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From the forthcoming book "In a Whole New Way": The Evolution of Participatory Photography

Updated: May 4, 2022

This school of photography originated among a cadre of American women providing agricultural and medical aid to Chinese living in the countryside in 1992. They found that when local farmers were equipped with cameras and trained to document their own lives, the photography elicited a new visual narrative—one unmediated by external perspectives, one that shattered stereotypes.

Using artistic means to redefine one’s own public image enjoys a long pedigree. In pharaonic times, wall paintings often featured a likeness of the artist as if to shout, “Look at me! I did this!” Later on, various Roman generals published literary memoirs to boost their reputation, The Jewish War and The Gallic War among them. But until 1992, only those with wealth and power could conduct such a re-casting of “The Brand Called You,” to cite a widely influential Fast Company article from later that decade. One notable signpost on the path to photographic rebranding was Frederick Douglass’s belief that photography could help correct for the misrepresentation of Black Americans in popular caricatures; later, W.E.B. Dubois’s noted that the identity of the photographers themselves held the key to authentic representation.

For both the high and mighty and disadvantaged populations, how we are seen influences not only how we are treated—as everyone from Egyptian muralists to Douglass and Dubois realized, and the basis of the $139 billion American public relations/advertising industry—but even how we act. When we seem devalued by society for whatever reason, we begin to behave accordingly.

Participatory photography has evolved since its origins, becoming the frequent terrain of non-governmental organizations (or NGOs) in partnership with government. The trend alarmed an early British devotee of the practice. Her 2015 doctoral thesis Whose Pictures Are These? Re-framing the Promise of Participatory Photography cited a twentieth-century French social theorist’s skepticism of ‘governmentality’ and critique of the power relationships in such arrangements. Coincidentally or not, the same theorist also inspired the concept of net-widening of state control that would come to vex the practice of probation itself.

As if to exemplify the new normal, in 2010 SFO—which, likewise coincidentally or not, had once worked closely with the UK practitioner and her group PhotoVoice—brought a participatory photography program to the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA). The nonprofit equipped and trained hundreds of housing project residents to document their lives. The initiative had the aim of counteracting a media fixation with crime and disrepair within these projects. A fatal case of such maladies had led to the intentional implosion of the Pruitt-Igoe development in St. Louis four decades earlier. The globally televised event haunted public housing ever since. The myopic focus of newspapers, TV, and film on shootings amid broken-down buildings kicked off by Pruitt-Igoe’s destruction had discouraged further public funding, ensuring the intensification of such afflictions.

The nonprofit’s initiative led to the publication five years later of a book, Project Lives: New York Residents of Public Housing Photograph Their World, which through media reproduction of the photographs would place new, different images in front of millions of people. The work won fans across the political spectrum and helped restart government support of the projects. Even in our Instagram age of infinitely available images, photographic training and the platform accorded by a widely noticed book seemed to prove the continuing validity of participatory photography.

Old imagery: Pruitt-Igoe Comes Down, 1972

(c) St. Louis Post-Dispatch

New Imagery: Project Lives, 2015

(c) Seeing for Ourselves

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