Women Picturing Revolution: An Interview with Lesly Deschler-Canossi and Zoraida Lopez-Diago

Image Credit: Katrin Bjork

This month I interviewed Lesly Deschler Canossi and Zoraida Lopez-Diago about their event Women Picturing Revolution: Focus on Africa and the African-Diaspora held at Columbia University’s Institute for Research in African-American Studies.

Lesly Deschler Canossi is faculty at the International Center of Photography (ICP), owner of Fiber Ink Studio, a pigment print and drum scan lab, and co-creator of Women Picturing Revolution. She holds an MFA from Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) and has taught at the Lamar Dodd School of Art in Cortona, Italy; the Maryland Institute College of Art; and the Harlem School of the Arts. She recently created and taught a course entitled “Navigating the Domestic: Mother As Artist” at ICP and co-created and taught the seminar Women Picturing Revolution: Focus on Africa and the African Diaspora at Columbia University’s Institute for Research in African-American Studies. In 2014 her book Domestic Negotiations was published by ICP . Most recently, her photographic work was exhibited at the Montpelier Arts Center in conjunction with Foto DC and published in Secret Behavior Magazine and Landscape Stories. In November 2016, she co-curated the Women Picturing Revolution panel at the International Center of Photography, New York.

Zoraida Lopez-Diago is a photographer, curator, consultant, and co-creator of Women Picturing Revolution. She studied political science at Trinity College and Fine Arts at Hunter College. Her work has been exhibited at institutions including Rush Arts, New York; Whitewall Gallery, New York; and the Paul Baldwell Gallery in Medellin, Colombia and published in Of Note Magazine, Good Magazine, World Policy Institute Journal, Womens Voices for Change, El Diario, and Democracy Now. In 2011, Zoraida documented women serving sentences at Pedregal, a maximum security prison in Medellin, Colombia; she returned in 2013 to continue her work and focused on demonstrating the ways photography can be used to help improve community opinion of the incarcerated. In 2014, she co-curated Women as Witness, an exhibition revealing how women across the globe document survival, and in 2015, Zoraida was the assistant curator of Picturing Black Girlhood, a photography exhibition highlighting important contributions of Black girls in the US. With the support of a grant from Arts Mid-Hudson, Zoraida is documenting where children of undocumented farmers in upstate New York sleep, with an emphasis on documenting how they continue to hope and dream while navigating our current political and social climate. Follow them on Twitter @womenpicrev.

L. Jonathan Collier: The literature for the recent Women Picturing Revolution: Focus on Africa and the African-Diaspora event described it as both radical and necessary. Please tell us more about its radical nature and significance.

Lesly Deschler-Canossi and Zoraida Lopez-Diago: The mission of Women Picturing Revolution (WPR) is to examine the ways in which women use storytelling through images to counter dominant, and at times, inaccurate narratives. By elevating women, specifically through our one-day seminar focused on women from Africa and the African-Diaspora using photography and the moving image, we are contributing to the counter-narrative. From fine art photography made as a response to forced silence, oppression, and the inability to act, to well-known visual journalists documenting upheaval, we examine not only the photographs, but also the conditions under which women make images. We believe that this work can change public opinion and policy and has the potential to change the course of history. This type of shift occurs by speaking explicitly about the image and linking it to the social and political implications it holds. WPR is interested in propelling work forward that was traditionally seen to be focused on “women’s issues” but is now being appropriately understood as issues that affect every layer of society.

We’d like to thank Columbia University’s Institute for Research in African-American Studies (IRAAS) for sponsoring this one-day seminar. The seminar is part of their Teachers and Scholars Institute, which in 2017 is focusing on activism. We encourage you to learn more about IRAAS’s incredible programming, including their 2017 Summer Teachers and Scholars Institute (STSI), themed “Black Activist New York.”

Ayana V. Jackson, Gede (2015) © Image courtesy of Gallery MOMO

Collier: The event notably featured Nona Faustine and Ayana V. Jackson—two artists whose messaging challenges common perceptions of perversion, the obscene, social propriety, and Western aesthetics while negotiating the contradictions of African-descended women in othering spaces. Although they operate in the same space of artistic consciousness, their approach is ostensibly different. Could you explain the decision to include Nona and Ayana and what their divergent portfolio of visual compositions added to the discourse?

Deschler-Canossi and Lopez-Diago: We selected Ayana V. Jackson and Nona Faustine, two artists who are dealing with the legacies of slavery, because of their divergent portfolios and the way in which they use themselves as the medium between past and present. Although the images are produced in different ways, each artist unearths histories that are often forgotten or overlooked, especially in mainstream culture. Jackson’s portraits function on a continuum. She challenges perceptions of black women from the 19th century to the present by demanding the viewer to recontextualize their role and place throughout history. We were particularly drawn to her work, which honors the legacy of African-American women, specifically women in her family history told through portraits that hung in her grandparents’ home. She believes the framed photos were placed throughout the home as a conscious attempt to counteract the dominant narrative of the media’s images of black bodies that were prevalent throughout her childhood. The images, along with the stories of the people in the images, gave her a legacy and a personal family history, which is ultimately empowering.

