“Warpaint,” a collage of self-portraits created by Coco Layne, has been a hot topic in the Internet world these days. From Facebook, and Twitter, to Tumblr and Buzzfeed, it seems like a large portion of the Internet is discussing this series of photos that challenge conceptions of gender expression. In this piece, Layne particularly wants to clarify the distinction between gender presentation and gender identity, as well as the fact that this is a reflection of her own personal experience and not meant to represent the experience of all queer people everywhere. An article from the Huffington Post quotes Layne who claims she ” never felt like I was wearing a disguise at any time [throughout the project]. Although my physical appearance may fluctuate, there’s never any behavioral shift with me. ‘Warpaint’ comes from the perspective of a cisgendered queer woman of color, so it reflects my own unique experience and isn’t meant to speak for other queer people, although our experiences may intersect in some ways.” Furthermore, she claims “it’s important to open up this conversation about gender presentation because its often confused and read as gender identity…Gender presentation is not about sexual orientation at all! Playing around with gender expression is strictly an avenue to explore my identity as a queer person not my sexual identity.” While of course she does not speak for all queer people everywhere, it is clear from the popularity of this piece that many people identify with Layne’s experiences and appreciate that Layne is willing to explore something, in such a public forum, that is so difficult to talk about.
Photography has historically been a medium of art that spreads messages related to social justice issues. We have already seen the case of Alix Smith as well as Jacob Riis, not to mention JR‘s nontraditional take on the medium. Perhaps some of the power of photography comes from its documentary nature. Photography can put a personal face on issues, it can present you not with overwhelming facts and figures, but with the piercing eyes of a woman who can’t feed her children.
Dorothea Lange, a photographer known for her work during the Depression, used her photography to bring the experiences of sharecroppers, displaced farm families, and migrant workers to public attention. The above photograph, also titled “Human Erosion in California”, was taken by Lange in a pea-picker’s camp in 1936. Lange, in an interview in 1960, recalls meeting the woman and claims “She and her children had been living on frozen vegetables from the field and wild birds the children caught. The pea crop had frozen; there was no work. Yet they could not move on, for she had just sold the tires from the car to buy food.” While there is some dispute as to whether this account is accurate, Lange’s portrait of this woman is striking. After this photo was published in the San Francisco News, the government was alerted to the plight of the workers and rushed in with 20,000 pounds of food to rescue workers. The photography of Dorothea Lange, like the photography of so many others, truly demonstrates the power of art in enacting social change.
In light of Illinois’ recent triumph regarding same-sex marriage, and the continuing fight for equal rights for all people in our country regardless of gender or sexual -orientation, Alix Smith’s project “States of Union” seems to be particularly relevant. Smith photographs portraits of same-sex families (which her website defines as “as few as two individuals who are in a committed relationship and live as a social unit. These units may include pets and may have biological, fostered, or adopted children.”) These portraits create transgressive images in a variety of ways. The first is by combatting stereotypes. In a short documentary with In The Life Media, Smith discusses the problems with gay representation in the media. She argues that her portraits are an attempt to dispel stereotypes and to help people embrace who they are by portraying images of everyday people in everyday situations, instead of highly exaggerated media images. The second way these portraits are transgressive is through their reference to classical portraiture. Smith, in collaboration with the family she is photographing, composes the images to resemble classic portraits. On her website Smith claims that her project is a way for same-sex couples to reclaim their legacy within the historical culture of portraiture. This combination of creating images of everyday people, and situating them in the context of the culture of portraiture, allows for the creation of very complex, transgressive and beautiful images.
JR, a street artist who spoke at TED 2011, has always been a non-traditional artist. In his TED talk he describes some of his original work, claiming that he posted it in the streets “confronting it directly with the public.” This idea, that an artist would bypass traditional museum culture and take his work directly to the streets seems quite revolutionary, especially considering that JR was based in Paris–the city of the museums. But even more than that, JR wants to change the world with art. One of his most influential projects, entitled “Women are Heroes”, is known across the world. JR decided to take the faces of some of the most overlooked people in the world, women, and paste them onto the side of buildings, or in the case of Kibera, Kenya, onto the roofs of people’s houses. (What is particularly powerful about this, is that if you search for Kibera, Kenya on google maps and look at the satellite picture, the women of Kibera stare up at you.) JR is a fascinating artist, and one who will probably continue to challenge traditional boundaries and make good art. When asked why he was doing what he was doing, if he was the media, or an NGO, JR replied “Art. Just art.” But JR’s art isn’t just art. JR understands that art can change how we see the world, and he is using it to help us to see our world.
The idea that art and social change are linked is not a new one. Jacob Riis, a late-19th century/early-20th century photographer, is only one example of someone who has been using their artwork to call attention to social problems throughout history. Riis used his photography to help the impoverished in New York City. While he was not perfect–and is critiqued for his racist and offensive views–Riis worked hard to create social reform in New York City by using the relatively recent invention of flash photography to document slums, tenement houses, dark streets and other hardships of the poor . Riis’s photography can be seen in The Museum of the City of New York‘s online collection.
This image is one of many in the powerful exhibition Women Between Peace and War. Women Between Peace and War is a collection of images of women in Afghanistan which attempts to “ensure that the voices of women and girls are not lost in the ongoing international military and political engagement in Afghanistan.” Available as a poster set with a handbook, as well as museum projections and slideshow form, images of women juxtaposed with statements from the National Action Plan for Women in Afghanistan create a beautiful and emotionally wrenching statement about the women and children who are caught in the middle of the struggle for peace. These images demand a change in the system, they demand a change in the way these women are treated, and they demand that we pay attention. This project is only one amazing example of the kind of art that Leslie Thomas’s Art Works Project attempts to create. Art Works Projects uses photography to raise awareness and to spur social change. Thomas wants to do more than make art, she wants to reach an audience outside of a museum setting, connect with them emotionally, and get them to act. She works in the “space between art and activism” and she’s going to bring us all there with her.