The beauty and magic of Photoville is its ability to explore and expose the need for intersectional representation, whether examining exhibitions from a perspective of sexuality, gender, ethnicity, etc. Subsequently, I’d love to share some of the projects I found most influential, and examine why they are compelling, either by breaking molds, highlighting issues frequently left on the table, or challenging the traditional narratives we often encounter.
African American Cowboys
First, I found the Social Documentary Network container to be particularly poignant. It single-handedly tackles a stereotype all too often whitewashed and sanitized; the all-American cowboy. As is our typical nature of cultural erasure when it comes to American history, we frequently forget (if we’re even taught/made aware in the first place) that, historically speaking, 1 in 4 cowboys were African American. SDN does not allow us the excuse or privilege of falling into that traditional, absent-minded trap and makes us confront our cultural inaccuracies head-on.
In a society that too frequently typecasts members of the black community, having honest portrayals of cowboys that don’t fall within the typical John Wayne aesthetic of cis-white-straight-male makes a world of difference in creating the kind of representation we need to see more of, as compared to the tired tropes of gangsters, rappers, and thugs. We need to more actively break the stereotypical molds that minority communities get pigeonholed in, and this exhibition is a powerful demonstration of how effective visual representation can be a change-maker. The lasso-wielding cattle wrangler is as much a part of the black community’s history as it is that of the white man’s. I found myself impressed and inspired to see the SDN container apply the corrective lens to our tinted perspective on American history, re-educating our uninformed masses. A huge kudos to the photographer, Rory Doyle, for challenging our flawed perception of what it really means to be a cowboy, and who that cowboy can be.
Women in Prison
Next, I’d like to talk about the LOOKING INSIDE: Portraits of Women Serving Life Sentences, presented by Sara Bennett. Predominantly younger women of color, this project provides both space and voice to those that society has deemed not worth listening to. Through this container, we are given a unique and essential window into the ramifications of imprisoning human beings for life. Bennett, a public defender, states the motivation behind the content in the project description : “I’ve believed that if judges, prosecutors, and legislators could see people who have been convicted of serious crimes as human beings, they would rethink the policies that lock them away forever.”
Our private prison systems are just a modern-day equivalent of slavery, and it predominantly affects communities of color, minorities, and the working poor. (For the doubtful or unaware, dedicate two hours to self-education and watch Ava DuVernay’s 13th as it will thoroughly and eloquently explain this better than any attempt I make). We’ve seen firsthand the usage of the prison system to essentially create slave labor for Victoria’s Secret. (No, that OITNB season was not an exaggeration: they were creating a critical commentary on the real deal way prisons use and abuse their inmates, creating the equivalent of sweatshops for the incarcerated.)
There’s no arguing or denying reparations were required for the crimes these women committed (all the subjects of this portrait series were convicted for murder). But, to quote one of the women featured in the project, “Do not judge me by my crime. One incident should never define an individual.” When I walked through the container, I noted at least two of the women in the project were 23 at the time their portraits were taken. We as viewers are given no context in the circumstances of these women’s cases, with good reason. Our legal system (and I call it the legal, not justice system) frequently results in a lack of justice in all manner of ways; punishing women reacting in self-defense, suffering from miscarriages (if you don’t know Purvi Patel’s name by now, you really should), being accessories for being present/witnessing another person committing a crime. Incarceration does not inherently mean you are a monster, or that the mistakes you made are irredeemable.
Society suffers from a lack of forgiveness for being human and making bad decisions or mistakes. By putting faces and names to the statistics that we may frequently forget, we (re)humanize a part of the population whose humanity has been forgotten, dismissed, erased. Hearing firsthand the stories of LOOKING INSIDE: Portraits of Women Serving Life Sentence sallows us to remember that these are living, breathing souls, just like you and me. This creates an opportunity for us to reconnect with our compassion and concern for these members of our society who are no less deserving of both. When we do that we begin to break down the detached and disinterested regard for our prison systems, the individuals serving terms within that system, and the conditions under which those terms are served.
The Women of Congress
Finally, let us not forget the container housing the beautifully composed portraits of the women of the 116th Congress. Only a little over a hundred years ago, we as a nation had the first woman elected to the house of representatives. A century later, only 127 of the 535 seats in Congress are occupied by women. This goes to show how far we still have to go, and REDEFINING REPRESENTATION: The Women of the 116th Congress does a beautiful job of highlighting the myriad of glass ceilings broken by the women working to change that imbalance.
The photographers (both women!) and curators did a beautiful job in notating the intersectional achievements that this group of women collectively has worked towards, from the first Native American Congresswoman (Deb Haaland), to the first black female representatives from a variety of states (Ayanna Pressley, MA; Lisa Blunt Rochester, DE). They made sure to highlight each woman’s individual contributions to creating a more just, reflective representation of our country’s population; Tammy Duckworth for being the first double amputee, female combat veteran, and first senator to give birth while in office; Kyrsten Sinema for being the first openly bisexual person elected to the Senate; Nancy Pelosi for being the first female Speaker of the House, just to name a few.
They also don’t shy away from subtly revealing ugly truths within our own history; Doris Matsui’s placard discusses how her birth took place in a Japanese internment camp, while they credit Alma Adams for creating the Black Maternal Health Caucus to address the stark disparities in maternal mortality in regards to race. This container uses every means and opportunity to address most facets of our society’s failures; racism, sexism, homophobia, forgotten parts of American history, the long way we still have to go before we’ll have a legislative body that genuinely reflects the melting pot population of our country – and that’s what I think I love most about it.
All things considered, we need events like Photoville, and projects like the ones selected for its containers, to better educate all of us. Some (in my opinion, shortsighted and ignorant) folks wouldn’t see the value in these images and narratives. But I think just through highlighting 3 of ~40 containers, I was able to throw down a bunch of education, correct misinformation, and generate meaningful, necessary conversations.