Respect is the origin of the image: An interview with Wendy Ewald
WE: I'm curious what your work is like.
JW: Besides being a photographer interested in street photography and documentary photography I worked with children for many years. I began working with kids as I began to study photography.
WE: Like me.
JW: Oh, is that right? My concept of photography was blossoming at the same time I was hanging out with first and second graders for the first time. The way they saw things really influenced how I started to look through my camera. I think that is why your work really resonated with me because it was the first time I had seen someone working with photography and children and it really inspired me to find my own ways of doing that too. Working in that way really got me interested in collaboration and trying to use the camera in different ways, trying to blur the boundaries between subject and maker and also playing with the boundaries of documentary photography. We unfortunately have to write about ourselves for our thesis paper. So as I have been thinking about the main influences on my own work and development as an artist, your work was really important for me in a lot of ways. Mainly, the idea of collaboration and using photography and the camera for more than just one's own creation. I suppose a good place to start might be around the idea of collaboration and what led you to work with children and use the camera in a collaborative way.
WE: Well, I really did it from the beginning but a lot of that was just who I was. I was the oldest of six children and I had lots of brothers and sisters around. We made plays and I directed them. Also, having to help my injured younger brother sort of added an educational element to that. So whatever we did - and I have a sister who is an artist too - we sort of combined doing it with our brother and sisters as an educational experience. So when I went to college I thought I'd major in education but I just wasn't that interested in it. I just wanted to make art.
JW: Was it a conscious effort for you to work collaboratively or was it more intuitive?
WE: It was pretty intuitive. It wasn't something that anybody did or there wasn't a name for it so it wasn't an option. When I started doing it after high school it was just clear that you could get stuff that you couldn't get any other way. You could get an insight and images that weren't possible to make any other way in the situation I was in.
JW: Giving kids cameras and sending them off?
WE: But we were really together, walking around. In the situation I was in it was a very split. The generations were extremely split so the kids really wanted somebody who was closer to who they were than their parents were. They had been colonized recently by the government and the Catholic church so they were wearing different clothes and speaking a different language. They were going to school and their parents had a completely different life. It was useful and emotionally necessary to have an outlet and to have people from this outside world that had basically colonized them take an interest in them.
JW: From my own work I know that there are many different levels of collaboration and ways that one can collaborate. I'm wondering how your ideas about that have formed and changed. I know you do a lot of different projects and work in different mediums so I'm curious how your ideas have developed over the years.
WE: They've really changed a lot. It's very simple to say that when I started out I was making pictures and the people I was working with were making pictures and everybody saw that as two separate things - well they still do, a lot of people still ask "where's your own work?".
JW: I never imagined you'd get that kind of response. I've heard that a lot myself over the years.
WE: In the beginning I felt badly because I felt like what I was doing didn't have the value that another artist would have.
JW: Or, "oh it's just kid's work", that kind of thing?
WE: Yeah, and also in the beginning people really couldn't see the pictures. They couldn't see them as interesting pictures.
JW: Just because it was children taking them?
WE: Well they knew that but also they looked different.
JW: It was a different sensibility that was framing things up.
WE: It was that and the surface was different.
JW: It wasn't the kind of precision you see in so-called professional photographs.
WE: And neither was the composition like anything they had seen. Also if you look at Appalachia for example, if you look at how Appalachia had been portrayed it was through a particular lens which was this poor white trash of America basically. So to see these pictures that were different on all these levels.
JW: People had to wrap their minds around them.
WE: And even photographers or photographers that I knew who were working in Appalachia I can remember the sort of "a-ha" moments for some of them.
JW: I'm curious if you had to convince the galleries and the art world that this was serious work. Or, how you dealt with the hurdle of their bias toward children's work in general and the fact that they couldn't see the art in the work.
WE: Well I know that in the beginning publishing Portraits and Dreams, the Appalachian book, was really difficult. It took me five years to find a publisher, even the University of Kentucky rejected it because they said they didn't know what it was. It wasn't an oral history and that's the only thing that they could kind of figure out.
JW: Because it blurs the boundaries of some things?
WE: Yeah, and the idea that you would have pictures that functioned as sort of oral histories but not really. I remember years ago asking if Aperture would be interested in publishing some of the pictures and Carole Kismaric who I ended up working with later said, oh, no we don't publish children's photographs. So there have been people that have apologized to me years later even at CDS.
JW: You mentioned that this worked blurred the boundaries of certain things and people didn't know what to make of it. In thinking about a lot of your work and about my own work that I've been doing in Durham. I did a project at the bus station there and I stumbled upon this history of Durham that answered a lot of my own questions about the city. I have always felt this tension in Durham and when I moved back after 13 years it was still there. I wasn't sure if it was because of Duke and it's relationship to the larger community. What I stumbled upon was the history of the Hayti neighborhood and the thriving black business class that existed in Durham at one time. My thesis film this year I am making it on a bus, riding the bus, but I am not interested in telling that history and that story. You work in these places that are historically charged or politically tense but your work isn't really interested in hitting people over the head with these histories or your own politics or even the women or children's politics. So, I'm wondering what's the attraction for you in working in those kinds of spaces?
