During June and July 2018 (summer break) I embarked on an internship for Borderlands Public Art Project (http://www.borderlands.co.za), which is an incubation project through the Africa Centre in Cape Town, South Africa (http://www.africacentre.net).
Borderlands uses artistic strategies to create encounters between segregated communities of the Cape South Peninsula. Their Youth Program over the last year has involved continual collaboration with the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation Youth Centre (http://desmondtutuhivfoundation.org.za/the-youth-centre).
Earlier this year I approached Borderlands for an internship opportunity and, together with the founders of the project, developed a concept in which we could bring what I have learned through the MFA program and combine it with their objectives using art as a catalyst for breaking barriers and building relationships between segregated areas. Later down the line, the team invited fellow MFA student, Michael McFadden, to co-host and contribute invaluably to the workshop. The organizational team of Borderlands has a strong background in performance, theater, and writing, much of their work so far has been performative—with their support we ran the first photography workshop and called it “Borderlens”. Iliso Labantu (http://www.ilisolabantu.org), a Cape Town-based photographic organization, kindly loaned us eight Canon G11 cameras, and we brought resources with us from New York (e.g. pre-treated cyanotype fabric sheets, film) and Borderlands provided necessary local resources (e.g. printing, paper, stationery, transport for the participants).
The workshop focused on creative photography and introduced visual critiquing as a tool for self-expression. With ten teenagers (13–18 years old) gathered from four vastly different demographic areas, we used the photographic medium (including digital and analog photography, photograms, zines, book-making, field trips, and visual storytelling) as a catalyst for discussion and debate in examining social obstacles and encouraging rapport among the participants.
Drawing inspiration from the artist collective Group Material from the late 1970s, we curated the material brought in by the teenagers—their photographs and ephemera—to reflect the issues around historically forced and current segregation, for a pop-up exhibition held at the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation (a community center at the heart of all of the segregated communities). Family, friends, and community members were invited to the pop-up exhibition, and the participants had an opportunity to engage and talk about their experience and work.
We also drew heavily on “Photovoice”, a method essentially used in the fields of community development and public health. Whereas Photovoice is a qualitative method, we used its guidelines around photography bootcamps and ethics rather than for data analysis. The workshop was not so much skill-based as creative. We communicated to the teenagers that there is “no such thing as a bad image” and rather emphasized the story that the photo or image speaks to the individual, and as a collective—sparking a conversation in a facilitated and safe space.
Interestingly, segregation as a topic was only the tip of the iceberg. Issues around perception, gender, and education were raised. Bringing in carefully chosen research (using training I received from http://www.famsawc.org.za in 2016) together with Michael’s expertise in social work, we implemented some icebreakers and exercises that brought the group close, and very early on trust became evident. Relationships and friendships were developed. We started a Whatsapp group and the group has kept up communication, even now sending each other photos and carrying on discussions.
This said, there were some evident challenges around economic disparity and racial acuity. We invited a resident fine artist, Sally Berg, to sit in on an afternoon with the participants to give them a chance to talk through their work with an impartial adult/educator. The fact that all three adults involved were white (South African, American, and English) might have been an oversight on our behalf. Racial tension in South Africa is a sensitive progeny of Apartheid and post-Apartheid, and careful consideration around representation needs to be implemented. Although it wasn’t evident that any of the participants had a problem with it, it felt unbalanced in retrospect.
Although I have worked in the NGO sector, both as a photographer and a communication specialist, I have never had the opportunity to bring my skills together in a creative and educational way such as this workshop. It was a completely new and refreshing experience for me. Playing the role of an educationalist and facilitator was rewarding as well as thought-provoking. Something I would like to grow and nurture.
Here are some of the photos the participants took. (For more images come and visit ICP stand at the NY Art Book Fair where there will be books on the project made by Pippa Hetherington and Michael McFadden).