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Aperture’s The Way We Live Now
Vincent Hung, Untitled, 2017© Vincent Hung

18 photographers who are capturing this rapidly changing moment in time

Featuring artists from all over the world, Aperture’s new show explores race, immigration, gender, and the opioid crisis

A picture is said to be worth a thousand words, but in 2018, New York-based publisher and gallery Aperture, asks “how do photographs express a moment of rapid change in society, politics, beauty and self-expression?”

After an open call was placed by Aperture, over one thousand submissions were received from international image-makers, exploring topics as diverse as gender politics and representations of black and Latinx people, to the little-known oratory traditions of cultures from across the world. The result is the show, The Way We Live Now, featuring 18 photographers and curated by Siobhán Bohnacker, Brendan Embser, Marvin Orellana, and Antwaun Sargent.

“The photographers were chosen because we felt strongly that they represent the way we are living now,” explains Sargent. “Their works touch on themes we are grappling with as a culture, from race and immigration to mass incarceration and the opioid crisis. Many of the photographers we selected also deal with the idea of identity and show us what that means to them through the lens of their camera.”

In a time where we walk around with cameras in our pockets and image-led platforms such as Instagram are so prolific, we are each given boundless possibilities for self-representation and our very own virtual gallery spaces to share with the world.

Sargent recognises this: “We are living in a world that is increasingly defined by images and our ability to be the authors of our own pictures,” he says. It’s not something he sees as diminishing in terms of the artistic value of photography, but rather that it gives us new ways to not only express ourselves and our experiences but also as tools to understand one another.

“I am always struck by the fact that if you give someone a camera, what they see is different to what you see,” he says. “What others think should be represented in life and art is an opportunity to see where they are coming from; what issues they see, what they want to be celebrated, and ultimately, what of the world they might see that might escape your sense of reality.”

Below, we catch up with four of the photographers to find out what drives their work.

“What others think should be represented in life and art is an opportunity to see where they are coming from” – Antwaun Sargent. 

DIEGO CAMPOSECO

The exhibition asks “How do photographs express a moment of rapid change in society, politics, beauty, and self-expression?” How does your work fit in with this?

Diego Camposeco: The work I submitted to the Aperture show is about the relatively nascent Latinx community and their visual culture in the American South. My parents were part of the first wave of undocumented Mexican immigration to North Carolina in the 1990s and since then, the Latinx population in the state has ballooned. With this new demographic come societal, political, and even visual shifts.

Can you tell us the overarching ideas behind your projects “Diego Saves The World” and “Gerardo”?

Diego Camposeco: “Diego Saves the World” and “Gerardo" are both smaller chapters of my “Transterrestria” series about Latinx people in the American South. “Gerardo” is a series I did on an eponymous Mexican-American boy from Carrboro, NC which is right next to Chapel Hill, the city where I attended undergrad school. I took the photos my sophomore year and they were the beginning of a study on Latinx visual culture.

“Diego Saves the World” was part of my honours thesis during my senior year. There a few photos and a couple of videos included creating a full installation which I exhibited in the undergraduate honours show “Anti-Matters” at the Allcott Gallery at UNC-Chapel Hill.  The premise of the series is to use the documentary form and its critique as a signifier for both American and Global South, which provides an artistic identity for the demographic I'm targeting.

What would you like to see in terms of representation of Latinx people in the future?

Diego Camposeco: I think Latinx people are documented pretty well by certain media (and demonised by others), but what I would like to see is a more cerebral take on them, especially those from the American South.

Jorge Luis Borges was a fantastic Latin American writer and I feel like I try to bring his way of looking at the world into my work as much as possible. Self-reference, allegory, and recursion are some of his trademarks, which I would love to see more in the documentary vein. I also feel like Latinx people from other parts of the world are underrepresented. I'm currently raising the funds to document the Latinx population in Israel, which mirrors the one in the US but is even more religiously affected.

How do you think photography and self-representation of Latinx people can help to change the misinformed narratives that have been written about them?