WE: Some of them are more conscious than others. I didn't know much about Columbia when I went so it was just a place that I ended up. Once I was there I was really interested in really looking at the history, starting with this one village but then going back to La Violencia and the wars and all of that stuff is really important once you are working with any community. But I think for someplace like Saudi Arabia for example, what I am interested in is stereotypes or regularly consumed stories about a place and I want to know what is behind that. I didn't really want to go to South Africa because I didn't know how I could get beyond that political narrative and I was really worried about that. But, of course, when I got there it was very different and there were many more layers and complexity. I really didn't want to go work in Israel either because there was this binary or what I thought was a binary. And, then I ended up doing fourteen different projects. I have some anger about how things end up getting portrayed in the West. I'm interested in how things get that way and why things are portrayed a certain way. Without that complexity you can't really get there and I think you can't really get there without letting people work with you.
JW: So is the goal in making the work just to achieve some sort of complexity? I see a lot of poetry and poetic qualities in your work. I'm curious about those choices and why to layer in those interests rather than just making the politics complex.
WE: No, I am very interested in the idea of communicating and communicating human being to human being. I guess I have a sense of how I use the camera, how I see the pictures, how I hear the stories, what questions I want to ask. I spend a lot of time as I'm sure you do thinking about what those questions are and letting the place and the people educate me about those things. But it's very important for me to make something that touches other people and of course that is very personal.
JW: So, not just getting the facts out there or setting the record straight or complicating the narrative but communicating some sort of emotional qualities as well.
WE: I remember showing Portraits and Dreams to this woman from Detroit and afterwards she said that she has always been really frightened of those people. I am looking at this and realize they are really warm, loving, fuzzy, etc. Also it blows my mind how isolated we are from each other. It constantly comes up and that is a real motivator for me. In Israel it's fascinating because the government has made such a fine science of isolating people. I remember the first day we went to Nazareth and my Israeli assistant who is very left wing had never been there. We were hanging out with Arab families in this village and they were talking about what happened in '48. After that evening my assistant said how important that was for her that we had that conversation and were eating and drinking together.
JW: There's this level of mystery or ineffability in your work and am curious if this was a conscious effort to achieve that quality or — I guess I'm just curious about that quality in your work.
WE: I think that is just who I am. The very first work I did in Canada I remember somebody telling me it looked like Robert Frank's . That was the time, the late '60s so there is also a time thing going on and what I was influenced by.
JW: Do you mean your interest in Robert Frank was showing up in the work?
WE: No, what I meant was that whatever created Robert Frank, you know, the time, the political climate, whatever, was what I was picking up on too. Also the equipment and what was possible, people don't talk about that. Mostly people used 35mm or large format, professionals I mean. I just think that is what interests me. It's definitely there, I am not making it up. But I'm also influenced by the spirituality of whatever is going on wherever it is. There is certainly a lot of that going on in Appalachia.
JW: Can you talk a bit about how your formal ideas take shape? When you were talking about Columbia you said you discovered this history once you were there. For me often my ideas about the form of a piece are dictated by the content of the work.
WE: For the Columbian work I got a Fulbright Fellowship and I wrote what I was going to do and I just started doing it. It ended up that the main product out of it was a story of one woman and her family. That led me in different ways that I thought I would go. I thought a lot about Garcia Marquez and 100 Years of Solitude and other things because her story was somewhat related to it. She read it while we were working together and felt that was the case too. There was one publisher who wanted to publish it without any pictures and I didn't want to do that.
JW: Wow, that would be such a different book.
WE: Yeah and so the idea that was very important to me was to have photographs that show that it was a real thing, that Garcia Marquez does not come out of the air. Then there became a whole way of trying to think about the book. Where do the pictures go? How does the text get used? We ended up with written chapters and photographic chapters, one after another and then thinking about how you design it so that they are equal?
JW: Sometimes with text and image work it seems that images can really dominate the text and people don't pay attention to one or the other.
WE: Right well I think that is what happened in a way. I think most people who were photographers didn't read it which is ridiculous. But it's true, as photographers we're very guilty of that. But in this case I mixed my pictures with their pictures. I was using a Haselblad, they were using Instamatics so the images were square. Then we used that square as the same space for the text so that meant there were really long lines. We had to find something to break the lines with the paragraph break.
JW: This is backtracking a bit but I was just thinking about how you have all of these levels of interaction going on within the collaboration. Later in your work you developed this interaction between the photographer and the physical image as well that mirrors some of the conceptual ideas.
WE: Do you mean photographing the kids?
JW: Well later on in your work you have the kids marking the images or the negatives. There is another layer of interaction there. So there is an interaction between you and the kids, between them and their subjects, and then further between themselves and their prints. So I'm curious if it was a conscious effort to push this idea of interaction further or how you decided to take your work in that direction?
