A new photographer’s collective takes on America’s social deprivations and economic struggles. Facing Change describes itself as a non-profit collective of dedicated photojournalists and writers coming together to explore America and to build a forum to chart its future.
They have recently announced a collaboration with the Library of Congress. My friends at the wonderful dvafoto recently wrote about this. The official Library of Congress statement announcing the collaboration likened the efforts of this new generation of American photographer’s work, to that of an earlier, justifiably famous, group of photographers who worked for what was then called the Farm Security Administration. It said that:
Facing Change … is a contemporary counterpart to the work done in the 1930s and 1940s by photographers employed by the Farm Security Administration, a federal project that documented the experiences of Americans at all economic levels during the Great Depression and World War II.
I respectfully disagree.
You see, the words ‘…a federal project‘ in the statement above caught my eye. These three words tell us so much about how we are no longer in the social, political and cultural world of the 1930s, and how in fact, this new group of talented and committed photographers faces a challenge far greater than anything the FSA group of photographers ever did.
The FSA efforts involved a group of photographers who went on to make some of the most iconic images of America in the depression years. The works they produced went on to influence almost every photographer who came later, and how issues of poverty, famine, and social deprivation were depicted for decades to come. Some would argue that the visual language they created remains the definitive measure of how such issues and stories need to be depicted. Photographers like Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, and many others, under the guidance of Roy Stryker, the FSA information division, set out to show America to Americans. The works produced by the FSA photographers remains a crucial if not one of the most significant photographic documents of American history if not photographic history.
But the Farm Security Administration’s photographic program was a government supported project, with the explicit aim of creating a visual documentation of the conditions of Americans, and providing a powerful argument for the social and institutions changed that would enable the New Deal to be pushed through. It was part of a number of programs tried out by the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, a federal program. Roy Stryker, the director of FSA’s photographic documentary effort, was a man who had more than a little influence on how the photographers worked in the field. More importantly, he was a Columbia University trained economist, with a stark understanding of how photography and economics can work together to make specific points. In fact, he had used photography in his work economic works. His involvement with this group of photographers was close and immediate. He worked with them on everything from the stories they covered, to the themes they needed to explore. He ensured that America’s publications made their pages available for the presentation of this work. He knew what he was looking for, and his photographers knew the kinds of works that had to be produced to make the political argument Roosevelt’s government was trying to make as it fought to push through radical new legislation that would lead to the New Deal.
Few remember the radical and transformative effect and intent of the New Deal. It’s a subject that warrants an entirely separate post. Suffice it to say, that it was a period of concentrated and determined federal intervention to chart a new economic and social course for American. It gave birth to such important programs as Social Security Systems, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), the (now largely castrated but more needed than ever) Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). It also gave birth to the unique Works Progress Administration (WPA) which supported artists, writers, painters, and other creative individuals with subsidies and commissions.
The publication world was also very different. The photographic works produced received massive publication support. Stryker used the media, and the media collaborated closely with him by giving the stories being produced about American’s economic and human struggles mass coverage. It was a time when media offered stories and images of change, confronting the citizens of the country with a view of their fellow citizens that was aimed to moving them to action.
It was also a time of some of the greatest American literature – Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, E Wilson, West to name just a few. The Federal Writers Program was in effect – yet another federal effort to raise awareness of the plight of the Americans and the political, legislative and economic changes that had to be implemented to lift the country from its economic depths. Steinbeck, Aiken, Bellow, Cheever, Ellison, Terkel, Wright, West were just some of the amazing writers who worked for this program.
It was a world – political, cultural, artistic, and social, completely different from what we face in American today. The FSA photographers were producing works in a political and social atmosphere that was supporting their projects, responsive to their depiction of America, anxious to read and understand it through a news media that was anxious to publish it. It was a time when there were politicians, academics, artists, writers, painters, editors, journalists, photographers, house wives, congressmen and women, social workers, and ordinary citizens who believed in social change, in radical involvement of government in directing and building the nation, on the responsibility of the individual to the collective.
