Last winter, the Emory University Visual Arts Gallery presented photographer Dawoud Bey’s traveling exhibition “Class Pictures,” which pairs striking portraits of high school students with text they have written. Now Bey, who is based in Chicago, is working on the Emory Project, a special photographic project commissioned by the university that is to be installed on campus this fall and then become part of the school’s permanent collection. Rebecca Dimling Cochran caught up with Bey during one of his recent photo shoots in Atlanta.
ArtsATL: The exhibition “Class Pictures,” which Atlantans may have seen recently at Emory University, has been traveling the country now for three years and has generated a phenomenal amount of interest. Can you tell us how the project began?
Dawoud Bey: I was invited to do an exhibition at the Smart Museum of Art in Chicago. At that point, when I was invited to do an exhibition, I usually asked if I could do a project with them that would generate some new work, rather than taking work that I had already made and placing it in the museum. So I proposed to do a project with them that brought together students, over a period of eight to 12 weeks, from three very different educational cultures in Chicago: a public school from the south side, a magnet school and the Lab School at the University of Chicago.The larger project was to set up a situation for them to become more critical consumers of visual images. So along with looking at works from the Smart Museum’s collection, we looked critically at the idea of how the experiences of young people in particular are represented in popular media, and we went to the schools that the students came from to make photographs with them.
I was collaborating with Dan Collison, who is a radio story producer for NPR. Listening to his radio stories, I thought there would be a parallel between the degree of intimacy of his stories and my photographs. With the photographs, [there is] a visual description that does not contain the literal voice of the subject, and in his case, you have the voice with no attending visual images.
So while I was photographing the students, he was doing audio interviews with them. The [final] exhibition ended up taking two forms: the exhibition that the students curated [from the Smart Museum’s collection] and then my photographs, with a parabolic sound dome over each so when you stood in front of the photograph, you also heard the voice of the student talking to you.
I knew I wanted to continue the idea of the visual representation brought together with the more literal voice of the person, so I decided to carry on that work in different schools around the country, with the idea of doing a book that took a very broad look at young people in America at that particular moment in history. It was the first time I really conceptualized the work as something that I wanted to do more broadly accessible and available than an exhibition.
ArtsATL: You ask each subject a specific question, to say something about themselves that people would not otherwise know, and this is presented with each portrait. How did you arrive at this particular question?
Bey: Initially, with the work that I did at the Smart Museum, the texts were transcripts of the audio and were lengthier conversations from which the most interesting or compelling piece was drawn. They have such a quality of introspection, a quality of intimate revelation, a quality that goes beyond the public description of young people in America. I wanted to see if there is one question I could ask them that might provoke an interesting, introspective response. So I came up with this question, which presumes that whatever someone knows from their public encounters with us, all of us are more than that one person.… There is always some aspect of one’s private self that is not necessarily on public display. I wanted to see if there was a way of getting at that information.
ArtsATL: Is this something you do verbally, or do you ask them to write their response?
Bey: This is interesting. I thought because it wasn’t verbal that I was going to lose the intimate quality [Dan achieved], but in the second group of “Class Pictures,” which was done in Detroit, I said let me see what will happen if I ask them to write this. Not only did it not inhibit their responses, but what is fascinating to me was the range of responses. What they chose to talk about was pretty much as different as each kid that I talked to.
ArtsATL: This is something you ask them to do before you take their portrait, correct?
Bey: Yes, but I very specifically don’t read them before I make the picture. I don’t want to try to make a picture in response to what they’ve written. I don’t know that it is possible to do, but if it is possible, it’s not the kind of picture-making that I am interested in anyway.… I want to try to make the fullest, most interesting and compelling visual description of the person and then, hopefully, when you put the two of them together — my visual voice with their literary voice — you end up with this more dimensional third thing.
ArtsATL: You have done wonderful street portraits, in Harlem and elsewhere, in which the surroundings are an important aspect of defining the individual, whether it is in a barbershop or on the front stoop of a building. It gives a context to the subject. All of the “Class Pictures,” on the other hand, are taken in the neutral space of a school classroom. Why is this?
Bey: Because that is the place in which they spend a significant amount of their time. I wanted to have that aspect of their experience represented in the construct of the pictures, even if what the text revealed was outside of that experience. Visually, I wanted to situate them in the context of the space but not have that space dominate or even be equally as present as they are on the photographs, which is why they are more optically foregrounded. I have a very shallow depth of field, in which you can see that they are in a classroom but you can’t read the titles on the spines of the books. I kind of wanted to have it both ways, have a specific context but not have the context overwhelm them.
ArtsATL: You are also a professor at Columbia College in Chicago. Is there a connection between the work you do in the classroom and why you chose this same atmosphere for your artwork? Wouldn’t a trip to India or the Galapagos be a refreshing change?
