Counterpart: Students Photograph Students

The project Counterpart: Students Photograph Students opened last week at the Warren G. Flowers Art Gallery.  Rhonda Meier, gallery administrator, asked one of the project organizers, Peter Berra, 7 questions about it.

RM. So tell me how this project came about. I understand it started in your first year photo class?

PB.  In the fall of 2018, I was teaching a first-year course called Camera Works II, and part of that class involved talking about the function of camera lenses.  I had introduced them to the French street artist JR, who was using wide-angle lenses against people’s faces to distort them, thus making them into almost comical characters of themselves. The students seemed to have been quite taken by JR’s work and so I suggested if they wanted to do a similar project, we could try doing something here at Dawson.  One student, Abigaïl Nolet, came to me after class saying, “yes, let’s do it!” We ran some ideas back and forth, and she suggested photographing Dawson’s teachers.  I thought since teachers get a lot of attention, why not focus on students—after all if it isn’t for the students, none of us would be here in the first place! In the context of JR, his photos at the time I showed his work were about distorting the faces of people who were marginalized and often in the Parisian ghettos.  Portrayed as scary, menacing people in the media, he photographed them the way they were described, whereas here at Dawson, we captured students the way they were, celebrating their presence in our everyday lives.

The project was put into action in the spring of 2019, at the end of the Winter 2019 semester in the Photo Studio 2 course.  David Hopkins and I each taught a section—we decided on a project title, and assigned it as a class activity. Sounds simple, but there was a lot to take into consideration.

We were hoping after the work was completed, we would be able to show these portraits throughout Dawson, but it was difficult to get the right attention.  Then Covid happened and the project was shelved.  But the break in time from when the project was first conceived until now was a hidden blessing. I learned that work often needs to age before it can be seen, especially when it comes to the editing process; it would have looked very different if we showed the work right away, so I am grateful it turned out the way it did.

RM. How did you and David frame the assignment to your classes?

PB. In terms of the style, we were thinking of Richard Avedon’s American West series, where he used soft, evenly-lit ambient light—like what you would often find in the shade on bright sunny days—and he used this setting to photograph everyday people. The even light was perfect for representing all types of people, a straightforward treatment that gave them an equal voice while also amplifying their distinct voices in an impactful way. David and I chose black and white because colour could be overpowering.

RM. And so the students set up anywhere in the college?

PB. Yes. Essentially any place without direct sunlight, the hallway by the theatre, the cafeteria. One of the only limitations was daylight—the sun could not be too direct. Then we told them to search for someone they did not know, who was their complete opposite, leaving the interpretation of that up to the student.

Each student was responsible for processing their own image; however for the exhibition it was important to re-process the images again to give a consistent look throughout. Due to the break in time, this process was also necessary to reintroduce myself to the project. Our program can get technical at times, which does not always encourage spontaneous moments to take place. And this impulse to correct the image becomes part of a power dynamic between photographer and subject. At this point, those requirements were no longer obligatory, and the tape, the brick showing in the background, the lint on a sweater breathes a little life into the portraits, whereas if this was an assignment, perhaps these types of elements would have been edited out.

RM. What do you think makes a successful photograph in this context?

PB. Not having an ego—it’s not about my photograph, but “can my photo be added to this group, this community?”  It’s not about the individual person or photographer.  Without that collaboration, this would never have happened.  It’s about the complicity between the students and their photographers.

RM. Do you have any personal favorites?

PB. Oh, that’s like asking who is your favorite child! I cannot answer. But I do admire the girl in the head scarf and flowered shirt, who is holding her finger in her hand. Allowing yourself to be recorded by someone else, is an act of great vulnerability. So while she may project shyness or timidity, there is bravery there.

RM. How did you choose the images in the gallery?

PB. I asked the students to submit their original files—the digital negative, which enabled me to bring them back to their original form. They were all pooled together anonymously. I then started to work on those that had the biggest impact. I made duplicates and looked for a long time at shapes, and then made a selection. In July I started with 145 images, narrowed it to 90, and then took a poll of 3 people whom I respected. They chose pretty much the same images, but each selected one that surprised me. I am an admirer of American composer John Cage, who used chance and impulse in order to remove as much bias as possible in his work. Thus for the final selection I did the same …

RM. In printing and hanging the show, you made some unconventional choices: you printed on very light paper and left the bottom edges free …

PB. I don’t see it as a conventional show, which gives me license to do it differently. The original idea was for the images to be glued to a wall in Montreal. But I didn’t want to put these images into that vulnerable position. If people walk into the gallery, I want the edge of a photo to lift up and present itself to the viewer, almost like a kind of dance. This also brings it back to the original moment where a gust of wind might have pulled the background paper, or blown a strand of hair in a graceful gesture. It becomes suggested subliminally.

As for the paper, I’m fascinated with everyday paper—it proves that everyone can do it.


Counterpart:  Students Photograph Students is on at the Warren G. Flowers Art Gallery until September 24th.  The gallery is open from 11 am to 7 pm.

Last Modified: September 15, 2021