Chris Johnson: Supporting Social Documentary Photography


For the last couple of years, I have been the director of the Mother Jones International Fund of Documentary Photography. This is a long way of describing an organization that was created under the umbrella of the organization that governs Mother Jones magazine, which is the Foundation for National Progress. It was created by Kerry Tremain, who was at that point the art director for Mother Jones and interested in documentary photography. He wanted a way to bring his interests together. Together with Ken Light and Michelle Vignes, themselves really talented documentary photographers, he created this idea. If you know anything about social documentary photography, you know that it's an incredibly rigorous profession. The kind of commitment that is made by social documentary photographers makes the work of us artists feeble by comparison. It takes a tremendous amount of time, energy and investment of resources, with very few opportunities to show your work. We're way past the era of the golden age of Life magazine, when there was an inherent respect for not just the quality, but the issues, behind the pictures that are made. We're such a visually oriented society that there's a tendency to consider the meaning, content and story behind the work. Much less a way to survive if the goal is producing a book of your work or exhibition, does that really do justice to the substance of the issue you're trying to explore?

So, what we do at the Fund is, in various ways, to try to support that. As a matter of policy, we divide the world into five big regions. We raise money by asking photographers who are well-established to donate their work to us, and then we sell those works in portfolios. We have support from all of the big name photographers that we can persuade: Sabastio Salgado, Graciela Iturbide, Bruce Davidson, Nan Goldin, Cathy Opie, etc.

A lot of people give us their work; we package them in portfolios and then sell them. We give one $7000 grant per region. Part of our task is finding out who is doing relevant work in those regions, which means networking with art directors, editors, or just photographers talking amongst themselves. We have them send us their work in slides, along with the synopses of their story. Then we put together a panel of jurors, of people who theoretically know something about the work and can make a judgment about who's doing not just the most beautiful photography, but is dealing with the most relevant story. We select, again, one winner per area and give them the grant. Just recently, we were finally able to close the gap. One of my goals was to try to find a way to bring the magazine more integrally into the process. I really do feel that the story is as important as the pictures themselves. I am happy to say that the next issue of Mother Jones will feature not only the spread on the winners, as we usually do, but the cover story will feature the work of the North American winner, Donna DeCesare I'll be showing you a few pieces of her work. As you can see, she's a remarkable photographer, and the story that she's dealing with she can tell you about much better than I do. I hope you'll go find the issue of Mother Jones and read it. It's very exciting to me that it's actually acknowledged on the cover. The hope is that the editorial staff of the magazine will find this issue to be such a success that they'll make this a regular part of the program. This would be in addition to the money. The money is meaningful; one of my goals is to raise the amount from $7,000 to $10,000. Still, even $7,000 to a person working in China or Africa is a substantial amount of support. People have to be in the middle of a long-term project. If the work has already been published, it doesn't qualify. They have to be at least a year and a half into a long-term project. They send us the work in progress, and we make our choices on the basis of the slides or prints. Sometimes we get Xerox copies. We give the grants together with an exhibition. The exhibition this year is going to be in San Francisco. It will open July 14. That's another phase of my career. What I would like to do is show you some slides from past winners.

This is an image by a photographer you should recognize. The first North American winner of our award was Nan Goldin. She was in the middle of The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. These are actually from the slides that she submitted and got her the grant. This is from a 1997 winner, Steve Hart. He did a project called Bronx Family Album. It is a very long and poignant series of pictures on a family of Puerto Ricans living in East Harlem. They were suffering through all the accompanying problems of poverty and drug addiction. It's a very powerful work.

This is a work from a photographer named Paula Sampaio, from Brazil. She has spent years photographing the building of a Trans-Amazonian highway, where she lives. The highway obviously had commercial and political intentions, but never considered the ecological effects, not just on the Amazon jungle, but on the people who live there. This is the work of Peter Magubani, who was the lifetime award winner. He's a renowned photojournalist from South Africa, best known for the work he did on the Soweto riots. Every year there's a lifetime award winner.

This is the work by a woman named Lila Kuznetsova, the 1997 winner from Russia. It's called The Life of the Gypsies. It's about people living gypsy life in the Middle East. It's really wonderful having this job, because it gives me a window on work being done all over the world. Any time I'm tempted to lose faith in documentary photography as a genre, I can just go to my office and look at this work.

This is from a project by a woman called Nadia Benchallal. It's called The Lives of Suffering and Intolerance in Women in the Middle East. It's a documentary on Islamic women.

Here is a work by a man named Mohammed Eslami-Rad. It's on Iran, just after the revolution. This is by Wu Jailin, in China, called People of the Yunan Valley. It was a documentary about the people themselves. They're a contiguous group of people who live a pretty isolated life, but are making a transition into modernity. As far as I know, these are not people that are in the way of the new dam that is being built there.

