I received Emilie Lauwers' brilliant collaborative book, Er is geen boek ('There is no book') two weeks ago (it's not for sale I'm afraid. Only twenty five copies were made) . It's a collaborative project where Emilie worked with group of initially resistant 18-year-olds in the town of Zelzate in Belgium to create a picture of their town. I am struck by the book's multiple layers, by its complexity. In the visual arts, and photography in particular, sometimes, the complex is a shield for further complexity. You end up with deeper and deeper levels of complexity. Einstein said something about the genius being taking the complex and making it simple. That's what Lauwers does with the book.
The dilemma for collaborative projects is how do you create something of value while involving those being collaborated with, giving them an authentic voice, and ending up with something that is actually worthwhile.
The basic model of giving people a camera and asking them to photograph is not enough. It doesn't work unless it's framed in such a way with supporting workshops, ideas, input so you get something out of it at the end that is usable. This is what Wendy Ewald did with her giving people cameras, creating parallel lives out of children's dreamworlds, memories and imaginatioins.
And then she used collage, paint, text and installation to modify these works so there is a creative input, another layer of collaboration where the work has an impact that ties in with how those elements are framed - which you see again and again in all kinds of wonderful ways.
Again, when it's great it's never random, it doesn't happen by accident, the work is made in conjunction with events and conversations and engagement leading towards a particular end with the idea of a link between the audience and the worlds of those photographed..
If you don't frame it, if you just hand out cameras, then the danger is you end up with a bunch of bad pictures. People take banal pictures already. Give them a camera and you just end up with more banal pictures. It's all very nice, but you know. Bad photography is bad photography and just sticking the word collaborative in front doesn't make it good.
One idea people often have about collaboration is that it's about presenting things positively. It's not. It's about framing things in three dimensions. I remember seeing an exhibition of collaborative work at a musuem featuring people with a particular national background. The intention was to show the positive side of the country. It was text-image, using interviews to expand the works. Every interviewee talked about how the different regions of the country loved each other, how it was one big happy family wherever you went in the world, how there were no problems whatsoever, and if there were they were sorted out honestly and fairly by the elders.
There might have been some truth in that, but it bore no relation whatsoever to how those people saw the place in different circumstances. Somewhere along the line a consensus had been made to present a united smokescreen. This collaboration was a public front, a marketing campaign which was pure propaganda.
The problem, of course, is that sometimes that is part of the deal. I remember Jess Crombie of Save the Children talking about the difficulty posed when people in a refugee camp in Syria were showing fake videos of atrocities. A bigger dilemma than the videos being fake (even if what they represented was not fake) was the problem of how can you tell the story of people being so desperate that they need to show these fake videos, they need to tell their story somehow. And in a cruel and spiteful country like the UK, you simply can't. You need to counter the hate-filled propaganda of the government and mainstream media with something altogether less complex. Complex narratives are not often completely counter-effective. Pictures of crying babies still sell. Pictures of crying babies still raise money.
That being said there are still alternative ways of working and my favourite Patrick Willocq Save the Children Image picture of Anicet, the Malaria Doctor, which I never tire of looking at is a case in point. It's engaged, it's positive, and it's collaborative but retains the authorship that makes it such a great work. And you know there was a whole process which was incredibly difficult that led to the making of the work. This is what he said about it.
“I wanted to show real children, involve the subjects, listen to them and create a set together staging their lives and desires,” says Willocq. I wanted the resulting photos to be empowering representations of these children while upholding their dignity.”
It's positive, but it's also somehow three-dimensional with a back-story embedded within it, as well as links to possible futures. It doesn't stand alone in other words, and is an example of Save the Children's Report on Putting People in the Picture and consulting the people in the picture with how they are represented. These are the conclusion in the report.
'Invest in more collaborative content. Save the Children will continue to ensure its communications provide a balanced portrayal of the individuals and communities it works with and use first-hand accounts wherever possible. It will also continue to explore and test the potential of more collaborative, contributor-led content for different purposes (including fundraising). Possible approaches include:
• increased use of first-hand accounts and contributor-led narratives
• engaging children and other contributors as spokespeople on issues, as well as in telling their own stories
• image making with the same individuals over time – enabling contributors to take a more active role in their portrayal, and the sharing of stories that show need, support and impact.
Anyway, that brings us back round to Emilie Lauwers collaborative project Er is Geen Boek ('There is no book'). It's both a classic collaborative project which fits all of the categories above, as well as a form of mapping. It maps out the town of Zeldate in a literal sense, put also provides a place and a geography in which the people Emilie worked with are placed centre stage.
Most interestingly, it's a project that is in part about creating a sense of culture in a town that apparently has none, but is even more about bringing out the culture that is already there. It's a psychogeographic project that rethinks a place on the terms of the people who are living there, in terms of cultures that are suppressed within the institutions, expectations and organisations that are seen to dominate the physical and psychogical landscape. It's multi-layered and it's quite fantastic. It's collaborative but it also has a sense of direction and purpose. It's something to be proud of.
This is what she says about it.
'I was sent to Zelzate in January by an organisation that provides artistic projects to people who usually don't come across artistic projects at all. It was my first experience with people who didn't volunteer to sign up for my classes.
The kids, aged 18, gave me a lot of resistance from the very start. Alos, I was bound to work with them on the heritage of their region or city. The city of Zelzate is surrounded by factories - a massive
metal factory and another one that makes asphalt. So the future isn't very bright for the teenagers growing up there. There's criminality, poverty, and a lot of frustration.
The centre that takes care of Flanders heritage had nothing for me to work on. I asked them if I could do any research but they told me there was no book to read (Er is geen boek).
So I decided to ask the students to give me all the information I needed about the community they live in. We made scale models of all the important landmarks: the bus stop they love because it takes them far away, the bar they go to on friday nights, and so on.
They also gave me a whole pile of newspaper articles about gangs running their streets, toyshops burning down, bodies found in the park and so on.
I told them to cut up the articles and re-shape the text into a different content. Meanwhile I visited the places they mentioned and photographed them.
I would have loved to photograph the kids as well, but they were very sensitive to privacy matters - you'll see that even in the notebooks I gave them todraw themselves.
All the above is what you'll see on the large pages of the book, along with some images taken on our days out, when I took them to the local museum, or to the control tower of the industrial bridge, or to the place where the giants of their traditional parades are stored.
On the small pages, they show us some of their own lives. The class was very divided full of tension and concurrence. Whoever opened up with a personal story was lynched directly. It was a very hostile environment to get to creation. So I started to email the students individually and they sent me their stories along with the images printed on the small pages of the book; Kaylyn goes to the shooting club with her dad every snday. She keeps the cards with bullet holes, writing 'first time with a kalashnikov' for example. Chadian loves Disney. She collects all the maps of Disney Worlds around the planet.
Robin gave me a particularly hard time - always asking, "Is this compulsory?" or"Why is this necessary?", sitting by the window with his back turned towards me. On one of the last evenings however, he sent me a video of his hands on the piano, playing 'tempesta' by Beethoven.
See more of Emilie's work here.