The development of a visual aesthetic culture in all its conceptual dimensions and its accessibility to EVERYONE is fundamental to who we are. Producing narratives and visual memories is thus an act of integration.
- A young man walks out of prison with a homemade camera to search the city for a view he wants to take back inside with him that night.
- An elderly woman looks at a Lisbon street where she once lived and sees nothing that she knows, before a memory of the church she attended comes as an unexpected gift.
- A blind man describes paintings he saw in his youth and says that there three kinds of eye: one for how he sees the world, one for how others see him, and one for how he really is.
- A dying man tells the nurse that he wants to give the photograph he made of them to his old friends.
These people might never meet, but if they do it will be because each of them has made a photograph with Luís Rocha, Tânia Araújo and their friends at MEF, the Movement for Photographic Expression. Actually, such meetings are not unlikely, since bringing people together is the heart of MEF’s purpose. The exhibitions that mark each project’s public presence, if not necessarily its completion, are symbols of that social and cultural integration. Sometimes, they are group shows in which photographs by disabled, elderly, blind, young and other people on the margins of society are included so that everyone can gather and get to know each other too. The process of getting there may be long and rigorous, but it’s also what makes it possible to take your place in the gallery, and the city, with confidence.
‘The results are very important. It’s very strong to see something materialise in an exhibition at the end of the work, to talk about it and hear the comments. It’s how we know ‘I can do that’. It’s there and others can see me; it’s an acceptance, approval. I think that is the art.’
Caterpillars and butterflies
Movimento de Expressão Fotográfica was founded in 2001 by a group of like-minded friends who saw photography as a form of social life that should be open to all. They wanted to create a platform for documentary art that would be rigorous and inclusive, encouraging debate, raising standards and promoting awareness of its expressive value. Established as a non-profit association MEF has developed less by strategy than in response to opportunity. The foundation of its work was, and remains, photography training courses. Ranging from introductory programmes to location trips to Morocco or Cambodia they attract semi-professional and amateur photographers. Costs are kept low and people often return for further courses ensuring both a regular income stream and a sense of common interest among a large group of people. Today, after years of activity, there is something of a family spirit connecting many individuals and community groups with MEF.
MEF found a home in Bairro Padre Cruz, a district of northern Lisbon developed between the 1960s and 1990s, many of whose residents come from elsewhere, including Portugal’s former colonies. It proved to be the ideal base. Rent was low and it was easy to meet people with whom to work. The social practice that form the other side of their work grew from these meetings and the group’s commitment to inclusion. Photography is their passion and expertise at least in part because it is also such an approachable medium.
But that does not mean that making strong, meaningful photographs is easy. MEF challenges those it works with by having the same expectations of them as of any other photographer. Feeling part of the neighbourhood, MEF were happy to be invited to work on projects with community groups. The artists needed to develop new ways of working with elderly or blind people, but they held to the same artistic standards. Sometimes the people they worked with expressed surprise at being treated as ‘normal’ people but that, for MEF, is the beginning and end of integration. Everyone and no one is normal.
Since 2006, the number and range of community projects MEF has been able to undertake has grown steadily, although each one depends on short-term grants and the voluntary commitment of members. Today, there is still only enough income to employ two people, Luis Rocha and Tânia Araújo. It is slow, painstaking work.
A project with older people can include months of twice-weekly sessions, each lasting three hours or longer. It might be weeks before any photographs are made because it is finding the sense in memory that is important. Visits are made to places where people once lived. They reconnect with friends they have not have seen since they moved to the residential centre. They buy a cake from a familiar shop. They see a corner they once passed daily. Memories come, stories are shared with the group. And then, a photograph becomes clearer: it makes sense. It is time to pick up a camera.
MEF uses digital and analogue techniques, according to the situation. A digital camera can be used like a sketchbook, to try things out and make notes. With blind and partially sighted people its screen can become a touchpad, guiding fingers over an image to sense its shapes. But there is value too in the slow and structured process of film photography and the artists have found that people often respond differently to its physicality and distinctive tones. Ideas clarify like images in a darkroom developing tray. MEF has made a speciality of using simple pinhole cameras made from cardboard by the people who will use them. The ancient, elemental character of the camera obscura, the ‘dark room’ and the nature of the images it produces accentuates the photograph as a doorway between inner and outer worlds.
All this takes time, but it allows a group to pay attention to each of its members. There is always more listening than talking, more looking than making photographs. Like so much of what matters most in participatory art, these aspects are invisible to outsiders, who see only the final images chosen for exhibition. You have to be part of the group to experience this active process of meaning-making. Like butterflies, the photographs are released into the world but they say nothing about the caterpillar that produced them.
Respecting your tools
Participatory art projects fail for the same reasons as other projects. Big causes—inexperience, incompetence, lack of empathy, ego—lead to smaller, more direct ones, like weak planning, poor resources or personality clashes. But participatory art projects also fail for a reason inherent in the practice: not placing enough value in the art.