This is from one of this year's winners. His name is Li Lang. Again, he's photographing an indigenous group of people in rural China. It's really beautiful work. It's so exciting to see such sophisticated work being done in remote parts of the world. This is another one of this year's winners. His name is Samer Mohdad. The work is called My Arabias. It's on the diaspora of Arab people throughout the world.

This is from Brazil, by a man named Andre Cypriano. It's a very complicated project, about the interaction between an extremely poor neighborhood near Rio de Janeiro, called Rachina, the gangs who live in that area, and a prison that controls the drug trade within that community. He goes back and forth between the prison and the neighborhood. The prison is on an island called The Devil's Cauldron. It's very hard just getting access to the island and the prison, not to mention to the neighborhood. Recently, he visited my office and showed us boxes of new pictures. He was talking about how difficult it is even to photograph, because the crime network is so tight. Without permission, he would have been shot.

This was by a man named Gilles Saussier. The work is called Bengal, The Missing Territory. These are diptychs and triptychs that look at people who are living in the delta regions off of Bangladesh.

Last but not least, this is the work by Donna DeCesare. She's been photographing the unintended consequences of young men who are deported from Latin America to the ghettoes of Los Angeles and other parts of the country. They get into trouble and are deported back to their homelands. I don't know if I'm doing justice to the story. It's just about the exchange of youth culture between the Caribbean, Central America and American cities. It's a very powerful story. Donna is the winner of our award for North America this year.

So that's it. If any of you have any questions about the Mother Jones award, I can answer them.


Audience: How does one apply?

Johnson: That's easy: go to our website. It's www.motherjones.com.

Audience: I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the jury process. How does it get negotiated that people win awards? I'm sure a lot of people in this room will be applying for things.

Johnson: We try to make the criteria as clear as possible. You have to be in the midst of something. What we mean by ‘social documentary projects’ are anything that deals with the humanistic, environmental, social and political concerns of our world. The key to it is that we give one grant per region. We get about 350 applications per year, and the jury process, like many others, is a grueling, all-day endeavor. One thing that I instituted once I became the director is to always have an editor of Mother Jones as one of the jurors. That gives, again, the sort of editorial, content-based slant to the way the pictures are selected. It's not just a matter of selecting the best pictures. Our job, as you know, is to lay the pictures out in a coherent way around the room, by region, and the jurors go around. We use a conventional process. You go around the room once and put a little mark next to the portfolio that you like. Then there's a process of deliberation, and through that discussion, the winner per region is awarded. Does that answer your question?

Audience: (inaudible)

Johnson: Yes, she knows because she was actually a part of our process last year. The thing that's important to me is that there always be a debate. The debate often comes down to one person having stronger work and another having a stronger story. I try to mediate between those two. I try to avoid conflict of interest, because, being the director, I don't want my opinion to sway things too much, otherwise I would just make the decision. But I try, in the setup of the process, to make them aware of my concern for the story and image to be in balance with each other. Somebody who has a really wonderful story, but a body of work that doesn't support or communicate it, wouldn't win over someone who had really beautiful pictures that were about nothing. That happens a lot. If there's any continuity in the work that you've seen, it's that I'm really concerned with the meaning, content and reality of the work. That's why this feels like a coherent part of my career. I'm hoping that this generates ongoing support to those who are deeply committed on a personal level to things they are doing. The problem is how do you bring the story to the surface? The pictures speak for themselves. We're a very visual society, so that's relatively easy. Although that's not even easy, to find venues for the pictures. I know a woman named Marissa Roth, who just got a wonderful book published on the Philippines, that she'd been working on for years, but she had to struggle to get that work into print. She never even got a royalty for the book; it's almost like a labor of love. It's hard to get published, so this is a small contribution that we can make toward that process.

Audience: I'm curious about what you said, regarding the kind of work you look at. What are the parameters of what this group considers social documentary photography? What isn't included? What kind of work would not be looked at?

Johnson: Other than the general parameters, I would say that if the work doesn't engage a social, political, environmental, or humanistic issue, if it's not showing what's going on in culture or politics in an important part of the world, we won't consider it. That's partly why I showed you the pictures, because it really does fit into an ongoing tradition of photography, going back to Dorothea Lange, or Eugene Smith. It feels like an old tradition, but I'm hoping to show that it's still very much alive. There are a lot of people who are using cameras to try to reveal primary concerns that are happening around the world. These people believe that the combination of pictures and images is the best way to evoke those themes. Other than saying that, I would hope that the tradition evolves the way that overall photography does. Some of these works are, for example, in color, or abstract. I think there's a lot of room for the genre itself to evolve, as we try to find new ways to use pictures to be effective. Being associated with Mother Jones and having a tradition of social documentary photography hopefully does ground it, conceptually.

