Doug Hopper is the photographer whose photos were exhibited in “If Pain Were Water,” which showed this month in the Smith Center’s White Gallery, and will travel through Portland high schools beginning in March. The exhibit, sponsored by Watoto Wa Dunia (Children of the World), a nonprofit organization based in Portland, was made up of compelling photographs of residents of the villages and slums of Kenya. The exhibit caused a stir on campus in its unabashed display of the people living in poverty of Kenya. Some students questioned the motivations of the exhibit and, while not directly critiquing the photographs, questioned the captions that accompanied them. The captions were deemed, among other things, “patronizing,” a “romanticization of poverty” and “overwrought” in their attempts to supply an emotional background to the subjects’ feelings and motivations. Doug Hopper responded to these critiques in a wide-ranging interview on Tuesday. These are a few of the excerpts:
Considering photography has historically been used for utilitarian purposes instead of art, where do you position your photography and your work?
Somewhere between creative expression and photojournalism. They are telling a story and documenting in some way what’s going on. But at the same time I had some sort of vision about the way that I took the photographs, they are not solely documentary. Any time someone picks up a camera and uses it there is some sort of artistic expression going on, unless there is a predetermined formula about how one is supposed to take the photograph or capture the image.
How much did they, the nonprofit organization, have to say about what you chose to photograph?
I was going with the intention of capturing what was happening in Kenya, wherever I happened to travel to. Fortunately, I was able to travel in the villages and the slums and there are definitely aspects that are missing [in the photographs]. There is no way that I could have captured everything. But in terms of the aesthetic sensibility that I had, who I chose to photograph, there was no influence that they had. They had influence once I was back, about what images to choose. But I didn’t even know that this was going to be an exhibit, I thought it was going to be a book, or maybe some sort of traveling slide show. I didn’t know that when I went that it would be like it is now.
The way it is presented now, does it change the way you feel about the work itself?
They helped me choose what photographs would best help convey what is going on in Kenya. Both (co-founders of Watoto Wa Dunia) have been there. I trusted their judgment in selecting the photographs.
What was the negotiation like when writing the captions? Many of the critiques of the exhibit center on the captions. We have heard they are “overwrought,” “pandering to a specific audience,” “romanticize poverty” and “patronizing.”
I have thought about this a lot. Originally when we designed this exhibit it was designed to target a specific population, not a collegiate population, not an environment where people already had information. We first showed it at an alternative high school. Here, at PSU, the captions have been, from what you have told me and what I have heard from other people as well, not really appreciated. Which I totally understand. But in the high school, with an accompanying curriculum the captions are really effective. Maybe it is an over-generalization, but I think people in college have more of a worldly awareness of what is going on. And at a place like PSU, where there are a lot of progressives, left-leaning, alternative-minded students, maybe the captions are not effective. The exhibit was never intended to stand on its own. The exhibit, in our minds, was always designed as a foundation for discussion, and a foundation for a broader curriculum.
So it had been abstracted out …
It has! Here it has been abstracted as this thing that’s hanging on the walls, and we have tried to organize a discussion night, but so many balls have been dropped that it never manifested. And, so, here some people can appreciate it. But even here the captions, themselves, are a springboard for discussion about why do people think it romanticizes poverty? Why do people have that kind of take on it? Why do white people, not necessarily white people but American people, who have never lived in poverty, make that judgment? Because they are protective of these people in a way that is perplexing. The captions are a bit elementary, but for people who have never experienced or had an awareness of this kind of life, these things are not obvious. Take this picture, [of a young man wearing an American flag bandanna], it is really important to mention that this is his favorite piece of clothing. Because for someone who might not know, or have a deep awareness of globalization and about Western ideals and values being spread around the world, that’s a really pivotal sentence in the caption. They realize “wow, this guy lives in Kenya, in this village and his favorite thing is an American flag which he wears on his head, and I had no idea.” There are many students who don’t even think skyscrapers exist in Kenya, they think it is a bunch of huts and people selling vegetables, and that’s it.
So, some students can’t even conceive of the reach of globalization?
I can understand what you are saying about them romanticizing poverty, but I will say that our intention was not to do that. Our intention was to simply state what was going on in the photograph, hoping that we would spark some questions. That is the whole goal of the exhibit. The whole exhibit was designed that way; I designed the format in a non-closed way without borders because I wanted people to look at the photographs and have an open mind. It’s all designed in this way where we’re not trying to project some sort of philosophy or some sort of ideals, we’re just saying “this is what is going on, this is what this person is dealing with, this is what some of the values are, what do you think about that?” That’s it. And some people react to it differently.
Do you feel that you have set a good precedent with your work, in regards to collaborating with a nonprofit organization?
Do you consider yourself and artist or photographer, or both?
Yea, I do. I mean the labels are sort-of arbitrary. Collaboration is challenging, I’ve never done it before. There have been a lot of complications and a lot of tension between me and the nonprofit over the last two years, and our opposing visions. And to be honest with you, I have given a lot of my control up, because I agreed to do this for the non-profit and there is no way for me to back out of it. I have compromised a lot and I don’t want to back out of it because I probably would not show these photographs on my own. I would not. I think it would be exploitative for me to go there and take these photographs and have a show in the Pearl District. I don’t think these photographs are appropriate in a venue or in a setting without support or some other purpose. This exhibit has birthed quite a few sponsorships [of people in Kenya] and a lot of progression within the nonprofit.
And if that was the goal then you succeeded?
I absolutely succeeded in that. This is a collaborative project; this is not just art.