This art is restless because it has more than one objective. Artistic creation is balanced against social goals such as education, health, inclusion, community development or peacebuilding. Each project is a unique coalition of organisational and personal interests. Everyone knows that partnership means things will unfold differently. After all, the difference is the reason for their participation. But they also expect to achieve their own goals, so success depends on getting the right balance between everyone’s interests.
Too much focus on artistic goals can lead to a kind of sterility, in which non-professionals merely follow the instructions of professional artists. The result might be aesthetically satisfying; it might be enjoyed and valued by participants and audiences alike. But it is ultimately just another art product that is unlikely to change individual lives or social conditions.
A different day for a not very happy boy, thankfully. There are these opportunities in which we breathe freely. We find something inside us, even without using our voice, we take photos of what we like and take some time to be alone. Whether it’s good or not, we’ll see , we have fun with what we’ve got, share what we see, and later we offer it to people who matter … serene moments! Thank you!
Participant, (MEF, 2017, Este Espaço Que Habito, Lisbon)
Too much emphasis on social objectives is equally risky. If you intend to use art for a social purpose it is logical to respect the tool you have chosen. The only reason to use art in education is because it can achieve results that other educational methods cannot. But people often agree to a new approach only to apply it in familiar ways. Art does not work like education. It reaches people differently and makes quick, unexpected connections. It asks them to use different parts of their minds or work in different ways. If you force art to fit other norms, you blunt its effectiveness.
Art is often seen as a way to engage teenagers facing difficulties in education, at work or at home and it can be a lifeline at this age. By helping young people gain new personal, social and practical skills through supportive creative activity, art projects can really change lives. It can help them discover that they are unexpectedly good at something. But those results are unlikely to appear if the art being offered is mediocre or boring and the processes used are the familiar ones of school. After all, these young people are in difficulty because existing provision doesn’t reach them: that is why they need something different, more challenging and more inspirational.
Placing a high value on the integrity of an artistic process is not about preciousness or pretension. What matters is that the professional artists leading the project are ambitious, imaginative and serious. That they have deep knowledge and experience to share. That they set high standards for themselves and for the work, and expect everyone to meet them, in their own way. That they believe in each person’s unique ability and want to help them find it. That they are there to make art in which everyone, including themselves, can take justifiable pleasure.
MEF’s work has all these qualities.
On our own terms
‘Photography is good because it’s easy. It’s everywhere. Everyone knows what it is. So it’s a way to find space for life, mental freedom, a way to communicate.’
Between 2014 and 2016 MEF worked with detainees in six young offenders’ institutions on a project called Este Espaço Que Habito (This Place that I Live In). The project began with each young man making a pinhole camera. Then they looked at maps of the city to think about places that were meaningful to them and prepare for trips outside the centre in which they could explore the relationship between what they felt, remembered and saw, before using their cameras to make photographs. Once processed, the images were returned to the participants for inclusion in hand-made notebooks. Under each image, they wrote about its meaning in their lives. These journals were private documents marking a new self-awareness. Each was a record of life in progress made, and to be continued by, the person living it.
But, as with every MEF project, the public dimension was equally important. The strongest work from each institution was selected for exhibition, digitised for use in light boxes and presented in local galleries. Nearly 200 young people took part in the project and their response to the experience has been very positive. By returning in an age of digital plenitude to the simplest form of photography, the artists encouraged the young people to slow down and think about the images they made. The materials were cheap but the process was rich. Serious and demanding, it offered participants routes towards personal growth.
Finally, it is important to note that because these young people have passed through these stages with very high performances, they have overcome a series of barriers that are imputed to them, and this impact on themselves will be validated in the last phase of the project, the exhibition phase, when this whole journey, so often moving contrary to their usual pattern of behaviour, will be recognized, not by their peers, but by some of those who can be perceived as the ones who exclude them.
Tiago Santos (MEF, 2017, Este Espaço Que Habito, Lisbon)
Social development was possible in this project because art was the constant focus of the work. Young offender institutions are concerned with rehabilitation not creativity. The paradox of participatory art is that—at its best—it achieves social outcomes by not trying to do so. In a situation where so much attention is consciously given to behaviour and choices, the opportunity to spend time not thinking about your past and your future is rare, and important. In the act of making a photograph the artists helped the young men see how the present matters. Instead of treating them as offenders, MEF saw the participants as people with stories, talents and things to say. In the imaginative and creative space of art, they were able to flourish in new ways.
It would be wrong to suggest that this project will, necessarily and of itself, change the course of the participants’ lives, but it might. As is often the case with this kind of work, time and distance make it difficult to know. But even its potential for positive change depends on its artistic integrity. In the gallery, the photographs had to work independently of process or other considerations. However well-meaning, an audience response that this was good ‘for young offenders’ could only reinforce the social exclusion the project aimed to overcome. Only if the audience sees the work as good in itselfwill it recognise the people who had made it as full, free and equal members of society. That does not mean that gallery visitors must like, admire or understand every photograph—only that they must see them as legitimate art works which invite the same human response as all art.
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With thanks to Tânia Araújo, Luís Rocha and everyone involved in MEF. All photographs © MEF reproduced with permission