February 17, 2010

Staring History in the Face

A striking new exhibition of photographs from the world’s trouble spots poses questions without answers

By Tricia Brick

At a devastated hospital in Port-au-Prince, an injured woman wrapped in a sea-blue sheet lies on a ragged chunk of drywall. Gazing up imploringly, she extends her hand toward you. How will you respond?

View photographs from the exhibition in this slideshow. To play full-screen, click on the icon on the far right. Photo: Joachim Ladefoged

VII Photo Agency photographer Ron Haviv had his camera ready when he arrived in Haiti on January 13, the day after a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck near the capital. The photographs he took in the days that followed traveled by satellite to MSNBC, to Stern magazine in Germany and Le Point in France, to the website of Doctors Without Borders. And one—the photo of the woman in the sea-blue sheet—arrived at the Tufts University Art Gallery as part of the exhibition Questions Without Answers: A Photographic Prism of World Events, 1985–2010, which commemorates the 25th anniversary of Tufts’ Institute for Global Leadership.

It was not the first time Haviv watched the making of history through his lens. Two decades ago, as a young photojournalist, Haviv shot a photo of Panamanian Vice President-elect Guillermo Ford, his white shirt soaked in blood, as he was being attacked by supporters of the defeated president, Manuel Noriega. The photograph, which was published on the covers of Time, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report, became an iconic image of Noriega’s rule, and contributed to the United States’ successful attempt to remove the dictator from power in 1989.

Haviv’s pictures bookend Questions Without Answers, which includes 125 photographs documenting some of the defining historical moments of the last quarter-century: the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Rwandan genocide, the Kosovo War, the September 11 attacks. But the images, all by photographers affiliated with the VII Photo Agency, are intended as more than a record of the past. “The purpose of the show is to invite people to look at history—from the fall of the Berlin Wall up to today—and to reflect on it,” says VII managing director Stephen Mayes.

Institute for Global Leadership director Sherman Teichman conceived of the exhibition as he was looking back on the IGL’s 25-year history of preparing students to be engaged citizens of an increasingly globalized world. Involving VII in the project as a co-organizer seemed a natural choice, as photographers from the agency have been teachers and mentors to students in the IGL’s photojournalism and documentary-film program, Exposure, since 2004.

Watch a video about the exhibition from WGBH's Greater Boston program.

“When it came time to celebrate our anniversary, I wanted to involve the visual sense as well as humanistic and political sensibilities,” Teichman says. “The phrase ‘questions without answers’ is very fitting for us. The question we face is, How do we tread on this earth? We are struggling for answers we don’t know conclusively are the right answers, but we are obliged to try. We are obliged to make choices, so we must make the most informed choices we can.”

Teichman and Mayes worked with Amy Ingrid Schlegel, director of galleries and collections at Tufts, and Samuel James, A10, an Exposure student leader, to select the images for the exhibition. Each brought a unique background to the selection process, and the diversity of the chosen works reflects a range of approaches to photography: as art, as journalism, as impetus for humanitarian action, as historical record, as educational tool.

History in Human Terms

The thread linking these images is a common way of seeing the world—or, more precisely, of photographing it. Whether their photographs will reach viewers via newspaper or magazine, NGO website or gallery exhibition, VII’s photojournalists use their cameras for a purpose.

“This is not intended to be aesthetically a very cohesive presentation—each of these photographers really does have his or her own aesthetic, own passions, own intellectual interests. They each pursue the stories they feel most passionately about,” says Schlegel, who curated the exhibition. “What they share is an approach to photography which is not purported to be neutral, not purported to be purely aesthetic, but takes a social stand. It’s one of the things that makes VII fairly unique, and one reason that their mission dovetails so beautifully with an educational mission, and with the IGL’s mission specifically.”

“The phrase ‘questions without answers’ is very fitting for us,” says Sherman Teichman of the exhibition. “Amidst the complexity of the world, when there are no clear answers, how do we educate without paralysis?” Photo: Alonso Nichols

Linking with the mission of the IGL, which is concerned with the study of global current events, the images serve as a record of the metamorphosis of news into history. But these stories—of war, famine, abuses of power, disease, natural disaster—are told in human terms. There’s the Afghan man cradling a young boy wounded by shrapnel from an American air strike in 2007; a Hutu man who opposed the Rwanda genocide, his face riven with machete scars; a child soldier in the Democratic Republic of Congo pointing a gun at the camera.

These pictures are part of history. Yet the exhibition’s title, drawn from an upcoming book of VII photographs to be published by Phaidon Press, reflects the difficult task of engaging with these images, which resonate both as documents of the past and as lenses through which to view current events.

“ ‘Never again’ is a fiction, and it’s overwhelming to try to figure out how to anticipate or understand the consequences of a given action,” Teichman says. “This is the dilemma we face in trying to teach our students: amidst the complexity of the world, when there are no clear answers, how do we educate without paralysis?”

In the art gallery, the curatorial choices further deny the possibility of easy answers. The photographs are displayed on the walls without commentary, allowing the viewer to consider the images as aesthetic works, as portraits of human subjects, as scenes. Pamphlets distributed throughout the gallery offer context in the form of captions for the photographs, situating each in a place, a time and a political or historical setting, often accompanied by a brief introduction to an issue shaping the lives of the photo’s subjects. An audio tour via cell phone provides further context.

But the choice of how to understand the images—and how to respond to them—is up to the individual visitor. “We’re not telling the viewers what to think; we’re showing the viewers images, and images by their very nature are ambiguous,” Mayes, of VII Photo, says. “Photographs are factual, but the way you understand them and interpret them is complex.”

The exhibition runs through April 4.  Gallery hours are Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m.–5 p.m. and Thursdays until 8 p.m. For more information, visit http://artgallery.tufts.edu.

Tricia Brick is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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