New Blood, Old Battles: a Conversation with Annie Flanagan and Daniella Zalcman
As the newest members of Toronto's Boreal Collective, New Orleans-based photographer/filmmaker Annie Flanagan and UK-based photojournalist Daniella Zalcman work on the principle that asking questions and pushing boundaries is art as much as activism.
You know the vulnerability of being in front of the camera—how hard it is to act "naturally" when someone is taking your photo, how you inevitably worry that an "honest" (read: unflattering) photo of you will exist, be tagged on Facebook, become the next meme. You know that vulnerability, but you might not have considered the vulnerability of the photographer behind the lens. As the newest members of Toronto's Boreal Collective, New Orleans-based photographer/filmmaker Annie Flanagan and UK-based photojournalist Daniella Zalcman work on the principle that photography is more powerful when it inverts traditional roles and contexts: that the photographer can be vulnerable to their subject, that artists are stronger working together than alone, that asking questions and pushing boundaries is art as much as activism. Founded in 2010, the Boreal Collective's photographers have a reputation for tackling pressing cultural and social issues across the globe; their belief in expanding "creative and social consciousness" means diversifying a traditionally white, straight, masculine profession—and their newest additions bear witness to that philosophy.
I wanted to speak with Flanagan and Zalcman about their individual practice and collaborative support, a balance that is frequently complicated for photojournalists, who often work alone. For Zalcman, the "joy and strength of a collective is that it creates something of a group conscience [and offers] access to a small panel of people who understand your job, your work, and your priorities." Flanagan adds that joining Boreal is "a commitment not only to my own work, but also to the work of the other collective members and to the art of photography." In an industry driven to continuously redefine itself, Flanagan and Zalcman paused to talk with me about the language, audience, and framing of photography in new contexts.
VICE: I first heard that both of you had joined Boreal Collective in a Time Lightbox piece that declared the "comeback" of the photo collective. Why do you think collectives died out, and why are they being revived? Why now?
Annie Flanagan: Perhaps because there are not many options for staff positions as a photographer, so we have to seek support networks that are outside certain publications? That was never what I wanted—a staff position—and collectives of all kinds have been a presence in my life for a while now. So, a photography collective has always seemed like an ideal situation.
Daniella Zalcman: I don't know that I agreed with that piece, actually. I think, as with every other journalistic institution, they've had to reevaluate and restructure in a lot of ways to keep up with technology and the new/different ways that we interact with media. But newspapers, magazines, wire services, galleries, museums, and publishers have had to do that, too. I don't really feel like the notion of a group of photographers joining together to strengthen each other's visions and brands was ever likely to die out.
I'm always frustrated with industry alarmists. If you listen to the doomsayers, there's no work, no money, no audience and we're all screwed, but the truth is we're consuming more media, more photography, than we ever have before in human history. We just have to figure out different ways to monetize and innovate. We can do that. And it's easier together.
Many of your projects focus on marginalized and oppressed communities. You are each part of one—maybe even some—of these communities. Can you talk a bit about marginalization in the subjects you photograph and in your own subject positions (female, queer, however you identify)?
DZ: For me, one of journalism's best and most noble applications is its ability to elevate oppressed voices. And here is where I start to sound more like an activist than maybe is fashionable, but there are stories where clinical objectivity is absurd. I can pretend all I want that I am approaching stories on the ongoing oppression of sexual minorities from a neutral perspective, but we all know that's bullshit. I do not support anti-homosexuality legislation. I do not support homophobia. I believe that there is a right side of history here, and maybe my work can underscore that too many people, governments, and leaders are on the other side. I think that it is also my job to listen to those voices and do everything I can to represent them honestly and fairly. After three years of documenting Uganda's beleaguered LGBTI community, I realized I'd never made an effort to interact with the 96 percent of the population that supports anti-homosexuality laws; so I reached out to dozens of religious leaders in Kampala to discuss sexual identity, homophobia, and religion with them. While a lot of the conversations were fairly predictable, I was surprised by the number of moderate voices that are often ignored or underrepresented because they don't make for spicy quotes.
I don't know that my own background has all that much to do with it. I identify strongly as a woman of color (I'm half Vietnamese and Jewish), but I had a privileged childhood and, to most people, I look white. I am heterosexual and cisgender. All things considered, I have an incredibly easy life. But of course, I've experienced small doses of racism and huge doses of sexism (any woman who says otherwise is, with all due respect, completely blind).
