Issue #167  12/26/2009
A Lesson For The Holidays, and The Rest of The Year: The Gift of Balancing The Scale

By Alex Novak

A few of you may be wondering what happened to my annual holiday newsletter message, which I usually send out just before Christmas. Between a heavy travel schedule, cleaning up year-end business and a holiday visit from my sister, her boyfriend and my nephew, time seemed to slip by. More importantly, I was also concerned that the message might be lost in the barrage of email well-wishing during this part of the season, which now seems to have subsided a bit.

Last month while I was visiting Paris, I had dinner with my friend and artist Francoise Schein and her daughter Lohana. Lohana was adopted at nine years old and was born in the favelas of Brazil, where Francoise saw and fell in love with her while she was working on an art project in Rio de Janeiro with local people. When I first met Lohana, she was only 12 and had no English at all, but now she is a very grown-up 17 and has become fairly fluent in English. This now allows us to talk seriously. Since I have known her for nearly a third of her very young life, we have grown close, and I regard her simply as my own daughter.

She has a unique perspective on life growing up in the harsh slums of Rio de Janeiro, now having a mother who is an artist that focuses on large-scale projects involving the local populace, and having an interest herself in photography. And did I mention that she wants to be a lawyer fighting for social issues? I am very proud of her and her efforts that she is making in her school in Paris, where she finally made it into the top half of her class for the first time this year. It is one of the better public "colleges" in Paris, which are the equivalent of high schools in the U.S. Her efforts are finally starting to pay off, although she knows she still has to work even harder in the year and half to come, and beyond that if she focuses and works hard enough to get into a university there.

However, this is not about Lohana's efforts in school, but about the conversation that we had over dinner. Somehow our discussion turned to photographs and photographers who take socially-oriented images. The example that came to mind was her fellow Brazilian, Sebastiao Salgado. Salgado has taken some of the most amazing and epic photographs of socially important issues in a series of in-depth photo essays. I find his work inspiring, illustrating how people, countries and cultures can overcome their own difficult circumstances. But Lohana challenged both me and Francoise on such work as it stood in a vacuum.

Lohana felt that the concept of a "deprived" person photographed being "proud" or "inspiring" really depends on the viewer, but it doesn't usually help the person or persons being photographed. She maintained that the photographer is merely being selfish if they view the photograph as the end in itself. She felt that such socially-oriented photographs rarely achieve any social good by themselves, except financially benefiting the photographer and all those who later buy and sell that work. Thus the people being photographed do not benefit from the work despite their integral involvement.

Quite an indictment! But remember that Lohana had been at one time one of those many people who could have appeared in such pictures. She said having a picture didn't lend any dignity to those who are photographed in poverty and in dire circumstances. Further, she felt that the photography was merely a means for a photographer to puff up their own reputation as an artist than really helping out the situation of the photograph's subject.

Now it happens that Salgado is a photographer who has spent his money and personal time and energy in supporting efforts and projects to repair the environment and to help the people he has documented in his photographs. He doesn't just depend on his images. As he has said himself, "I'm 100 percent sure that alone my photographs would not do anything. But as part of a larger movement, I hope to make a difference. It isn't true that the planet is lost. We must work hard to preserve it."

Salgado and his wife, Lélia, founded the Instituto Terra (http://www.institutoterra.org/eng/#.VKc5RlogmS0) on 1,500 acres of land to undertake an ambitious reforestation project in 1998 on a farm in the Rio Doce Valley of southeastern Brazil. In the process, the project is providing sustainable and better paying jobs for the people of this region. It is but one of the many programs that he is involved in and that his photography and his personal time help support. As Ian Parker wrote in The New Yorker, Salgado is more than a photojournalist, "much the way Bono is something more than a pop star."

You can read about him and his work, see some of his images, and order Salgado's work here (http://www.peterfetterman.com/artists/sebastiao-salgado) from the Peter Fetterman Gallery, which represents Salgado in the U.S.

Lohana conceded happily that her fellow Brazilian was indeed using his photography and its proceeds to give back to those people and issues that he photographed. But Lohana had a point that did get me and Francoise thinking, even if I don't totally agree with her. We often expect art/photography to benefit and improve society just by its emotional impact on viewers. Photography's documentary qualities seem especially suited to doing this. But, unfortunately, rarely does this actually happen in practice, unless artists, dealers, collectors and institutions give back in some real way (even indirectly) to the peoples and issues being photographed. And some artwork doesn't even pretend to benefit anything else, except perhaps to enrich the artist, and their dealers and collectors; however, I think that this doesn't relieve any of us from the burden of helping out others in a real way.

My artist friend Francoise told us that she always warned her art students that if their intent was merely to come and just use the local people that they visited instead of helping them directly, then they should stay home. She has always involved and trained the local populace in her projects (which are usually government supported and socially-oriented), and the projects are then a take-off point to build a sustaining local industry that employs many people from the community itself. Most of her projects are large-scale architectural ones involving ceramics. The ceramic workshops are then taken over by people from the community, and part of Francoise's financial rewards from these art projects goes back into supporting these workshops. You can see the non-profit art association she has helped to found here: http://www.inscrire.com .

Fortunately for the world, there are plenty of artists (and the occasional dealer/gallery) who have also chosen to give back to the people and issues that they photograph.

