Social change photography has always worked toward deepening our understanding of each other with the simple power of an image. Photos have the power to change history, change lives and change minds. Throughout the years a number of PhotoSensitive projects have focused on the issue of racism, opening up the world of others so that we may all see each other anew. The hope in these projects was that still photos might help us look beyond differences of skin colour, culture and ethnicity and see each other just a little more clearly. A child in tears is a child in tears; an image of that child should affect everyone with any human feeling. Several projects have touched obliquely on the fight against racism through images while others have more directly addressed the subject of race.
The dehumanization of others (as happens in racism) is easiest to do when we choose not to know who the other is, not to look them in the eye, not to understand them. Through the use of images, social photography can help bring others closer toward us.
The project that most directly addressed racism was the 1997 project Them = Us. This project mimicked its own theme of diversity by being the first to open up to new photographers. Tom Graff noted that before this project on diversity and race, PhotoSensitive's photographers "were all from Toronto and mostly guys. More women, more people of colour or from different ethnic backgrounds, more 'out there' people on the photo team would make the project better."
Photographers from across Canada turned their lenses on the issue of racism and ethnicity to show people of different cultures mixing together in harmony. In fact, the project was partnered with the Harmony Movement.
Notable changes to the collective were the inclusion of Paul Wong who focused on Asian Canadians living in the small prairie town of Vulcan, Alberta. Cheuk Kwan stepped up to take on the role of project manager on Them = Us. The Calgary School Board got students involved to help develop a resource guide for curricula exposing racism, ethnicity, class differences, sexual orientation and disabilities. The finished exhibit travelled to a variety of new venues as well, including shopping malls, banks, museums and libraries in seventy different communities across the country.
While diversity has always been a value of PhotoSensitive, even this group learned new lessons during the project.
The taxi cab as a microcosm of the city
Barbara Davidson captured a series of images that perhaps best demonstrated how we get along in the big city. Davidson "parachuted into the lives of foreign-born taxi drivers in Montreal." The images she captured showed peoples of various races interacting in a variety of ways. As Davidson says, "These photos are tiny vignettes into people's lives. I hope they broaden some minds just a little."
Images against racism in our own backyard
The treatment of native Canadians is a great concern of many and several projects in the PhotoSensitive canon have opened eyes to the world of Canada's aboriginal kids and teens. Photos of children are especially effective in opening eyes to unnecessary evils perpetuated through dismissive racism and apathy.
In the collective essay Child Poverty, aboriginal children had to be included. One in every four native children lives in poverty. Choosing this as a subject had inherent difficulties as noted by Andrew Stawiciki. "If you take a picture of a child and it appears in the exhibit... the next day, someone might say to that child, 'Oh, you're poor.'" But it was important to identify the children in the photos. "Taking one photo helps thousands. That is something we believe in."
Summer of Hope also captured images of aboriginal children, showing children in remote First Nations communities attending literacy summer camps. Andrew says, "We took some beautiful photographs that we're still very proud of – they show how much the children love to be there." Indeed, the images captured positive images of native children learning, playing and having joy in childhood. While images of poverty have their place they can also perpetuate unfortunate racial stereotypes. The images here showed First Nations children in a new light.
Photographs have the power to expose what is wrong in the world but also to show the way to a better world.
Images against racism around the globe
The series of projects on AIDS around the world and specifically in Africa also had the subtext of fighting against racism. It is easy to dismiss problems on the other side of the world. But with every image of a child in tears or of parents saddened by loss, it gets more difficult to ignore. Images shed light on the forgotten and neglected.
All of us have hope for a better world, no matter what our background.