Inside Out photos go up tomorrow.
In February of this year I led my students to the digital camera checkout in our library and then turned them loose on the city of Richmond. It was a risky venture, which seems riskier even today then it did three months ago.
This week, as we received our printed images, I realized exactly what seems so dangerous about this project: it gives students the power to tell the stories of strangers, and in doing so, to tell a story about Richmond as a whole.
I’m not sure they’ve earned the right to tell the stories of others. I’m not sure, to be honest, that any of us can ever have that right. In photographing we adopt power that I find unsettling. It reminds me of a lecture given by Chimamanda Adichie, titled “The Danger of a Single Story.“ In it, Adichie tells us that
“it is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power. There is a word, an Igbo word, that I think about whenever I think about the power structures of the world, and it is “nkali.” It’s a noun that loosely translates to “to be greater than another.” Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principle of nkali: How they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power.”
When we submit to photographs, all our stories are simplified. This could not be truer in a project focused on portraits, where viewers are free to define their own signifiers.
The purpose of JR’s project is to reveal stories that are otherwise hidden. For a photographer to do this, they have to be able to see those narratives. In part, this project is a test of our ability to see our city more clearly, and as such it is a test of how effectively I’ve trained my students to execute this very difficult task. If we fail, as Adichie would have it, a project like ours “robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.”
As single images, perhaps, these portraits are impossible to see clearly. We are all burdened by our prejudices. As a collection I hope they might tell a more nuanced story about a single place and about the many experiences of being here. Richmond’s stories, I think, matter:
“Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity. The American writer Alice Walker wrote this about her Southern relatives who had moved to the North. She introduced them to a book about the Southern life that they had left behind: ”They sat around, reading the book themselves, listening to me read the book, and a kind of paradise was regained.” I would like to end with this thought: That when we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.”
All images taken by my students or myself, available here.
Adichie, Chimamanda. “The Danger of a Single Story.” TED. July 2009. Web. Accessed: constantly.