At Photopreneur, we like to think any photographer can make a difference, as long as he or she is prepared to take action as well as images. Tory Read is one photographer who did all three.
In 1995, the neighborhood of Five Points in downtown Denver was suffering from a bad press. Much of the city saw the area, which had a large minority population, as a center for drug dealing, prostitution and gang violence. Read, a professional photographer who had worked for The Oakland Tribune and the Associated Press, and who had recently moved to Colorado, decided to take a look for herself.
“What I found were a lot of cool and interesting people who were angry about the one-dimensional news coverage and who wanted to tell stories from their point of view,” she told us.
Read went door-to-door rounding up participants for a series of photo workshops. Hoping that the seminars would give local residents the ability to portray themselves on their own terms and build understanding within the community, she ignored the suspicion she encountered as a white girl with a camera, and invited people to pass the word.
Each workshop eventually had around twenty participants, ran for four to six weeks, and took place in venues that included housing projects, a homeless shelter, a health clinic and an after-school program. Temporary exhibitions were held in community spaces, with the participants themselves choosing the images and texts. When visitors began asking why the exhibitions were only temporary, Read started looking for funds to mount a series of permanent, mural-sized photo-text displays.
It was then that things started to get tough.
“I was so naïve,” Read, who had previously produced a book on community rights in Samoa, explained. “It was a shock to learn how hard it was to get support for an organic project that grew out of an artist interacting with a community.”
Read’s plan didn’t always meet funders’ mandates, even though the mandates themselves kept changing. Local foundations that liked the idea weren’t active in Five Points. And community organizations were seen as representing the interests of particular sub-groups, so associating with any one of them would have killed the project from the outset.
At the same time, Read also found that letting the community members choose their own ideas for the permanent photo exhibits meant giving up some of her own. “I thought doing one on ritual would be really cool and revealing about different cultures, but some participants reacted strongly against it, saying it would breed conflict,” she recalled. “We took a vote, and I lost… That was hard.”
Money though eventually came from the state arts council, which led others to contribute too. By the fourth year, the project was established enough to accept funding from a local housing organization, which allowed Read to complete the permanent exhibits.
“By the end, it was my dream come true – hundreds of people of all ages, sizes, colors, classes were in the same room together, celebrating and learning and having fun,” she said.
With one permanent exhibit at the DMV, comments still come in from all over the city, six years after the end of the project. People in the neighborhood still call to tell her what they are up to. Some have become photographers; one has become a poet. Others are teaching photo workshops themselves.
And Read’s advice for other photo community builders?
“Get a fiscal sponsor early, set realistic goals, be open minded and prepared to follow the lead of the community… even if it takes the project away from what you originally intended.”
Photo of Tory at work in Samoa by David Greenspoon.
[tags] photo community building, tory read [/tags]