We no longer live in that world. The photographers of Facing Change must face an America that is politically and culturally the polar opposite of the one the FSA photographers faced. The Facing Change effort is being initiated in a time when there is little or no political support for social welfare intervention or federal focus on the needs of America’s working class. It is a time of the individual over the public. It is a time of wealth over welfare. It is a time of the corporate elite, whose interests are overwhelmingly served by our political leaders and done so at the overt detriment of our ordinary citizens. It is a time when our media outlets are busy producing entertainment and voyeurism, refusing to see their responsibility to the citizenry and the Republic. Owned largely by corporations, or trading on the stock exchanges, our news papers and news magazines are beholden to the marketplace priorities of their owners, and the profit/return algorithms of their accountants. In their pages the intolerable, not-so-beautiful American working class can only spoil the appeal of the Photoshop-perfect fashion models and always-smiling American mall shopper. In their pages today, they justify trillions for wars, while insisting further cuts for programs for our citizens. It is a time when our political leaders are more interested in games of violence, racism, petty posturing and cozying up to corporate power. It is a time when citizen intervention in government affairs or a demand for accountability of our leaders, is considered treason. It is an American whose collective idea of itself is not the struggling working class, but the individual corporate elite, jet-setting across the globe, consuming at the boutiques of SoHo, New York, and partaking of the consumerist pleasures and luxuries that only excess money and excess acquisitiveness can offer. It is an America where we no longer produce important writers, merely navel gazing ones. Just look at the collective works of the modern giants of American literature like Roth, Updike, DeLillo, Pynchon and you will see writers who refuse to engage with American realities and American social concerns. They are just in a world of their own, completely insular, and completely indifferent.
This is a new America.
Unlike the FSA, which was a program sanctioned and supported at the highest levels of government that consisted of people attempted radical social and economic change in a struggling America, Facing Change is largely a grass-roots efforts in an atmosphere of the highest level of government indifference and impotency in the face of a struggling America. In many ways I believe Facing Change may be the braver effort given the world in which it has been given birth, and the world into which it must now fight to have its works seen, published, promoted, discussed and acted on. The FSA was near propaganda, while Facing Change is activism, and hence more democratic, and in a political world that is increasingly less democratic, a more difficult effort.
So I will, as I said before, respectfully disagree with the Library of Congress. The importance and relevance of photography comes from the social and political context in which it is produced. Mere documentation does not make it important. It can make it a record, but it cannot make it relevant. When Helena Zinken of the Library of Congress states that “we feel confident that t…he documentation provided in these contemporary photographs will be treasured by historians, photographers and the public—much as the FSA collection, which arrived newly minted back in the 1940s, is treasured by all those groups today,” she forgets that it was not documents of history alone that the FSA set out to produce, but documents of immediate political and social change. That the importance of the FSA effort was in its intent, its use, and its impact on political, economic, and social realities of America. It changed the world we lived in and we never looked back.
That impact on the world is what made FSA the amazing and important effort that it is now rightfully seen to be. Whether Facing Change becomes that amazing and important effort, the equivalent of the FSA, is less a matter of photographic skill and documentation, but about the ways in which we can work to link their stories and images to political action. This is the key challenge of the moment, and the Library of Congress can do much more I believe to help make this happen. This work has to transform political will in an America where political will is today confused with political wealth.
This is a brave project, and it is a talented group of photographers. I can’t think of a better collective with a stronger commitment to the nation and her citizens. Their individual works point to their commitment and determination. I can only wish them well, and say that I write this post out of respect for what they are trying to do, and to remind us that they are doing it against some of the greatest odds we as citizens have ever faced. The challenges they will encounter in getting their works to make a difference, is the same challenge we citizens face today in getting our politicians to give a damn about our public and social welfare.
I wish the photographers of Facing Change all the luck in the world. Theirs is not an enviable task.