors his 35mm Nikon camera and high-speed black and white film. “I visited a multimedia class this morning,” Stephen said, “and they were thinking—who’s this luddite?”
During the question and answer session, a student asked “how do you keep yourselves safe in dangerous situations?”
There was an awkward moment while the three photographers looked to one another, wondering if anybody wanted to answer the question. Nobody did. It’s a question they’ve all been asked before, and they were uncomfortable answering it. “I’d like to guide people to pay more attention to the work, “Mimi said. “Rather than [our] experiences and battle scars, though there are plenty. But here’s the good news—we’re all here. We haven’t run out of luck yet.”