Diego Camposeco: The late Roger Ebert once said, ‘Movies are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts. When I go to a great movie I can live somebody else's life for a while.’  I believe that, when done correctly, photography works that way too. Often, Latinx people are denigrated to metonyms for farm workers, maids, or construction labourers in the American South. Their hopes, dreams, and visual culture are left out of those narratives. They are rendered less than human because what does makes us human is absent from their narratives. Providing more Latinx people with the means to document their stories reconfigures the way we view them.

Follow Diego Camposeco here

LILI KOBIELSKI

The exhibition asks “How do photographs express a moment of rapid change in society, politics, beauty, and self-expression?” How does your work fit in with this?

Lili Kobielski: I hope this work presents issues that rapidly need to change in society and politics. This project documents the prevalence of mental illness among inmates at Chicago’s Cook County Jail and touches on the reasons so many people are ending up incarcerated instead of receiving treatment at a medical facility: Illinois cut $113.7 million in funding for mental health services between 2009 and 2012. Two state-operated inpatient facilities and six City of Chicago mental health clinics have shut down since 2009. Now more patients than ever are being treated in jail rather than at a mental health facility. Cook County Jail has become one of the largest, if not the largest, mental health care provider in the United States.

In your opinion, why is it so important for prisoners to have access to cameras and photography? And how does this not only tie into representations of authentic narratives but also self-expression?

Lili Kobielski: Usually, inmates are not allowed access to cameras – Cook County Jail does have several good programmes tied to their mental health treatment including photography, cooking and writing classes. From the inmates I spoke to, these are generally popular and well-received programmes.

Each person I photographed for this project had volunteered to participate and many of the portrait sessions were collaborative. I would ask, “How would you like to be photographed?” and we would create the portrait together. I also interviewed dozens of inmates for this project – I asked very few questions, people told me their stories and I transcribed them directly from the audio recorder. I hope this combination of collaborative portraits and first-hand accounts provides a platform for faces and voices that are often ignored.

Was there a big difference between how you perceived prison life to be, from how it had been represented to you before you had visited a prison, and finally, to how it actually was, once you had experienced it?

Lili Kobielski: I imagine I was subconsciously influenced by media representations of incarceration but the reality I experienced was much banaler; people making lunch, taking classes offered by the jail, playing cards and basketball. Every person I spoke with was self-aware, articulate and smart. I was expecting the be afraid, but once I was working there I was comfortable, everyone was very respectful, I didn’t witness any violence, just a lot of people trying to get by in a tough situation.

What I was not expecting was the incredible group of social workers who screen each and every new arrestee for mental illness and make sure they receive treatment immediately upon arriving at the jail. It is unimaginable to me still that a jail is the largest mental health treatment centre in this country, but Cook County has enacted several treatment programs and has an amazing staff of doctors, therapists and social workers dedicating their lives to helping people. The jail is doing what they can with limited resources but real change needs to start in communities: each of the inmates’ stories that I heard were strikingly similar. They grew up very poor in rough neighbourhoods, in foster care or with a single parent struggling to find work. The schools were bad, drugs and gangs were everywhere, there was little opportunity. Many of the inmates told me that they became involved with drugs or gangs at age 9, 10, 11 and began cycling through the criminal justice system soon after. Yes, jails and prisons are an enormous and painful problem in this country but one of the underlying issues is that so many of America’s cities and towns need help – they need equal opportunity, good schools, jobs and accessible health care. And as a society, we must end racism, poverty and the stigmatisation of mental illness and addiction.

What do you hope to show people/make them feel when they look at your work?

Lili Kobielski: I hope this work will move people to action: To give money to non-profit organisations working on justice issues, to give money and volunteer at local clinics helping people in the community get mental health care so they do not end up in jail or to bail out low-level offenders suffering from mental illness who do not have the funds to pay for their $100 bail. I hope policymakers see the book and push to provide funding for community health care and services so people can get the treatment they need at home and not in jail and can continue treatment upon their release. I hope these photographs and interviews humanize incarcerated people suffering from mental illness and encourage us as a society not to sequester and ignore humans needing help, not punishment.

