Chris Johnson: Supporting Social Documentary Photography
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?
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
that's it. If any of you have any questions about the Mother
Jones award, I can answer them.
does one apply?
easy: go to our website. It's www.motherjones.com.
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.
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
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.
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?
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.
is sort of switching gears. Your job sounds really interesting,
and I was wondering how one gets there.
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.
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?
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.
think we've exhausted the topic. Thank you very much.
by Elizabeth Cohen
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?
What should be the role of documentary photography in our culture?
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
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.
What are the boundaries of what is called social documentary practice?
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?