2003-05-23 / Columnists

From The Artists Studio

Rockaway Artists Alliance
by Susan Hartenstein
From The Artists Studio by Susan Hartenstein Rockaway Artists Alliance

Playing with a doll© Bishnu Maya / Rose Class / PhotoVoice. These children were born in the camps. They play happily be­cause they do not know about Bhutan - they do not have sad feelings in their hearts because they do not understand about the situation in the refugee camps.Playing with a doll© Bishnu Maya / Rose Class / PhotoVoice. These children were born in the camps. They play happily be­cause they do not know about Bhutan - they do not have sad feelings in their hearts because they do not understand about the situation in the refugee camps.

The most important thing that Anna Blackman, co-founder of PhotoVoice, wants people to know about the children who took the photographs in "Unbroken" is that they are capable and can do for themselves, given the chance. They want to help themselves. They want respect, not pity.

And, respect they have been getting. Everyone who has attended "Unbroken: An Exhibition of Hope and Determination," running at sTudio 7 Gallery in Fort Tilden through June 29, has been impressed and even amazed at the talents of these photographers. According to the members of the public who have emerged from the gallery, the quality and impact of the images belies the youth of the photographers.

"Unbroken" brings together the work of three projects initiated by a London-based not-for-profit organization named PhotoVoice (PV). These projects were established to give a voice and a face to groups whose stories were not being told to the rest of the world. "Street Vision" supplies cameras and training to street children in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. "The Rose Class" does the same for Bhutanese refugees in Nepal. "Bibin" is the project that works with street children in Kabul, Afghanistan. These young people, ranging in age from 10 to 20 years, have been given the means to tell their own stories and those of friends and family, with eloquence, dignity and beauty. The powerful images are accompanied by equally powerful captions written by the photographers themselves. It is in this immediacy and honesty of expression that the eloquence lies. It is in the pride and determination of the storytellers that one sees so much dignity. And it is in the poetry and indomitable spirit captured on film that one ultimately finds such beauty. Perhaps the most representative image in the exhibition is called "Flying to reach the sun." It pictures a Vietnamese boy, arms and hands extended and raised somewhat above his shoulders. He is standing on one leg, tiptoe. The other leg is raised behind him. He appears to be about to take flight in a balletic dance. A battered city lies in the background. The caption written by its photographer Vo Cong Thang reads, "I saw this my friend playing in the rain. He was a street child like me. I was so excited to take this picture, to capture the expression of freedom."

Tiffany Fairey and Anna Blackman founded PhotoVoice in 1998. They had both studied anthropology at Edinburgh University in Scotland and both had strong backgrounds in photography. Tiffany went to Nepal and Anna to Vietnam, to do independent research. Each decided to do something concrete for the people of those countries – to give something back. Each began "participatory photography" projects in these countries, independent of each other. Upon return to their own country, they learned about each other’s work and about similar projects in the world. They resolved to carry on their existing projects, to begin others and to link with the other projects in the world. They established programs with HIV positive women in the Congo, with the homeless in London and a project was established in Cambodia. They are launching a website to function as a resource and archive for participatory photography groups. "Unbroken," or portions of it, has been exhibited in England, France, the United States, Australia and Italy. "Street Vision" in Vietnam has a vocational program. Many of the photographers have found work in labs. A pilot project has been started in Afghanistan to find employment for the participants. Anna states that 50% of sales of photos and photocards go back to the photographers and 50% back into furthering the projects.

Unbroken: “Flying to Reach the Sun,” one of the photographs in “Unbroken.”Unbroken: “Flying to Reach the Sun,” one of the photographs in “Unbroken.”

PhotoVoice also trains those in the projects to write captions for their photographs. Blackman recognizes that this provides an opportunity for verbal as well as visual self-expression. The very personal captions encourage the participants to think about what they are doing and why they are taking the photos. They are a means, as well, for the audience to learn about the photographers and to be able to perceive them as human beings. The captions and blurbs displayed at "Unbroken" provide the viewer with a social and informational background to the im­ages and biographies of the photographers.

The images and words of "Un­broken" not only inform us about situations in the world about which many of us were probably unaware. They bring an immediacy and a level of reality to the documentation of lives of children who are not unlike our own. Indeed, this is an exhibition you should see with your children. Ul­timately, it speaks to that unbreakable spirit of hope and determination in us all. Gallery hours are Saturdays 12-5 PM and Sundays 1-4 p.m. You may contact RAA for more information.

On Sunday, June 1 from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. Please come to our MAD TEA PARTY – You don’t have to be clinically insane, just living in your own Wonderland!

We are celebrating the installation of Geoff Rawling’s 70-foot Artwork ("Just Say Yes").

Come to: Einstein’s at 18-01 West Edgar Road (Route 1 & 9), Linden, NJ. Contact RAA for info.

Wonderlandish attire encouraged! Bring your favorite tea.

See you at the Party.

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