WE: Yes, I wanted to photograph them because I felt everybody would see the pictures and say "oh, these are taken by kids" but I don't think they really understood who took them. So, I wanted to make the kids present even more. The first time I really had them scratch was in India. It was something at first I thought about just as something beautiful, the text. But there are all these carved stones there in the village that are like 500 years old. It was all very appealing to me. I did some practice with the scratching on the negatives there but didn't do too much of it. I was making the photographs of them and that was great but they needed to be there more than me simply taking a picture of them. There was another layer of their presence needed.
JW: Something I am struggling with a bit in my own work is how to not give too much information or context for things. I feel like sometimes words limit the images or at least they can. So I'm wondering how you negotiate that. When you're thinking about these projects how do you ensure that the role of the text isn't limiting the imagery?
WE: Well I think it is always a negotiation. For my Israel project now I have lots and lots of text that the kids wrote or from interviews or whatever. So I don't know what I'll do with them. But, another issue is with the kids' pictures is the idea of them having some claim over how people see that image. That's why I started having them write titles for their pictures and talking about how people are going to come to this picture with these things in their heads and what do you want them to see?
JW: So it was a actually a conversation you would have with them about this?
WE: Yes. So some of the kids are more conscious about it than others. When I did Secrets and Games the exhibition I had a big, long argument with the designer about how he didn't want to put the titles with the pictures. I said, look, you have got to do that because if you don't have the title the intention of that picture is totally changed. So, it's been a struggle.
JW: In some ways that really empowers the kids and gives another frame in which to see the work, their own frame. I know you said it is a negotiation but is the process then trial and error of trying different things and seeing what resonates.
WE: Yeah, in that particular situation. Like any artist sometimes I'm more involved in the image and sometimes I'm more involved in the story. And, that comes out of the place I think but it also comes from me and where I am, what I've been looking at. When I went to Columbia I thought I wasn't going to be so dependent on text because I didn't speak the language that well and so I end up doing a book that is more text than anything else I've done. I couldn't escape.
JW: Working in the way that you do, do you see yourself as more of a director? And, is every role creatively satisfying?
WE: I think it's different at different times. Speaking about the Israel project, because that is what I'm working on at the moment, for me to do so many different projects at once was different. I couldn't get in depth in the same way or my experience wasn't as in depth although I was there for some of them for over two years. It was also one project playing off another project which was different.
JW: So the work was almost creating a dialogue with itself?
WE: Yes and so at a certain point I started out not knowing that I would do that. But, people started asking me if I would work with them and at first I said no because it seemed too much. Then I realized that I should be paying attention to this, people are asking me to do this and I should follow this. Then we got the idea of doing an atlas of the country. I got a lot of satisfaction out of the experience. I think that is very artful as well, what I'm seeing, what I'm thinking and shooting obviously. Also in editing, it's like going into somebody's head and that's amazing.
JW: Is that your process then to just create this big body of work then to sift through it and edit it when it's fully completed?
WE: No, no.
JW: Or, are you editing it while you are making it as well?
WE: Yeah, so I can understand it and understand where to go with it. And, we're all looking at it together too and seeing where to go.
JW: I had a friend pass along a really beautiful quote, I'm forgetting who the poet is, but she talked about the writing of poetry as a way of figuring out what is going on in her head and and a way of making her thoughts visible. Being back in school I've learned that is my process too but it is not everyone's process. It sounds like this might be similar to the way that you work too and that you're not really sure what you're saying until your in the midst of it all.
JW: In the kind of working that you do, working with kids an stuff, how do you think about the work living on... how it might live on with the kids or in the community?
WE: I think it's something that you never really know. I am very weary of making big claims for it or making claims that can't be substantiated because that's not really the.. it's a temporal thing that you're making together.
JW: And, I suppose that isn't the main reason that you are there.
WE: Right, yes because then I would be somebody else. That is why I always work with some organization or some group that feels it's beneficial to them and they can continue in different ways.
JW: Or maybe they already were or are?
WE: Exactly. I am not interested in creating institutions. The most interesting thing in that respect right now is that the Tanzania Project that we are doing is reaching so many people. We made teaching materials and work with many hundreds of teachers and are now trying to get enough money to make them for all the schools in the country. I am very interested in the idea of what you can do with a photograph in a place that has no visual aids, no books, very minimal computers. We thought that the teachers might be interested in working with the cameras and self-expression and all of this but that is not what they were really interested in. They were interested in having an image of something to use to teach with. What one of the teachers explained was like "when I teach I see something in my head then I talk about it and my pupil who is there then sees something in their head and then communicates with me. We never have anything in common and that is such a slow, laborious process and if i had an image...".
JW: So having an image is having common ground.
WE: Then you have this here and you can say this is what I see, tell me what you see.
JW: Right then you can talk about the differences in what you see or the similarities.
WE: Rather than having to repeat what I say. The other thing about the image, sort of an epiphany that I had, is that images are used as signs of respect in different ways and in different cultures. Respect is the origin of an image.