Photography and Emancipatory Communication

This article is an excerpt from a paper presented at the Canadian Communication Association’s 2012 conference on Thursday, May 31. I was part of a panel called Body and Affect in Visual Communication. Though there were quite some gaps between the substance of our presentations, it was still a great pleasure to present alongside Sara Martel, Tess Jewell, and Gary McCarron.

“….When I began my research, my interest was in community arts practices that deployed camera-based practices: so rather than, say, community theatre or community murals, I was interested in sites that employed community video or photography. However, as I quickly came to find out, camera-based practices are rarely found in isolation, but rather co-exist with those built upon community theatre, community media, and other interdisciplinary, multimodal, and grassroots traditions. There’s an important specificity to photorealistic, camera-based practices in community arts that I will only be able to touch on obliquely here; so, for the purposes of this paper, let me just suggest that they are an important engagement tool and media production method comparable to others in the field.

Kris and Elinor shooting houses of dreams and memory

Kris and Elinor shooting houses of dreams and memory; image courtesy of MABELLEarts

In what follows, I’ll try to weave descriptions of some of these organizations and practices into the arguments I’ve proposed: first, that community arts helps shift the ground upon which critical social action might occur, and secondly that community arts helps expand the repertoire of forms and gestures those actions might take.

The practices and organizations with which I’ve been involved exist in a variety of situated and transitory spaces. For example, MABELLEarts, which is an organization working with and physically based in the high-density, low-income Toronto Community Housing complex called Mabelle Park in an otherwise affluent Central Etobicoke. Over the past four years, MABELLEarts has put on recurring, registration-based workshops, as well as weekly drop-in sessions. It has also put on less fixed events – whether temporally, such as seasonal events coinciding with Ramadan or with winter – or spatially, such as performances and parades that occupy park space or that transform live lanes of traffic into spaces of celebration. It has documented many of these interventions in photos and video, and has used camera-based methods to generate a variety of more pictorial, less documentary material for these and other events.
Making Room – an organization working with members of and neighbours living near the Parkdale Activity and Recreation Centre in the heart of that Toronto community – also hosts weekly drop-in sessions. Over it’s four year history, Making Room has tried to find ways to engage residents and guests with Parkdale: with its histories, its stigmas, and its proximity to other, perhaps for some, more desirable spaces, such as the lake shore. It has used cameras and photorealistic imagery in ways similar to MABELLEarts: for both documentary and for more creative, pictorial purposes.

These and other practices are marked by a number of spatial interventions: for one, participants are invited to be in familiar places at unfamiliar times; secondly, they are invited to be in unfamiliar places proximate to those more familiar at a variety of times; and thirdly, they are invited to navigate spaces, both familiar and unfamiliar, in novel and non-habitual ways. As I have suggested, camera-based practices are deployed, both by facilitators and by participants, in all kinds of ways and at various moments during these interventions.

Streets of dreams and memory

Streets of dreams and memory; image courtesy of MABELLEarts

Some examples: in the first case, as an intervention into being in familiar places at unfamiliar times, MABELLEarts crafted pinhole cameras out of cardboard, tape, and aluminum cans with some residents. Given the unique optical characteristics these cameras possess and long exposure time they demand, pinhole images are generally unpredictable and difficult to envision. Two afternoons with these cameras in late January resulted in impromptu photoshoots at units where people let us borrow their balconies, as well as in areas of the park and apartment grounds that participants thought “might look good as a pinhole photo.” As bad weather took hold on the second day, the pinhole plan had to be scrapped for lack of light, and a back-up plan of timelapse videos shot with digital cameras.