Audience: This is sort of switching gears. Your job sounds really interesting, and I was wondering how one gets there.

Johnson: How do you get my job? Well, first of all, it's really exciting that this job exists. It's an honor to be able to do it. When you listen to the stories that are behind the lives of the people who are doing this work, it creates a powerful motivation. I don't do that kind of work myself; it's the contribution I can make. Kerry Tremain was a friend of mine, and I was actually a part of the forming of the organization, because I had worked as the president of Camera Work Gallery. I knew something about fundraising and nonprofit organizations, and he consulted. Actually, a girlfriend of mine was his intern, and she came home and said, This guy named Kerry is starting this crazy project. I said, How is he going to fund it? She said he was going to hire a fundraiser, which I thought was a bad idea. So the whole fine print portfolio came from a discussion I had with him. Fast forward a few years, and he was looking for a way to get out of it; I was looking for something else to do. I said, Is there any small part of this job I can take? Here I am, two years later.

Audience: You brought up the issue of continuity, and asked if we could see the continuity in it. I was thinking that all of it seems very based on an inward reflection and the question of some sort of psychology or psyche, or a quest of some sort. I'm intrigued at the early work and the abstraction, in terms of its mysterious, ambiguous, dark quality, and then how it progressed into a more activist role. You said you wanted to keep it ambiguous, almost to leave a resonance with the people, so they would continue to think about it? I think that ambiguity is the strength of both the earlier, abstract work and the more activist, documentary work. I'm wondering how you feel about abstraction, in general, and going back to those roots. Do you still believe in the power of that, or was there a need to move away from it because you didn't think it was effective enough?

Johnson: You're asking a sort of philosophical, epistemological question. What is real, and what isn't? How much can you know? I think the more you explore that question. you discover that abstraction not being concrete or specific, actually touches on things that are more formative on reality than things that are doctrinaire and specific. I respond to your point about there being a connection between things that are abstract. I think abstract artists feel as if they are telling the truth, that art is a more effective way to tell a deeper truth than fact. I agree with your point about there being that continuity. The more wisdom we discover, and insecurity, the better. That's closer to being real. People think they know concrete answers.

I think we've exhausted the topic. Thank you very much.



Analysis by Elizabeth Cohen



The Mother Jones Documentary Photography fund is supported by the Foundation for National Progress. The Fund awards $7,000.00 grants to five photographers coming from five different regions every year. The awards are given to photographers in the process of a social documentary project. Documentary projects consume an enormous amount of time and resources. The Fund would like to help provide resources to make these projects possible. The five awards are separated among regions in order to allow voices to be heard from different parts of the world and so that people in regions where photographic materials and resources are more scarce are not placed in an unfair position during the jury process. The criteria used by the jury to select the winners concern what is the most relevant project, not necessarily what is the most beautiful one. Chris Johnson showed slides from the work of previous award winners. The images he showed and the description of the award raised two questions. 1. What should the role of documentary photography be in our culture? 2. What are the boundaries of what is called social documentary practice?

1. What should be the role of documentary photography in our culture?

Chris Johnson mentioned that the criteria used to select grant winners concern the social relevance of the photographers' projects. Whether or not the photographs are beautiful is irrelevant. If social documentary work is to be used as a tool for advocacy, it seems that how a body of work looks would be important. For people to be motivated to act by a collection of images they must be forced or lured into considering the images and what they portray. If people are uninterested in the images it seems unlikely that they will activate themselves with respect to the issue conveyed by the photographs.

Perhaps limiting documentary to a tool for advocacy is the wrong approach. Documentary work can be seen as a contribution to a collection of archives and information that exists in the world. It may help to provide a clearer picture of a history of a people or a place. It can be used as evidence in conjunction with other information to make a convincing case for the occurrence of an event.

2. What are the boundaries of what is called social documentary practice?

The work of past award winners was shared with the audience during Chris Johnson's presentation. I think it would be safe to say that the selections made by the juries did not seem shocking. Everything seemed to fit well within the traditional parameters of documentary. Aside from Nan Goldin's work, the voice or subjectivity of the photographer stays in the background. In Goldin's work she is documenting her own community so it makes sense for her presence to be felt. Would the integrity of social documentary as a category be compromised if the subjectivity of a photographer came to the forefront when she or he documents a community other than her or his own? Is there or should there be a place for work that examines the very nature of documentary at the Documentary Photography Fund? When does work that portrays people in their environments leave the realm of documentary and enter the realm of art or some other practice? How important is this distinction?