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 interview with nan richardson
About Photography, Portraiture, and Social Activism

I’d like to say a few words about the relation of photography to social and political activism, which in this country is actually a venerable one. One thinks immediately of Jacob Riis’ progressive politics in his seminal work How the Other Half Lives, and of course Walker Evans and James Agee’s collaboration Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The FSA with Roy Stryker and photographers like Dorothea Lange in the 1930s consciously used photography as a weapon in the war against poverty at a time when this country was suffering catastrophic unemployment and dislocating populations. Meanwhile, in Europe the racist prophesying of Hitler resonated throughout Europe, with the bloodbath still to come. Photographers like John Heartfield, Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and others documented and commented on those upheavals. Photographs were used in newspapers, pamphlets, posters as agit-prop, on both sides of the ocean, as they are well into the here and now. Photographs had ideological meanings throughout. They were, and still are, a rhetoric of their own, if you take Aristotle’s definition of rhetoric as the faculty of observing and a means of persuasion. What better decribes this genre of photography? That said, the public uses of photography are distinct from the private, and portraiture walks that line. Eddie Adams portraits featured in this book and exhibition are both private and public. A portrait is a private, complicitous interaction between the subject and the artist; but these portraits, like many are also made for a public. They are made to be viewed. They are made consciously. Perhaps photography has moved beyond its primitive notion of the image of the soul; nevertheless, physiognomy still holds that crucial mystery for us. These portraits are as complex as their subjects are. The problem of identity is as puzzling. I think it was the portrait photographer Yousef Karsh who said, "Knowledge of the human psychology is needed for a portrait." (I’m not sure he always succeeded, but think of his Winston Churchill—no one shot him better!) And Eddie Adams has some feeling for these people in these photographs, whether they are composed, classic, or more symbolic in style. They’re interesting to us; they are also elevated by virtue of having been squared of in his lens. He has made heroes of them, in the best sense, by taking the human and ordinary and lifting it up, sharing with the viewer the experience of that person in the flesh.

Speak Truth to Power reminds us that the ordinary and the supraordinary are a heartbeat away, that our best selves are within reach; and that life is not uni-linear but radial. It’s a simple message; the artists involved here understood it beyond words, beyond pictures. But we have those words and pictures to remind us, forever.

About Speak Truth to Power

While Kerry and I began this project two years ago, its inception was actually brewing long before that. She and I worked on a human rights report in Guatemala that we published about a decade ago, and subsequently started another book, of essays only and without photographs, on women in human rights. That was perhaps five years ago. It was caught in one of those publishing stories when the editor leaves, the house is sold and it can’t be recovered. So this incarnation is a miracle and the fruition of considerable thought and will over a long period of time.

Speak Truth to Power began with a book, but it quickly expanded. I curate a number of exhibitions along with the publications I edit and this seemed like a beautiful candidate for a traveling show. We printed Eddie Adams' marvelous portraits quite large, 30 x 40, so that you feel the physical presence of these remarkable people, and Charles Griffin, who prints for Hiroshi Sugimoto and Cindy Sherman, worked with Eddie to make these very rich and light-filled photographs. We chose a chocolate-brown for the frames – stark but warm, and initially we thought have creating individual podiums for each picture so that you could actually read their words as you contemplated their faces, but that proved too complex in terms of traveling the exhibition. Instead the inclusion of three computers in the exhibition with a cached version of the website on them, offers the viewer deeper information. You can even hear the voices speaking of the defenders, and get a considerable amount of information on the issues they champion As we add to the website itself, the exhibition version will be enhanced also, so it will get better, more information filled, as the exhibition tours in the United States and then internationally.

On the heels of the decision to move forward with the exhibition we were meeting with Amnesty, and their education department, and somehow we walked out with another project – a second publication designed for schools, using excerpts from the book and offering a curriculum on human rights, along with the full text of the play by Ariel Dorfman. The education packet, as we call it, includes profiles of high school and college students who have done amazing things for human rights, starting in their own communities. Amnesty can reach 50,000 school children with this and we hope to eventually find the wherewithal to translate this into major languages (Spanish, French, Chinese, Arabic and so on) and make other partnerships for its distribution. There has been some talk of a CD version to follow – we had a sponsor come forward and propose this to us, which might be handier than the print format, therefore worth exploring.