Photographer Wendy Ewald

March 7, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT

JEFFREY BROWN: Photographs by children the world over, of their lives, of their families, of their sometimes-painful dreams. They’re from a 30-year project in art and education by Wendy Ewald. The exhibition, called “Secret Games,” was organized by the Addison Gallery of American Art in Massachusetts, and is now at Washington’s Corcoran Gallery. A mix of her own photos and those of children she’s taught, Ewald calls it “Collaborative Works With Children,” an idea that began when she herself was just 18, starting out as a photographer.

WENDY EWALD, Photographer/Educator: I never liked the idea of having a camera in between me and the subject or me and the place that I was in. And so I would invite people to look through my camera, and I was… being a shy girl, it made me much more comfortable to share the camera.

JEFFREY BROWN: But if you’re going to be a photographer, in a sense you have to intrude on people, don’t you?

WENDY EWALD: You do. You can’t avoid that. I guess I was interested in doing it to the least degree that I could and also letting their vision inform my vision and really to combine the two into something that was a little closer to how they saw the world.

JEFFREY BROWN: For seven years beginning in 1975, Ewald lived in Kentucky and worked with children, ages six to 14. She built a primitive darkroom, taught them the mechanics of photography, and set them loose.

LITTLE BOY: I took a picture of just about everything. Well, everything really. Dogs, cats, people.

JEFFREY BROWN: In a documentary, children talked about their photographs.

LITTLE GIRL: I got nine chickens. I eat the store’s chickens, not my chickens. I don’t like to eat my own chickens.

JEFFREY BROWN: Denise Dixon shot self-portraits in disguises and game them titles. “I Am the Girl with the Snake Around her Neck;” “Self-Portrait Reaching for the Red Star Sky.”

WENDY EWALD: Working with the children I was working with in Kentucky was like having accomplices in a secret game, that we were both looking at things very hard, and photographing things, which the adults didn’t really understand was going on.

JEFFREY BROWN: To her admirers, Ewald presents a creative answer to a question always lurking in documentary work: How honest a vision can an outsider present of his or her subjects? Philip Brookman is curator of photography at the Corcoran.

PHILIP BROOKMAN, Corcoran Gallery of Art: Wendy Ewald created this process that allows children to show us how it is that they live, what their world is like. And that’s something that I think empowers them in a very significant way. In a sense the brilliance of this project is that it allows us as outsiders a kind of inside view that we wouldn’t get if we just came in as kind of tourists traveling through or journalists traveling through.

JEFFREY BROWN: And Ewald’s work has gained recognition, including grants for new projects and a Macarthur “Genius” Award. She worked outside the U.S. beginning in the ’80s, first in the Colombian Andes, later with Mayan children in Chiapas, Mexico.

JEFFREY BROWN: So tell me about this photograph. “The Devil is Spying on the Girls” is the caption.

WENDY EWALD: It’s actually my favorite picture probably of all that the children have taken, and that’s by Sebastian Gomez Hernandez, who is about ten years old, and it’s a picture of a dream that he had. And he actually made this mask on top here out of the back of a cracker box because he didn’t have any cardboard or paper to make things with. And then he got his little brother to get up there in that tree and put that mask on.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s kind of funny, “the devil spying on the girls,” and this is a little boy, right?

WENDY EWALD: Right, right.

JEFFREY BROWN: No doubt who spies on girls. Ewald’s assignment to take a photo of a dream was easy for the Mexican children.

WENDY EWALD: In Mayan religion, dreams are as important and as real as waking reality. So I only had to mention the word fantasias and the next day they arrived with all these things, props they had made and began making these wonderful, playful, dramatic pictures.

JEFFREY BROWN: Many of the Mexican photos, however, are quite violent– something Ewald found the world over.

WENDY EWALD: It’s a stage of childhood, and I have a six-year-old son now, you know, who also loves to make violent images.

JEFFREY BROWN: In a village in India, a new experience, working with children who’d never held a camera. To show them how it works, she had them pose for her.

WENDY EWALD: When I started looking at the photographs, I realized the pictures really had a power to them because there is a gaze that’s very intense in each one of the pictures, as if they’re being looked at by a camera for the first time or they’re looking back at the camera for the first time.

JEFFREY BROWN: The children wrote biographical sketches in words that are wrenching. “I dream about my brothers that died, so at night I cover myself with the blanket to keep away the dreams.” “One boy from the village came to look at me for marriage. I cried when the girls told me he’d come. My life will be nothing after I marry.” Soon, the children were taking their own photos, of the real and the dream world.

JEFFREY BROWN: You ask children to photograph their dreams. Why dreams?

WENDY EWALD: I began thinking how amazingly children can get involved so deeply in their fantasy play, and I was wondering how I could access that visually. So I thought that they could get the sense that they can actually create an image, that photography is not just finding images, but that they could control and create one.

JEFFREY BROWN: In South Africa in 1992, Ewald says, dreaming and fantasy life took a back seat to harsh reality. The violence in the photos, though posed, was the stuff of everyday life. Ewald worked separately with groups of black and Afrikaner children. One assignment was to photograph things they did not like in their community. Nine-year-old Afrikaner Nicholine Keyler took this out- of-focus photo.

WENDY EWALD: This man worked in a factory in the community around the corner, and Nicholine has asked him to pose for her. And he’s obviously very proud, standing up straight, holding his shopping bag to be photographed by this little white girl, never understanding what her intentions were.

JEFFREY BROWN: When Ewald asked the girl why the picture was out of focus, she said her mother told her that’s the way black people turn out in photographs.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tell me about this one. I loved this image– “Granny Having a Smoke.”

WENDY EWALD: Yeah, this is by Kate Etuli, and she’s in her corrugated iron house, and after a hard day, and I love the cigarette ash just about to…

JEFFREY BROWN: Just about to drop.

WENDY EWALD: About to fall. But it’s just such a beautiful picture, beautifully composed, and the textures of her face and the shack are so well portrayed.

JEFFREY BROWN: Back in this country, Ewald has taken her methods directly into the classroom, working with teachers and children in the Durham, North Carolina, Public Schools.

WENDY EWALD: The only thing that should move is this finger right here. You have to make a decision about what you want in your picture to be the most important thing, and which you want to be in focus. You want to be the most important thing?

JEFFREY BROWN: Her ongoing project is called “Literacy Through Photography,” using the camera to help children learn to write. “The Best Part of Me,” asked children to photograph and write on a favorite part of their own body. Fifth-grader Tim McKay begins a verse: “Chest, chest you’re the best. I like to rest on you, oh yes.” The “Alphabet Project” helped students for whom English is a second language and “Black Self/White Self” asked children to imagine themselves as members of a different race, in words and then in altered photographs.

WENDY EWALD: I am an artist and I need to see pictures that show me what the world is like. And the way to get those pictures is by constructing a situation in which… in which I teach, and the product of that teaching are the images.

JEFFREY BROWN: The exhibition moves on to Providence, and then Kansas City, later in the year.