Bey: I have a certain notion about what I call the “passport tendency” in photography, which is this notion that you can use your camera as a passport to go someplace more interesting than the place that you are. I’ve never really bought into that idea. What I want to do is to take a closer look at ordinary surroundings.
Certainly the environment of a college or university classroom is very different from a high school classroom, not just in terms of the kinds of instruction but also, typically, what they look like. I think college classrooms are actually very neutral. There’s nothing in them. There’s no decoration. So they are different in that sense. But they are both instructional kinds of spaces, and I do see the work that I do having multiple functions. My practice as someone who teaches and my practice as an artist are certainly related.
But I wouldn’t want to teach in a high school five days a week from 9 to 4. Instead, I’m someone who comes from the outside, who expresses an interest in the lives of the students there, who apparently reciprocate my interest. I’m kind of the interested stranger who comes to your school for two weeks, who seems to be genuinely interested, who perhaps you can, in your writing, tell things that you probably wouldn’t want to say to the teacher whose classroom you sit in every day.
ArtsATL: You have photographed across the country, in both public schools and private boarding schools. If there was one characteristic that you have observed over the past few years about the youth of this country, what is it?
Bey: Young people do have something that they do want to tell us, but they are as emotionally and psychologically conflicted as all of us who used to be teenagers.
The things that they told me really come out of my interest, my curiosity, my willingness to ask and their willingness to reciprocate by sharing something with me that in most cases they haven’t even told their parents or teachers. I’ve had teachers come and see the work with students that they know, and there are things contained in that text that they didn’t have a clue about. There was also a girl whose father had died when she was very young, and she talked about her father. That was at the point where [we were using the] audio. Her mother came, and it turns out that the girl had never been able to talk to her mother about her father’s death. So then [the mother] comes and she’s standing under this [acoustic] dome looking at the picture hearing her daughter talk about it. You can imagine, she was in tears.
I hope that the work I do is very deep and meaningful beyond what it is as formal objects. The thing I am interested in and the thing I believe is that, through a close engagement with other human beings, there is a potential to learn not only something about that person that you are looking at but, ideally, to learn something about oneself by extension. I am just trying to create this kind of conversation of the human community with itself, using young people as a catalyst for that conversation.
ArtsATL: You are in town to do a project for Emory University that involves photographing the wider campus community, including students, faculty, administrators, maintenance staff, groundskeepers, cafeteria staff and others. How did this project come about?
Bey: Emory asked me to do [a project with them]. It was up to me to come up with some kind of interesting and coherent shape for it, and also something that allows me to raise and grapple with a new set of issues in my own work.
The work that I’ve done in the past has been primarily the individual. In this project, I’m photographing two people together in each photograph. I am bringing together people from different social segments of the Emory community to sit together momentarily to be photographed, as a way of each photograph visually representing the breadth of the Emory community. And then I am having each person write a certain self-reflexive text about themselves as a way of creating a kind of textual conversation overall.
ArtsATL: Is there a particular question that you have asked them?
Bey: The question that I came up with was “Who are you? What do you care deeply about in the world?”
One of the things that is interesting about this project, certainly, is that these are adults. There is actually, in this context anyway, a higher degree of self-consciousness among adults. You would think that would be true of teenagers, but that is not true. I can testify to it now. I think certainly within the context of the university community, adults have had a lot more time to invest in the constructing of an identity. They also probably have a lot more invested in it. It might not be a good idea for people to know too much about you. So asking that kind of intimate question in this kind of context has been somewhat different. Originally I was just asking people, “Who are you?” With this expanded question, I was trying to gently direct them away from “Who are you within the context of Emory University?”
I’m always interested in the inner person, because I think what’s interesting to me about a portrait is the way in which you are momentarily able to make some aspect of the inner person visible on the surface. To me that’s what the portrait is.
ArtsATL: The resulting photographs will be permanently installed somewhere on campus, correct?
Bey: In yet another public institutional space.… Whatever venue it ends up being in, all of the people in the photographs will have some sense of ownership of those photographs. Because this is part of the permanent public collection, there’s no changing, ever, the configuration that these people are in in these photographs. I like that.
ArtsATL: How are the pairings being organized?
Bey: The pairings are being organized around the subjects not coming from the same social arena. So I’m not photographing professor with professor. It’s not the president and the provost, kitchen staff with kitchen staff, or student and student. I’m mixing that social equation up: president with student, provost with kitchen staff. People whose paths wouldn’t necessarily cross during the course of the day but who are, in the larger sense, a part of the Emory community. I’m trying to evoke a new picture, the broadest hint of what it means, or who it means, when you talk about the Emory community.
Note: All images shown, except Bey’s self-portrait, are from “Class Pictures” (Aperture 2007).