Early in September, I was contacted by Jennifer Williams from the DIA asking me if I was interested in participating in an exhibition that would include the work of my students. They would shot and print work that would explore the complicated ideas of memory and loss; a daunting prospect to students ranging in age from 14 to 18. If taken on, this project would be aligned to the exhibition called Of Life and Loss: The Polish Photographs of Roman Vishniac and Jeffrey Gusky that would open April 15, 2009. The guidelines set out at that time by Jennifer stated that “The project would use the photos in the exhibition as a catalyst to inspire students to explore themes of memory and place in their own work”. And while student work would not be inside the gallery with the work of Gusky and Vishniac, it would be given enormus respect when it was shown on a screen outside the exhibition.
The students were thrilled about the project from the onset long before they knew that inclusion in this show came in conjunction with a trip to the DIA to view the exhibition, discussion of images, general tour of the museum, and copies of the video and booklet of their work.
I can say without reservation that this project garnered more discussion of images, before and after they were shot and printed than any other assignment that I can remember. The students were engaged from the beginning but something palpable changed after we were visited by Linda Margolin and Jennifer Williams who showed the students the PowerPoint that I had seen in September. The intensity and power of the images and the discussion that followed took some of the students in a different direction; some asking if they could shoot again as they knew that only one image each would be submitted.
The students were humbled by the work they saw that day and felt honored to have their work juxtaposed to the images of Gusky and Vishniac. The fact that Jeffrey Gusky was an “amateur” photographer did little to mitigate their concerns that their work would be worthy of inclusion.
Over the next few months the issue that the students grappled with the most was how to tie their own “short” history, to the monumental history of war torn Poland and other ravaged Eastern European countries. I watched each student deconstruct this concept and reassemble it in their own visual vernacular. All the student interruptions were different and they all made the assignment their own.
Interrupting one’s own identity through the lens of a personal history is a powerful mandate and when explored fully can be a teaching tool that extends far beyond photography and the final image.
The students felt an additional connection to the exhibiting photographers as they all worked in the same medium — black and white film and darkroom printing.
We are now getting ready for our visit later this month. I feel that I can speak for all of us when I say that this will be a powerful and inspiring day.