Using Photography and Film to Create a Civic Dialogue – PDN Online

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The media has endured plenty of criticism since the 2016 presidential election, and one result of its post-election soul searching has been a renewed focus on the voices of ordinary people. Photographers and filmmakers are among the journalists and documentarians trying to elevate those voices. The goal is to get a more complete and nuanced picture of who we are as a nation, and to better understand our political divides.

Photographer Nancy Andrews, for instance, has initiated “100 Days, 100 Voices” to shed light on the perspectives of a broad cross section of Appalachians. Photographer Andrea Bruce has spearheaded “Our Democracy,” using photography to help selected communities around the country engage their notions of democracy on a local level. And filmmaker Julie Winokur is expanding “Bring It to the Table,” a project she started in 2012 to stimulate constructive conversation about some of the most divisive political issues.

Andrews launched her “100 Days” project last December in response to mainstream media election coverage. Focusing almost exclusively in Appalachia on the plight of coal miners, some national and international media were calling the region “Trump Nation.”

© Nancy Andrews

In addition to working on “100 Days, 100 Voices,” Nancy Andrews and WVU Photo Corps have made portraits in Appalachian communities, producing images for the subjects to keep. In White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, they photographed at the Vietnam Veterans Association Car Show. © Nancy Andrews

“We realized we had the opportunity to shed insight on a particular narrative,” says Dana Coester, creative director of media innovation at WVU’s Reed College of Media, where Andrews currently works. “We’re trying to pop some filter bubbles that people inhabit. We felt like the photo project [“100 Days, 100 Voices”] was a front door for doing that.”

Andrews has been photographing and interviewing bartenders, convenience store clerks, activists (on the left and the right), students, farmers, truck drivers, business owners, sheriffs—the list goes on. She records short interviews about the issues that concern them, and posts edited transcripts of those interviews with portraits of the subjects on a “100 Days” project site.

“My hope is that if nothing else, people will hear different voices, and at least [be] open to listening to other peoples’ opinions,” Andrews says. (For more about the project, see PDN’s article “The Many Voices of Appalachia.”)

Andrea Bruce, a globetrotting photojournalist, says she has long questioned what Americans mean by democracy when they talk about exporting it to countries she has covered, including Iraq and Afghanistan. “Democracy is something different for everyone,” she notes.

Shortly after the election, she launched “Our Democracy” to explore conflicting ideas of democracy—and political divisions in the U.S.—the same way she explores conflict in foreign countries. She plans to travel to selected communities nationwide and use photography to initiate dialogue about how people in those communities perceive and practice democracy.

Bruce is involving mostly high school students in her project, talking to them about her work, the role of journalism, and the students’ engagement in their communities. She explains: “We talk about questions like: What do you like about your community? What don’t you like? How would you change it? Can you change it?”

After the discussions, she encourages students to photograph the things they’ve talked about for an “Our Democracy” Instagram feed (@ourdemocracy). Bruce also posts flyers to solicit pictures for the feed from locals who want to express their ideas about democracy. To get community conversation going, she is asking local organizations and institutions to help fund and exhibit the photographs. Bruce hopes to turn the project into a traveling exhibition and book.

Bruce and Andrews are pushing the boundaries of journalism with their projects. And Bruce says she quickly realized her project “isn’t always reportage” because participants often submit aspirational photographs, and omit information that’s negative about their communities. “But I realize that is democracy: People have a voice. What do people want to be? How do they define themselves? What do they want to say about their own community?”

© Jessey Dearing/Talking Eyes

Sarah Longwell at the Republican National Convention. © Jessey Dearing/Talking Eyes

The point is to build bridges across difficult political divides with community conversations. Julie Winokur, executive director and co-founder (with photographer Ed Kashi) of Talking Eyes Media, set out to accomplish much the same thing in 2012 when she launched “Bring It to the Table.” It is a documentary project about the roots of peoples’ political beliefs that has evolved into a traveling presentation about civic dialogue.

Winokur’s film shows subjects sitting at a table, on which they’ve placed a vase of flowers on a left-right continuum to indicate where they sit on the political spectrum. Winokur then engages them in a conversation—“table talks,” she calls them—about what they believe and why about a number of hot-button issues: gun control, abortion, healthcare and other topics. The idea is to find common ground, or at least mutual respect, by listening to—rather than simply shouting past—those you might disagree with.

Leading up to the 2016 election, Winokur got dozens of invitations to show the film and demonstrate her methods on college campuses. And since the election, she says, “[Invitations] are coming out of the woodwork. I’m getting invitations from campuses responding to racist and anti-Semitic incidents. There’s a desperate need to massage those conflicts and get things on a healthier course.”

Winokur is now planning the next phase of the project, for which she’ll train student leaders on campuses to facilitate the table talks. Her idea is to get ten table conversations going at the same time in heavily traveled areas, thereby making them a spectacle at events in order to reach even larger audiences.

One of the biggest challenges, Winokur says, “is funding. It’s always funding.” She estimates she’s spent more than $100,000 on “Bring It to the Table.” The fees she gets for speaking engagements have helped sustain the project, but she needs more funding to expand it.

Bruce faces a similar challenge in her pursuit of the “Our Democracy” project. She is supporting it with her assignment work, applying for grants, and looking to publishing and production partners for help.

If there’s a silver lining to all the existential challenges to traditional journalism, it is that journalists like Andrews, Bruce and Winokur have an opportunity to re-imagine how it’s practiced, expand media narratives, and maybe—just maybe—tone down some of the angry shouting.

This article is part of a larger series of trends and challenges in the photo industry. To read more articles in the series, check out The Ups/Downs of the Year Past and Year Ahead.