Greg working on time lapse video; image courtesy of MABELLEarts

Greg working on time lapse video; image courtesy of MABELLEarts

In the third case, navigating spaces in novel ways, Making Room incorporates meditation into their weekly sessions. Artistic Director Michael Burtt is careful to note that this is not merely a cerebral activity. Thus, the opening meditation activity, what he calls a 10-20 minute “sit,” is meant to heighten a participant’s awareness of their bodily presence within the everyday, within the material goings-on of their community, warts and all, rather than to claim a separation from it. This kind of holistic activity acknowledges rather than supresses the complexity of a community, one historically portrayed as at-risk instead of in greater need of support and resources. The meditation also fosters a kind of open awareness, one that encourages playful encounters with the Parkdale neighbourhood, and has been integral to a process that has resulted in a portfolio of projects and performances that includes large-scale still photographic portraits wheat-pasted onto local buildings, as well as mixed-media sculptures selectively developed and installed adjacent to conventional social service agencies, and the launch of a boat into Lake Ontario – designed and built in-house, led as much by skilled boat-builders as by active residents. The launch is scheduled for mid-June.
The examples described, in short, shift the grounds whereby interpersonal communication can occur, both by opening spaces and by reconfiguring relations within and across existing and familiar spaces. Further, by engaging with space in asystematic and non-habitual ways – for example, by meditating as a group or by being in a public park legitimately after dark – through such engagements, both directly with the space and with one another in such spaces, distinct conversations occurred. I wouldn’t claim that camera-based practices “made” these events any more than other media and non-media practices did or would have, but they certainly enriched the way such interventions unfolded, and contributed to the complexity of discursive and non-discursive communication that occurred in such sites.

A number of the practices I just described also relate to my second argument – namely, that community arts functions to expand repertoires of social action, and possibly critical social action. As I see it, this happens in several distinct but not necessarily discrete ways: first, by augmenting personal capacities for acting; secondly, by collectivizing social action; and thirdly by providing spaces in which collaborative practice is encouraged and normalized.
In terms of personal growth, community arts encourages a whole host of individualized skill development. Some practices encourage fine arts or performing arts or media arts production skills, others develop self-help or entrepreneurial skills, still others experience in pedagogical facilitation, anti-oppression teaching, and so on. Although these outcomes are seldom the product of an explicit pedagogy, community arts nevertheless tends to foster various arts and crafts, popular education or social justice skills for which little systematic training is otherwise elsewhere available.
Michael Burtt from Making Room, for example, is aware of his participants’ comfort and seeming expertise in welcoming and hosting new participants to their sessions. The same is true of Phyllis Novak – the Artistic Director of Sketch, a multi-purpose studio located in a space adjacent to Parkdale near Queen West, and geared toward at-risk and street-involved youth. Novak claims her organization is making explicit attempts to enact literature on “the art of hosting” into its mandate and practice, particularly in the peer-leadership and mentorship work that they support. Regardless of the depth to which such training occurs, the effect is that participants are invited to engage in organizational activities and processes – as facilitators or decision-makers, for example – and to also acquire the skills demanded by these roles.

This kind of organizational model in particular – a model which values leadership skills development amongst participants – relates to the second aspect of community arts’ contributions to expanding social and cultural repertoires: namely, the collectivization of social action. Despite the seeming concentration of power embedded within the designation “Artistic Director,” community arts often deploy fluid organizational hierarchies that decenter the authority of its Artistic Directors. Of the examples I mentioned, for example, youth are often invited to shoulder organizational responsibility as peer leaders. Similarly, senior citizens are invited to share accumulated wisdom, both with younger generations and with peers from distinct cultures. In my experience at least, Artistic Directors serve less to authorize, control, and legitimize such practice – how could they and still have a community with which they work? Rather, Artistic Directors often shape and cultivate practices, acting to redistribute rather than devolve responsibility and control onto participants.

Indeed, in these and other cases, this is a kind of democratization of practice that amounts to more than simply a way for communities to “buy-in” to what community arts claims to offer. It is a direct rather than a representational democracy of sorts: altering the nature of what community arts can accomplish by attempting to incorporate community-derived beliefs and values into the aesthetic and discursive systems within which community arts practitioners operate. It is to this politicizing action that I earlier referred when speaking of the potential contribution community arts may make to understandings of emancipatory and decolonizing communication….”

Comments on this paper, as well as criticism, are welcome. Some rights reserved: cc by-nc-sa 2012 Kris Erickson. To check out the full text of this article, visit the thinking practice blog about ‘photography, learning, creativity, and other matters’. Kris Erickson can be reached at

To learn more about MABELLEarts, visit

To learn more about Making Room, check out


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