SL: I know the first works of yours I saw were the Detroit Portraits that you made with the students of Chadsey High. This was back in 2004 (right?) and the notion of a collaborative photo practice was something that was new to me. I had always thought of the photographer being the agent, taking the picture of a subject/object. But in this work, it was clear that you and these young people were working together on how to make these images. They were participating subjects in how they were seen and also the project allowed them to write texts about the process and about themselves. In this way, you were subverting the authority of the photographic image and at the same time injected a sense of humanity into the aesthetics of the photo/text work of the 80s. I was struck with how beautiful these people were at an age when young people are very often tortured by insecurities. For me it opened up a new understanding of how social documentary photography could work. You weren't taking something from them; you were working with them to make something.
I'm particularly amazed by the way the Birmingham Project expands your command of portraiture in such complex ways. The ages of the sitters, the locations, the compositions, and the weight of history come together in this work in a way that is particularly arresting, but I don't think the achievement of the work is purely the subject matter. There is a profound technical and formal language in this work that confers a sense of photographic history onto the social history of the site and those that were lost.
How did you develop principles, formal and ethical, to navigate a photographic practice that deals with immersive social engagement and photography's charged history of imaging the "other"?
DB: Well Steve, you have touched very succinctly and directly on the things that I have sought to tackle in my work. From the outset--going back to the first group of photographs that I made in Harlem, NY in the 1970s--I have seen my challenge as being the making of work that was both aesthetically and socially engaging. That is I wanted the work to function within the conversation and history of photographs made of the human subject and I also wanted it to function in a way that acknowledged that there was a very real social world that the work took place in and came out of. So I wanted to shape a rigorous practice that kept me involved in both of those conversations, both of those challenges. When I began working in Harlem in 1975 I was working in response to the history of that community's visualization within both visual and social culture and also my own family's history there. I wanted to contribute something to that history while creating a representation of the people in the community that didn't continue the kinds of visually pathological way in which black urban communities and black subjects in general have often been visualized, particularly in photography. And because I came to art making and photography initially through the experience of the Harlem on My Mind exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum as a teenager in 1969, I was acutely aware of the roles that institutions have played in shaping the experience of the work on their walls. So my work also evolved into an institutional practice as well.
I often correct my students, and tell them that the work we are doing is not about "taking" photographs so much as it "making" photographs. That notion of taking is profoundly meaningful when it comes to making work with and about people who have been marginalized and/or stereotyped. I addressed this initially in the 80s by using Polaroid material that allowed me to give the subjects who I photographed a print for themselves, which made the process a more reciprocal and dialogical one. I am always very aware of the fact that I am the one primarily responsible for the making of the work or the visual authoring of the subject, but I've tried to do that in ways that allow for a real degree of participation. The Class Pictures work (which includes the Detroit Portraits you mentioned) was the first time I used text. And I wanted to use it to create a space of self description for the young people I was photographing, a way for them to describe themselves in language even as I was crafting the visual description of them through my photographs. The intention was that the two things--the photograph and the text--would add up to a more complex and dimensional representation than either would alone. In that way, the work became even more collaborative.
So I'm always grappling with multiple things simultaneously in making the work, and there is usually quite a bit of logistical planning that has to go on before I can even begin making the actual photographs. All of the work that I have made since 1992 has been made through various kinds of institutional collaborations; that is I've made the work by placing myself inside of an institutional setting--usually a museum--and then used that structure to create a series of relationships that result in the work that is ultimately seen. The work for 'Class Pictures' was made through a series of extended institutional residencies that made use of the relationship between museums in different cities and the relationships those museums had with area high schools. I guess you could say I use the museum as a kind of laboratory, figuring out how to continue my work and also expand the participation in the institutional space on the part of the people I choose to photograph.
The Birmingham Project was done through the Birmingham Museum of Art, where some of the photographs were actually made. The project was about visualizing history in a way that also embraced the present, while creating an engagement between this once segregated institution and the black Birmingham community. While the work commemorates that day in September 1963 when six young black people were killed, it also visualizes the current African American community of Birmingham. It was probably one of the most difficult projects I've undertaken, since the ages of the subjects were directly related to the ages of those young people…both the ages that they were (11, 13, 14, and 16) and the ages they would have been fifty years later (61, 62, 64, and 66). I felt that for the project maintain its conceptual integrity they had to be that specific age. I also wanted to fold some of the social history into the photographs by making them in two places that represented both the black communal space of the church and the segregated spaces of the past.
None of this would matter, of course, if the work that resulted did not succeed on its own terms, as a flat two dimensional representation of the world rendered on film and then paper. I'm a big believer that the work has to hold its own, the object has to be compelling in its own right, and you work your way back to the conceptual framework through a compelling object. The work is always about a conversation with history; it exists in relation to what precedes it, and the questions that history raises. And for me the thing that make the work compelling is the way in which I deploy the conceptual, formal, optical, and material process of making photographs in a way that in the end you feel you are having an experience of an individual, not merely looking at a photograph. I want the work to be formally coherent (form drives the narrative for me) and to also convey a sense of interiority, a sense of the interior person coming momentarily to the surface, and then sustaining that through the photograph, which both heightens and extends that experience. I can only do this if I honestly feel that there is something there in that individual that I feel I can describe through my particular process, and if I can create the circumstances in which that can happen.
There has to be a fundamental respect, and that does not, by any means, suggest that I am trying to make a "positive image" of that person. That particular negative/positive binary is not very useful to me, as I am actually trying to visualize something far more complex, something that cuts through all of the presumed differences between subject and viewer, and allows you to momentarily feel that you know something about this person. In some ways it is a deception of course, since it is a photograph after all. But it is a deception that carries with it a particular agenda, the visulaization of my ideas about the subject. They look the way they do because that is how I want to describe them; that is what I want to show you, what I believe is meaningful, what I want you to believe. That is what I do after all, I'm an artist making work subjectively through a particular medium. There is a certain amount of give and take, but in the end I function as a kind of director. The thing that I am directing them towards is a heightened performance of themselves.
I'm a child of the sixties, and I still believe, as they said back then, "You're either part of the solution or part of the problem." I don't think that precludes a rigorous art practice, it simply helps to keep it--and me--rooted in a very meaningful place as I continue to make my work and move my ideas forward.
Dawoud Bey's work can be seen at his website dawoudbey.net. The Birmingham Project was most recently on view at the Birmingham Museum of Art and Rena Bransten Gallery in San Francisco. Selections of that work will be shown in the 2014 Whitney Biennial, opening March 6.