After partnering with students at Craigmont and Ridgeway High Schools, I am more than impressed with the insight our city’s youth has on social issues in Memphis. In a recent project that explored art as a catalyst for social change, Brooks Education introduced two high school classes to Depression-era photographs from the Farm Security Administration, currently on view in (Extra) Ordinary: The Story of Documentary Photography in the South. Students discussed the purpose of these images as documenting the effects of the Great Depression and examined the impact of the photographs in creating widespread outrage over poverty and helping promote the New Deal. We asked teens to explore what they regarded as today’s most pressing social issues and to consider how they might depict the issues visually.
After a brief introduction on photography techniques, we handed each student a disposable camera and asked them to document, research, and write about their chosen topic. When the work was done, each class narrowed down the photographs and writings that would represent their school in the Brooks’ recently opened exhibition, Face the Lens: Art for Social Change. The twenty-four images and writings address such issues as pollution, gangs, drug abuse, vacant buildings, homelessness, and education.
These photographs aren’t going to change the world but they will get people talking, in fact, they already have. Inside the gallery there is a viewer response wall where we present four categories: Social, Political, Environmental, and Other, and ask “What issues do you think Memphis is facing?” Viewers are invited to write their response on a Post-it note and stick it to the wall. Answers bring up issues of teen pregnancy, race relations, violence, and city pride. The fact that visitors are comfortable bringing up such serious topics inside the gallery is a testimony to the important role museums can play in bringing our diverse community together to discuss and address social issues. Viewer responses also reveal that the voices of our youth have made an impact on the community. One visitor wrote. “All of them are pressing issues…there is no greater voice than those present.” Memphis teenagers have something to say. Let’s listen!
Face the Lens: Art for Social Change is on exhibition in the Education Gallery through March 27, 2011
This blog was written by Jenny Hornby Assistant Curator of Education.