Nona Faustine, Like a Pregnant Corpse the Ship Expelled Her Into the Patriarchy, 2012 Atlantic Coast, Brooklyn

Faustine’s work holds the urgency of Black Lives Matter while exposing the value placed on female bodies. Her body, her robust black body, challenges the viewer with notions of size acceptance while talking about the legacies of slavery. Her pictures induce a visceral experience that speaks to loss and a collective damaged psyche. These scars are felt in the body and in the physical location where she makes her images. She describes her work as “unapologetic of black beauty and all its forms.” Faustine is both vulnerable and defiant, while offering a palpable link to the past not only through the images she creates, but through her brilliant poetic titles which educate the viewer about these scars while leaving a residue of sorrow.

Collier: The workshop featured content on the usage of social media by photojournalists and other visual creators that rely on the agency of the image. What do you feel are the invaluable possibilities afforded by utilizing social media and, conversely, what components can be lost in the cyber-intellectual space?

Deschler-Canossi and Lopez-Diago: We live in an image culture; photography speaks best about this. Many images get lost in this virtual space and it takes time and energy to filter through thousands to find the work that we may be searching for. Often that search leads to the discoveries of unknown and exciting narratives. We are not only interested in well-known projects, but we also seek lesser-known or unknown women who demonstrate an understanding of the power of the image and its potential to bear witness. In our capacity as educators, curators, and photo project consultants, we also show images made by women who do not consider themselves photographers. Social media places power in the hands of not just photojournalists and visual creators, but anyone with a cell phone. While many use it with the intent to develop or promote photo projects, or as a visual diary giving the viewer insight into their creative process, for most it is to proclaim I am here, or as a means to bear witness. This is the case of Diamond Reynolds, who in July 2016 used her cell phone to document and live-stream a video in the immediate aftermath of the fatal shooting of her companion, Philando Castile, by a Minnesota police officer. And we know this is just one example of racial terrorism we have seen over the past few years of people and black women in particular, who understand how social media and cell phones have become become powerful tools of resistance to keep their communities and families safe.

Photo: Women Picturing Revolution.
Photo: Women Picturing Revolution (Image credit: Zoraida Lopez-Diago)

Collier: What was the most enriching and long-lasting piece of knowledge or lesson that you learned in the process of leading and creating WPR seminars and events?

Deschler-Canossi and Lopez-Diago: We’ve experienced that the energy at these events is high. Regardless of whether the participants are artists, they are really interested in this work—the unifier being that people are hungry to hear from women who are reclaiming a narrative. It is important to us as educators that these classes are collaborative and we take time to learn who is in the room. We attempt to learn more about their focus, whether it is working in the academic area, a fine artist, activist, or general enthusiast. Through having guests like Jackson or Faustine, participants can have direct dialogue with artists making thoughtful work. Whether it be a video Skype call with a young documentarian at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, or having an in-person, face-to-face conversation with a well-known photographer, we hope to provide intimate and candid experiences. This experience of being together in conversation is invigorating and ultimately, we hope, empowering.

Collier: How would you advise budding photographers who may not have much experience or technical skill, but who would like to use the power of the photograph as political agency and/or a means of enhancing historical and contemporary awareness? Is there a right or wrong approach?

Deschler-Canossi and Lopez-Diago: Finding a community is incredibly important, whether it be classes, a crit group, meetups, or online groups. Seeking out like-minded peers and/or mentors who can offer critical feedback is essential and can make the road less lonely. Look for organizations that support the kind of work you are interested in making. If the financials are challenging, investigate assisting or volunteering time in exchange for coursework, and always investigate scholarship opportunities. The only wrong approach is not making the work. As photo educators the challenge can be convincing a student, and in particular a young person, that their voice is important. Their experiences are valuable and can add to the dialogue. No story is too small or insignificant. Sometimes it is as simple as saying if you don’t tell the story—who will?

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L. Jonathan Collier

Loren J. Collier is a Howard University double alumnus, originally hailing from Chicago, Illinois. He received a Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering and worked as an aerospace engineer in various locales, including Seattle, Philadelphia, Atlanta, and the Carolina Lowcountry. After a prosperous engineering career that spanned nearly a decade, he returned to Howard and obtained his master’s degree in U.S. History; his degree concentration area was on African-American History and culminated with a monograph that examined the ontogenesis and essentia of Gil Scott-Heron’s “political” thought. Loren is currently pursuing his Ph.D. in History at Howard and has chosen to focus on (re)membering the lived experiences of the African Diaspora. His work seeks to articulate African-American creative idioms and all African Diasporic artistic/cultural expressions as [re]contextualized, linked iterations of African cultural traditions distally informed by the lived experience in localized regions.