The Illusion of History and Photo Education

I’m sitting in a room surrounded by curious minds actively discussing ideas surrounding photo education – teachers, students, curators, critics, they’re all here at the national conference for the Society of Photographic Education. What is there new to learn? Whatever you open up your mind to.

At the same time, I noticed a different type of discussion about photographic education happening on Facebook – a question was asked regarding resources on photos of Latino communities on the group called “A New History of Photography.” The thread develops an interesting discussion about outside versus local views, turning into an engaging and meaningful discussion. It was short lived (the thread was deleted), but it raised the kinds of questions we should all be asking, as educators, students and viewers, when photographing within and beyond our own backyards.

En Foco Street Gallery, Mott Haven, 1979
© David Gonzalez, En Foco Street Gallery, Mott Haven, 1979.

How would one even begin to understand inside/outside when more and more we live in a society that puts everything on display? Am I Latin American or Guatemalan? Do I have more in common with the mechanics in Willets Point or with my photography colleagues at SVA? What do American born latinos think of me?”  — Jaime Permuth

Dawoud Bey, in his eloquent way, reminds us of how history tends to slight or completely ignore the works of those who have made work from inside of various marginalized communities. He continues, “Both insiders and outsiders can bring something meaningful and valuable to the representation of these communities, but it’s the works of outsiders that is often most privileged in the public arena while those who have been working inside those communities or from inside those cultures remain largely unknown. This was alleviated ONLY when historians like Deborah Willis started to publish and organizations like En Foco began to exhibit, publish and document.”

One thing I must say; when you ask the question I’ve been asking, few people come up with En Foco. Why is it that these artists/photographers are not mainstream?” — Lori Grinker

Good question. Since that Facebook group does not encourage discussion, we might never know what else could have been learned – which is why we are continuing the dialogue here.  Generally speaking, we only learn what our teachers already know, or what they have prioritized as important enough to share. We learn equally from looking around us, and if mainstream art/culture is myopic (to use Ricky Flores’ term), the illusion often remains, unchallenged.

Don Gregorio Antón poses the question:

…what happens when history has not recorded a diverse representation of others? How will it define, educate, or accurately translate the contributions of those missing from the walls and from the classrooms of our institutions? It will do what it has always done. It will reluctantly celebrate the days and months given over for such things as Day of the Dead, Black History Month, and Asian Heritage Week, missing out on the lesser-known ceremonies of life that affect the disabled, the elderly, or the queer. We will know little of those without proper identification. Lost will be the good examples others would have sought to build upon, inspirations slaughtered by those left uninspired. Yet, what will we learn from a culture that misinterprets others? That has learned indifference from indifferent institutions? That assumes the cracks that many of us fell or were pushed through, are no longer present? We learn nothing but the vast distances that apathy creates between those who need each other most.” (excerpt from Of Fields and Fissures: Facing Diversity & Leveling the Playing Field, Nueva Luz photographic journal, vol 14#2)

David Gonzalez wrote a thoughtful and knowledgeable piece of about a different legacy of Bronx photographic history, in response to the dialogue on “A New History of Photography.” The thread was removed before he could post it, but we are happy to provide a home for it here:

As I once wrote in a 2009 cover essay in the NY Times Metropolitan section, I returned to the South Bronx in May 1979 with a Yale degree in one hand and a camera in the other. En Foco gave me the chance to actually work in photography, teaching at CS 61, which was then the only occupied building on Charlotte Street. The reality my students and I photographed – even in the most bombed out neighborhood – was a hell of a lot more nuanced than portrayed in pop culture and mainstream media. (That belief was also an organizing theme of the Bronx Museum’s “Urban Mythologies” exhibit in 1999, organized by Betti Sue Hertz. Check out the catalog.)

This is not a blanket dis at everyone who came up to the Bronx. Shooters like Lisa Kahane have shown great love for the Boogie Down (and still do). But too often photogs – and writers – parachute in looking for what they think is the real deal. And too often, that “reality” is a distortion of what is there. Let’s find the most broke-down, dysfunctional, crazy folks we can. Such a thrill. It’s a visual hit and run, with the community being left trampled.

There are a lot of shooters who have documented our neighborhoods who are known to only a handful of us. For example, Frank Espada, truly a trailblazer, who studied with Gene Smith in the 50s, had to take a job he hated at an electrician’s shop to support his family. He continued to shoot when he could, but magazine editors were not interested in his vision. But if you compare the work Frank did in East Harlem with the stuff Bruce Davidson did at the same time, it’s like two different universes. For my money, Frank’s was the more honest portrayal. Go see for yourself and check out his book “The Puerto Rican Diaspora,” which is an amazing document of Puerto Ricans from NY to Hawaii. But the sad fact is his most productive years were spent on the sidelines, while El Barrio and the South Bronx became places where others made their bones.

I know, a lot of people trek to Hunts Point or Mott Haven, intent on being a crusading, compassionate chronicler. But folks have to own up to their own biases. Jonathan Kozol, for example, wrote an entire book about the South Bronx – “Amazing Grace” – that totally ignored the efforts of grassroots clergy and congregations in rebuilding their communities. He knew of these efforts (since like with all his books, he relied on a clip job, in this case my many stories about the South Bronx). But the fact that locals were taking an active role undercut his thesis, that these communities were hopeless without an overhaul of the American system. He also ignored the yeoman efforts of the former Puerto Rican rector of the Epsicopal church he was writing about. Instead, he centered his book on a non-Spanish speaking, recently arrived Anglo woman priest who he then portrayed as the Mother Theresa of the South Bronx.

The fact is, there are now several generations of shooters from these communities, and some of us want to be able to shape the discourse on places that we still consider home, our roots, or our hang. We want to tell our story. That is why six of us have banded together for a 2012 show called Seis del Sur, where we are showing a more complicated picture of the South Bronx we knew. Each of us has a different take, but together, we hope to present a fuller vision of the South Bronx and its different neighborhoods (contrary to belief, it ain’t just one big ooga-booga wasteland).

For a lot of us, En Foco was the place that launched us on this trip. Charlie Biasiny-Rivera championed our work, and encouraged us to have this crazy interaction with our communities, bringing art to the block. While I worked with him, I started to look at where I was from, and used my camera to figure out what had been happening while I was off at Yale. I owe that group a lot, as do more than a few of us.

Which version, or who’s version of photo history have we adopted? When was the last time it was questioned? What great artist is in the periphery, doing incredible work without public acknowledgment? If you have found any photo blogs or Facebook groups that nurture an open discussion about relevant social issues, please post your comments below so we can all learn. I would respectfully challenge everyone to think beyond what is presented within the framework of ‘History’ – this curiosity can help keep the illusion of knowledge at bay.

I try to learn as much as I can because I know nothing compared to what I need to know.”  —Muhammad Ali

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