AF: Yes, it is important to focus also on the oppressor; in many cases, violence and oppression are the result of an individual's experience with violence and oppression in their own life. I find viewing those that commit violent acts as "monsters" really quite harmful: we need to listen to their stories so that we can better heal. It is a cycle and the whole cycle needs to be investigated.
I guess my experiences greatly impact what I choose to focus on. Most of the work I make stems from my own experiences and experiences of those closest to me, and then I want to see how they exist in different circumstances and on a larger scale.
"You know what's nice?" Charlotte asked, "Being able to get in the car and go to the store...without asking." / Williston, ND 2013 (From Sweet Crude). Annie Flanagan
What is the relationship between photography and vulnerability, as you see it? This might mean the vulnerability of your subjects and/or your own vulnerability "behind" the camera.
AF: We ask a lot of those we photograph and a large part of that is that they be vulnerable. As I began to focus my work on gendered violence and trauma, I found it vital to understand what it was like to document and share my own trauma. And understanding what that vulnerability is like, what it feels like to document and share your own trauma, has made me a more compassionate artist
I was given a lot of conflicting advice about putting working out there. This might impact your job. Editors might have concerns about your PTSD or how your trauma can impact the way you do your job. You might be an insurance risk. I listened and did not share the work and it pissed me off, because that is exactly what we ask of people when we ask them to be open and honest about their experiences. And I thought it was bullshit to sit behind a camera and ask of people what I was too threatened to do myself. Now I just put it all out there and understand that being vulnerable does not make you weak.
It is important that I never forget that with a camera comes power. I must be aware of how that power is used, how to navigate that power, how making work has consequences; I must be accountable to those consequences. I prioritize talking to the people I photograph about how they feel about it. What is being photographed like for you? What are your concerns? Hesitations? Specifically, in working with groups of people that have a history of being misrepresented or exploited through the media, our presence can be triggering or harmful.
DZ: Almost all of the subjects of my recent projects are deeply vulnerable in some way. I've had people disclose sexual and physical abuse to me for the first time; I've photographed individuals whose identities needed to be completely obscured or they could risk being arrested, beaten, or killed. The vulnerability of those I am privileged to document is always at the forefront of my consciousness. Their lives and their personal, physical, and psychological security matters so much more to me than my work.
As Annie says, we ask so much of the people we photograph, and there has to be something repaid in the transaction that justifies their trust in us. And it's so easy to damage that relationship. Maybe the worst moment of my life was the time a young gay man from Kampala called me on Skype in a panic to say that his parents had seen a photo I ran of him on CNN and he'd been kicked out of his house. I'd photographed him with his partner a few weeks prior, and had shown him the image and explained to him how and where it would run. He agreed, knowing that their families wouldn't have access to the broadcast, but a neighbor saw the photograph and, because of me, he was homeless. I walked around for the rest of the day suppressing the urge to vomit, feeling completely powerless.
So many past and present photography collectives are predominantly ol' white—boys' clubs. Until you two joined Boreal, for example, it was comprised of nine male, one female, all straight-identified, as far as I know, and almost exclusively white members. In my experience, people don't want to talk about this lack of diversity. There is a kind of deafening silence when questions shift from aesthetics and contexts to questions of representation and equity. Why is it so terribly uncomfortable to discuss?
AF: Diversity, and lack thereof, is so important to discuss and we need to fight for the space to discuss and dismantle. It is hard and uncomfortable because it requires that people investigate their own privileges, admit them, and work to dismantle them. It is not a priority for a lot of people. I also think it's hard to discuss because people feel threatened: if you are used to being granted everything based on something that you are born into, if it gets taken away, you tend to do everything to keep it intact. It is going to take a lot of work for both sides—for the oppressed and the oppressors. Coming forward about shit experiences is not easy and can have consequences. Personally, I have had successful dude photographers say shitty things to me because I assume they felt threatened or felt that was their right or did not even understand how misogynistic their speech was. And I hate misogyny.
