image from: Democrat and Chronicle
Throughout the month of February the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY is holding a series of events and lectures titled Not Forgotten: Portraits of life and death in Rochester. Included in the series is a teen poetry slam, a community outreach education night and a lecture by Magnum photographer, Eli Reed.
Last evening, I had the opportunity to attend one part of the series: a panel discussion by Will Yurman (a Democrat and Chronicle staff photographer) and local artists Juliana Muniz and Heather Layton. Each artist discussed his or her body of work – all of which related to the 54 homicides that occurred in Rochester, NY in 2005 (a record number of homicides that consequently earned Rochester the highest murder-per-capita rating in New York State that year).
Will Yurman discussed his project, Not Forgotten: Portraits of Life and Death in Rochester. The project documents each of the 54 homicide victims and their families and friends. A combination of his own still photographs and a multimedia presentation that compiles images, family photographs and sound, his work is on display at the Eastman House through March 2.
Next, Juliana Muniz showed her documentary project — a yearlong endeavor to photograph each on-site memorial created for the homicide victims.
Finally, Heather Layton explained her project titled (sub)urban homicide. After plotting each of the original murder locations on a map, Layton used tracing paper to superimpose the crimes sites onto suburban neighborhoods on the southeastern side of Rochester. Creating fictionalized suburban homicide sites, Layton installed and photographed a flower memorial on each new site in order to “bridge the gap by presenting a fictional scenario to our wealthiest citizens…”
Following the presentation of work, the audience was invited to participate in a question and answer session with the artists. Several interesting points were discussed — particularly regarding the future of crime in Rochester and how a citizen can begin to combat the issue firsthand. My own overwhelming feeling at the end of the evening, however, was a fascination of the potential role art can play as a tool for social activism.
In an ideal cultural climate, the institution would be a beginning environment for a discussion of artwork — particularly artwork that deals with social issues. I am reminded of artist Barbara Kruger, whose highly graphic work examined power struggles, feminism and consumerism in public spaces such as billboards, posters and buscards.
I am interested in the notion of photographers seeking out equally public venues in order to present their work to members of the community outside of the arts. I applaud Will Yurman for using the internet (particularly the Democrat and Chronicle website) as a space to share his project with the masses — but are there other places for the photographer to engage with the general public? I am not sure how the individual artist can engage with with the general population without assistance from the institution. Specifically, I am interested in the way Layton’s work confuses boundaries between socially active image-making (i.e. photojournalism/documentary) and work with a more art-related philosophy. Critical engagement with the masses seems essential to the continuation of fine-art photography as we know it. Our challenge is to figure out how this interaction can successfully take place.