Besides Salgado and my friend Francoise, one artist that I recently encountered is the South African photographer, David Bruce, whose project has been to document what remains of the culture of the indigenous Ju/'hoan people of Namibia. The profits from his sale of prints and his book "Ju/'Hoansi", which was sponsored by Sotheby's, go to education and sustainable development in the Nyae Nyae Conservancy, Namibia. The Ju/'hoansi Development Fund has also published a unique book, N//oq!ae Ju/hoansi. The book contains 92 stunning reproductions of photographs of the Ju/'hoansi Bushmen with text by the Ju/'hoan people. Limited to 200 signed and numbered copies, the book is hand-bound in Nigerian goat skin leather, with an inlaid platinum print on the front cover. Each book is presented in a hand-made springbok hide slipcase and costs 1500 pounds sterling--truly a bargain and for a good cause. All profits from the sale of the book go to the Ju/'hoansi Development Fund supporting projects in the Nyae Nyae Conservancy.

It isn't just Bruce's sensitive black-and-white studies of Ju/'hoan elders and youth, as they pose with dignity and pride, showing off their crafts and the fruits of their hunting in the unforgiving veldt, that makes his work important; it is also the fact that he has chosen to give back some of his funds to help the people he photographed. You can see his stunning prints, book and portfolio on his website here: http://davidbrucephotography.co.za/juhoansi-bushmen/. You can find out more about the Ju/'hoan Development Fund here: http://www.jdfund.org/about_us.html. You can order items from David directly at info@JDFund.org.

One of my favorite holiday cards came from my friends at Archive Consulting and Management Services (Sarah Morthland, Robert Gurbo and Amy Mattern), which noted that a donation had been made to Friends without a Border to benefit Angkor Hospital for Children. They conveniently listed the charity's website (http://www.fwab.org) to encourage their clients and friends to also consider giving. We all need to do more to encourage a bit of "magical thinking" to nudge ourselves and others into making this a little bit better world.

While I realize that many photographers often risk and even give their lives to photograph, document and attempt to change the world with their imagery, I think--whenever possible--it would be a great idea to give back a little to those sources that inspired these extreme efforts in a more direct fashion.

One photographer who has often risked his life photographing is Sam Mohdad, who also created and helped set up the Arab Images Foundation (AIF) in Beirut. AIF is a non-profit organization dedicated to the safeguard of modern and contemporary visual arts that show the daily life of local populations in the Arab World. By using photography as a medium of communication, it aims at showing what is out of the media's focus. It recently put on an exhibition of its collection at this year's Paris Photo.

AIF's Mes Ententes project sets itself within the framework of AFKAR, a project led by the European Community and overseen by the Office of the Minister of State for Administrative Reform (OMSAR) in collaboration with the European Delegation in Lebanon. This project is one of several run by the foundation, and it aims at analyzing the return of displaced people in the region of Mount Lebanon, more specifically in the cazas, or territories, of the Chouf, Aley, Baabda and Metn. You can find out more about AIF here: http://www.arabimages.com. You can see more of his work here: https://www.iphotocentral.com/common/result.php/256/Samer+Mohdad/0.

And this is by no means a recent phenomenon. In the past, for example, Ansel Adams and Eliot Porter helped support the Sierra Club (http://www.sierraclub.org) and environmental causes through their personal efforts/time and direct funding through the sale of their books and photographs.

I have not attempted to list all those fine artists and others involved in the art world who have tried to give back. The giving itself and knowing you've helped a little is the best reward. I would encourage all artists, dealers, collectors and institutions to consider and reconsider your policies and charitable support based on the benefits you may derive from our world's less privileged people and the photographing of our fragile environment. Even if you are not an artist that focuses on documentary photography, it is even more important that you give back to our world. That goes for artists, dealers/galleries, collectors and institutions of all types.

In this season of giving and community, in this time of mixed economic news, I hope we all find a way to expand our sense of that community, so as to encompass all our brothers and sisters throughout the world. The globe has grown too small and precious not to consider the consequences for us to fail to find common ground and to recognize how fragile the network of our world's peoples has become. I hope you will join with me in this process and open up your own hearts to giving more in a time that so many are in need.

I have listed a few of my own favorite, highly-rated charities below, which seem to spend a lot more on their actual charitable work than on administering and marketing their associations:

For help with the environment: http://www.conservationfund.org in the U.S. or http://www.wri.org worldwide.

For general care giving in the U.S., your local or regional Salvation Army office is almost always one of the top-rated, as it is internationally. Check the organization out here: http://www.salvationarmy.org/ihq/www_sa.nsf. For international care giving, you should also try http://www.globusrelief.org, http://www.oxfamamerica.org, or http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org.

If you wish to make a donation to an arts-related group that is focused on helping children in developing areas learn about the arts, you might try Global Children's Art Programme here: http://www.globalchildrensartprogramme.org. For sake of disclosure, I used to serve on the board of this 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.

Whatever your choice of giving is, don't forget to actually make those contributions of time and money.

And finally, of course, I want to acknowledge the support that we have had from you, our readers and clients this past year. I have never taken it for granted and will try to improve the newsletter with each issue, having long recognized the sense of accountability to you. I also want to thank those of you who have patronized all our dealers/galleries on I Photo Central, and, in particular, my own company, Contemporary Works/Vintage Works. So as this tough year of 2009 concludes, I can't say thank you enough for all the exceptional support, graciousness and kindness that have come our way. Suffice to say, that without you we wouldn't be here.

I wish you all a happy holidays and a great New Year full of magic and love.