Follow Lili Kobielski here

CHRISTIAN SANNA

The exhibition asks “How do photographs express a moment of rapid change in society, politics, beauty, and self-expression?” How does your work fit in with this?

Christian Sanna: Because of the changes that the tourism economy brought to Nosy Be, the young men struggle to find work and their place in the community. My photographs testify to the enthusiasm of Nosy Be’s younger inhabitants for a traditional sport called Moraingy. For them, it represents a landmark, the basis for a process of recovery and resistance of the Westernisation of the island in the service of tourism.

How would you compare the representation of Malagasy people to the rest of the world?

Christian Sanna: I think Malagasy people are often depicted as very friendly and joyous. If you’re scrolling on Google, you will find only pictures of what I call "tourism advertisements" which makes me feel sad because this is just the surface. Malagasy people are far more complex than this image of them, and I hope that by continuing my work here I can be part of a new representation of the Malagasy people.

What do you hope to show/make people feel through your photography?

Christian Sanna: I want people to understand the people I photograph, how they struggle, their pride, how they train and how they live. For me photography is a means to understand what is happening around us, and to then find a response and solution.

Follow Christian Sanna here

LUTHER KONADU

The exhibition asks “How do photographs express a moment of rapid change in society, politics, beauty, and self-expression?” How does your work fit in with this?

Luther Konadu: There’s a flippancy and desensitising to how we interact with images especially online that we don't think about what we are looking at or even "look" at what we are looking.

I always think about how I can slow things down with the photos I make. The making of portraiture is an ever-continuing project for me. It’s slow and it takes time. I revisit and shoot the same people including myself, over and over again. I’m interested in how I can make a photograph an unstable representative of the figure captured. Over time as I age, and change, I wonder how well the photograph can keep up with me in terms of trying to “represent” the body since a photo stops time and never alters. So in terms of the exhibition, and my work, I’m interested in slowly accumulating images as a way of disavowing a singularity to the figure being depicted. I’m interested in how I can get viewers to pause and do a double take.

What drives you to create the photos that you do?

Luther Konadu: Photographs feed into a kind of worrying inertia when it comes to narration especially with portraits. I ultimately want to make images that move past a single narrative.

What do you think the effects are on how black people are able to be represented (or even represent themselves) as a result of the 'mechanical bias' that you've previously spoken about?

Luther Konadu: I don’t know how much I can speak on that but, on one end, you could say clarity in imaging the figure with camera equipment is in some ways exclusionary and can be used against those who aren’t favourably visible to the camera. But I don’t know if we can fully depend on photography for any kind of clarity or representation of the body. If anything, I’m interested in how I can emphasise it’s insufficiency to represent.

Despite camera technology being marketed and created for lighter skin tones, do you feel positive about the progress that has been made in recent times of the wider representation of black people in the arts? What do you hope to see in the future?

Luther Konadu: Sure, there’s always a better, higher technology camera that comes out every year but for me, I’m less concerned about its capabilities for representing the accuracy of the body and more concerned about the potential effects of these super hi-res technologies in sucking us into the illusionist surfaces it outputs as photography. The more the photo closely parallels with our realities the more troubling it can be because it becomes an easy way of forming our assumptions and notions of how we see and understand others long before we come in contact with them.

As for the future, I suppose that maybe we can all grow more cognisant of photography’s susceptibility to omit and therefore think about what is not shown.

Follow Luther Konadu here

The Way We Live Now runs at New York’s Aperture until 16 August 2018

Full list of participating artists: Bubblegum ClubDiego CamposecoCamila FalcãoJillian Freyer, Jonathan Gardenhire, Lili KobielskiRoei GreenbergVincent Hung, Luther Konadu, Gowun LeeTyler MitchellDavide MonteleonePhilip MontgomeryChristian SannaMatthew ShainAbdo ShananShikeithMaria Sturm