DZ: Annie nailed it. I think that it is deeply important that we continue to talk about diversity and the lack thereof in the photography community, but I'm also so goddamn sick of the conversation. I don't think it's fair to pin the lack of women, people of color, and queer-identifying individuals on collectives specifically—it's the whole industry. What were the numbers from that World Press Photo survey? That 80 percent of the photographers surveyed were male? I know the pool wasn't an ideal cross section, blah blah blah, but that's just so gross. I forget, sometimes, since I am surrounded by so many strong, talented, amazing female photojournalists, that it's so skewed.
AF: I think it's so vital that we work to support and encourage different perspectives. If you don't see people you can identify with, it can make you not only doubt your own ability, but also the worth of your perspective. We all have a lot to unlearn—as humans, as photographers, as an industry. We need to actively work to support and elevate a diversity of perspectives, to make sure that there is no homogeneous perspective in media coverage, photography, filmmaking (and beyond). Which takes concentrated efforts—like including females and queer people and people of color in your collective.
DZ: And it's an impossibly fine line between wanting to be outspoken, and an advocate for equality, and wanting not to be labeled the crazy feminist harpy on her soapbox (everyone already thinks I'm a crazy feminist harpy anyway, so that ship has sailed for me). I was speaking to a male editor recently (someone I have known for a long time, whose opinions and moral compass I trust completely) and mentioned in passing that maybe half of the male photo editors I've worked with have acted in an obviously inappropriate, gendered way in a professional setting. He was actually speechless. It was simultaneously heartwarming to see him so completely shocked, and also depressing to realize that he was totally unaware of these pathetically common occurrences. It's uncomfortable to discuss because we all have stories. That's okay, I like making people uncomfortable.
KM: As a way to conclude, I wonder if you might each engage with one image from the other's oeuvre.
DZ to AF: I saw the self-portrait of your first black eye a few weeks ago, and it has been ingrained in my memory since. I'm curious about what you think are the strengths and challenges of documenting yourself in such a vulnerable and personal way, and how you think it affects your presentation of a story (and your audience's reaction to that work). I struggle a lot with this in a very different way; I am almost always a complete outsider in my projects, and that's something I'm very self-conscious of and think about constantly. I wonder if the inverse is just as stressful?
AF: I am terrified about putting images of my personal life out into the open. Every time I share an image and I am open and honest about my personal life, I do it in complete fear and lack any confidence. We need to understand what we ask of those we photograph—to be vulnerable, to share trauma and other intimacies, to share the healing process. I cannot ask other people to do these things if I am not comfortable doing them myself. If fears of judgement, of safety, were stopping me from being honest, how could I expect others to be honest? This particularly relates to documenting my own trauma and anxiety, but also to sharing images of my friends and relationships. I made a promise to myself that I would not let fear stop me from moving forward or making work or taking risks, so even though I now share work about my life, I do it in fear. I just refuse to let that fear stop me.
AF to DZ: My question is about "Signs of Your Identity," because I am interested in people's perceptions of photographing past traumas and the healing process. I would love to hear your perspective on this project in relationship to one's ability to heal or the collective healing process. Before you began making images, what were people's reactions to the proposed project? Once the images were made, what was this person's reaction to the work? Do you believe photography can heal, or help to heal?
DZ: I didn't share all that much about how I was going to use the portraits. I mentioned they'd be double exposures, and that faces could be somewhat obscured for anyone who felt more comfortable not being identifiable. But once the images were made and initially shared, the response was the most powerful and positive reaction I've ever gotten to my work; many of my subjects told me they were proud to be part of the project, that they were glad they'd shared their stories, and an overwhelming number of other survivors came forward to tell me about their experiences over e-mail as well.
I spent so much time during this project thinking about healing: how we heal, and how others can facilitate healing. I photographed and interviewed 45 Indian Residential School survivors on my last trip in August, and there was a huge range in the conversations I had with them, from hours of emotional, uninterrupted testimony about their time in those schools, to one man who told me that he'd never told anyone what had happened to him and he never would. I wanted everyone to disclose in their own way, however they felt comfortable. For some people that took hours, for some, less than a minute. I felt that there was a concrete relationship between the openness with which survivors discussed their pasts and where they were in the healing process. I saw so many people who clearly were determined to keep their pain and trauma balled up inside, and it was heartbreaking, and clearly a huge psychological weight. But for every survivor who chose to share his or her story, often in tears, almost all of them remarked after the fact that each time they shared their histories, they felt a little lighter, a little happier, and a little more able to forgive. So, I don't know if photography itself can heal, but maybe the process of storytelling can.
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