August 25, 2021

The collaborative photographer

Wendy Ewald ’69 creates images exploring race, identity, social history, and personal experience
by Rita Savard

Since 1969, Wendy Ewald has taught children and women in communities around the world to photograph their lives, families, dreams, and fantasies. Her groundbreaking work in collaborative photography—producing art that explores race, identity, social history, and personal experience—has been supported by grants from national and international arts and humanities foundations. But her influence on photographers is often overlooked. Ewald also has subjects mark or write on her own negatives, thereby challenging the concept of who actually makes an image.

Photos from Portraits and Dreams: Johnny watching television, from Johnny’s Story

Ewald began taking photos her senior year at Abbot Academy, where her teacher, the late pioneering photographer and art instructor Wendy Snyder MacNeill, helped Ewald write a grant proposal to the Polaroid Foundation for film and cameras to bring to a Native American reservation in Labrador, Canada. All through college, Ewald worked with young people on two reservations.

“Theirs was not a romantic view of the situation on the reservation,” Ewald explains. “People hadn’t seen photographs like that before. Then I just kept doing it.”

First published in 1985, her remarkable book, Portraits and Dreams: Photographs and Stories by Children of the Appalachians, was the creative culmination of Ewald putting cameras in the hands of elementary school children in Letcher County, Kentucky, and encouraging them to take pictures not only of their family and friends, but of their hopes and dreams. A new edition of the book was released last year, accompanied by a PBS documentary of the same name that reunites Ewald with the children (now adults) and reveals the outcomes of their lives with new photographs and stories.

Photos from Portraits and Dreams: Denise Dixon photographing her twin brothers.

Having a camera gives anyone power, but particularly children.

Wendy Ewald ’69

Her new book, Collaboration: A Potential History of Photography, co-authored with four other women, proposes an alternative approach to looking at photographs past and present and is slated for publication in 2022.

Categories: Alumni, Magazine

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