The Activist Lens: A Roundtable on the Role of Photography in Social Movements

Canadian Dimension, March-April 2009 | Go to article overview

The Activist Lens: A Roundtable on the Role of Photography in Social Movements


THE ROLE OF ART IN SOCIAL MOVEMENTS has been the subject of analysis and theorizing by artists, grassroots organizers and academics. Although photography has often been used to document social struggles and create propaganda, its role in social movements is rarely discussed. In the last few years photography has featured prominently on the Landscape of social movements in Montreal. It has been used to contribute to the work of local organizations, to shed light on specific social struggles and as a tool of creative resistance. Activists and photographers Stefan Christoff, Ion Etxebarria, Shahrzad Arshadi and myself speak about the role of photography in social movements.

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What role, if any, can photography play in social movements?

Stefan Christoff: Photography is documentation. We're faced with the challenge of documenting our own movements and history. Mainstream media and institutions can play a role in this, but the mode of communication is entirely different when it is documented from within a movement, because the relationship between the subject and the documenter is different.

Ion Etxebarria: Photography isn't central to the work of organizers. It's a tool in the same way that poetry or a website can be a tool. It complements the organizing, but it is not an end unto itself. Photography helps sustain our collective memory, and that of those who will come after us.

Shahrzad Arshadi: Photography can tell the stories of those fighting for freedom.

Tatiana Gomez: Photography allows us to create a catalogue that is part of the collective memory of our radical history. Often, it juxtaposes itself against the characterizations that the mainstream media make of our movements.

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What role does your photography play in your organizing, or in the work of local organizations?

SC: Photography is an extension of my organizing. My Lebanon exhibit, "Open Skies of Struggle," was an opportunity to create a space to discuss organizing. I photographed Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. My relationship to the camps was defined by my work here. I knew the camps in my mind and factually because of my organizing, and I was interacting with people involved in intense histories of anti-colonial struggle. I was capturing that feeling. The most interesting photographers are those that capture the space between the interactions.

IE: My objective is always to document what is happening for the present and for the future. The collectives can then use the photographs in their organizing as they see fit, usually for propaganda or information.

SA: As an artist, I do my bit to echo the voices, views and emotions of those fighting for a better life. The photograph is a tool that allows me to do that.

TG: Photography has emerged as a part of my organizing in migrant justice struggles. Mainstream media often portray migrants as the "dangerous other" assaulting the border or the Canadian economy. My photography reveals a different reality. It shows the struggles of migrants for justice and dignity and portraits of those who are fighting. It helps make visible what is often rendered invisible.

Is documentary photography art?

SC: There is an artistic nature to photography, but it should be purposeful.

IE: I photograph things that are happening. I document, which is different from art. I frame and capture a moment. Art is a more reflective act than that. The impact of a photograph can surpass our imaginations, but art is a more studied act. Some photographers consider themselves artists., but I don't.

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SA: Photography is art. I do documentary photography, which for many simply involves pressing a button, but it's a long process. As a photographer you have an opinion to express, and what you capture in your photograph is its expression. …

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