Picture this: 2015 LOOK3 Festival of the Photograph

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From Monica Haller's Veterans Book Project (pictured) to Zanele Muholi's images of the South African LGBT community, the photographers featured at this year's LOOK3 Festival are turning their lenses into a force for activism. Photo courtesy of LOOK3 Festival of the Photograph From Monica Haller’s Veterans Book Project (pictured) to Zanele Muholi’s images of the South African LGBT community, the photographers featured at this year’s LOOK3 Festival are turning their lenses into a force for activism. Photo courtesy of LOOK3 Festival of the Photograph

One of the telltale signs of summer in Charlottesville is already visible high above the bricks of the Downtown Mall. Strung between trunks and limbs of the willow oaks, larger-than-life animals and insects gaze down at diners and pedestrians as part of the 2015 LOOK3 Festival of the Photograph.

Images like these appear each June, only to disappear by mid-summer. Work by different nature photographers is selected each year for the TREES exhibition and for a short time, surprising species roam our urban canopy. While, this is perhaps what many locals know best about the festival, it is only a hint at the full schedule of programming that runs June 10-13.

After taking last year off to host LOOKbetween programming for early career photographers, the full festival returns with a slate of artists who highlight its mission to facilitate awareness of critical issues.

“One thing I value about LOOK3 is the organization’s ability to attract the leading voices in photography, and the commitment to give these legendary artists an authentic forum through which to speak at length about their work and philosophy and to exhibit their work without interference from commercial pressures,” says LOOK3 Executive Director Victoria Hindley.

Indeed, LOOK3 attracts photographers and fans from around the world, but secures extensive underwriting in order to offer the vast majority of its programming free of charge. The non-profit organization brings its offerings to the local community, which might not otherwise have a chance to see such extraordinary artistic talent and varied international perspectives. Hindley estimates that LOOK3’s free programs reach around 25,000 people.

The festival’s programs range from traditional gallery exhibitions and artist talks to distinctive events such as the outdoor WORKS photo projections at the Charlottesville nTelos Pavilion and the high-caliber workshops offered to area students and emerging artists. Since its inception, LOOK3 has hosted more than 120 exhibitions and artists’ talks as well as approximately 250 projection events.

This year’s festival co-curators are Kathy Ryan, director of photography at The New York Times Magazine​, and Scott Thode, an independent curator and photo editor. Together, they have selected an assortment of artists for the LOOK3 that is as quirky as it is thought provoking. Each photographer brings a nuanced view of the world to his or her work and each has achieved recognition for contributions to the field. This year’s lineup includes Larry Fink, visual activist Zanele Muholi, sports photographer Walter Iooss, Alec Soth, animal photographer Vincent J. Musi, David Alan Harvey, Monica Haller and her Veterans Book Project, nature photographer Piotr Naskrecki, as well as a presentation by Charlottesville’s own Andrea Douglas, director of the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center.

Despite the diverse selection, a common theme runs throughout. “At LOOK3, we have strong roots in photojournalism; there’s always been an active voice speaking to human rights and social activist concerns,” says Hindley. Indeed, two photographers, Monica Haller and Zanele Muholi, stand apart in this regard, each using their photographic practice to explore and question social and political issues in the world.

Monica Haller’s Veterans Book Project is a series of 50 books of photos, recollections and reflections from Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. Photo courtesy of LOOK3 Festival of the Photograph
Monica Haller’s Veterans Book Project is a series of 50 books of photos, recollections and reflections from Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. Photo courtesy of LOOK3 Festival of the Photograph

Veterans Book Project

Though Monica Haller is a photographer, the images she’s presenting at LOOK3 are not her own. Haller’s artistic practice lies in methodology and engagement, as evidenced by her Veterans Book Project which will be on display at The Garage, a small art space across from Lee Park. The project is a series of 50 books of photographs, recollections and reflections from veterans of the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Haller acts as an advocate and organizer of these compilations, leading bookmaking workshops that engage vets and their families in the creative exercise of self-reflection. She estimates that she’s worked with almost 100 soldiers over the course of the project.

Haller’s earlier work, Riley and his story, laid the groundwork for this larger project.

“One of the reasons I started this project was that I felt I needed to know more about what we were doing in Iraq—to Iraqis and to American soldiers. I felt my U.S. citizenship strongly, felt accountable as the country deployed its military… these reasons have changed over the last 10 years since starting this work,” she recalls. Like the larger project it inspired, Riley and his story provided a potent mix of representation and reflection for a veteran named Riley, a way to bring visibility and understanding to his experiences of war. The project also evolved over time.

Originally planning to use her own photographs mixed in with Riley’s, Haller eventually removed her work from the final book in order to allow Riley’s to stand on its own. Her role grew into that of writer, editor and organizer. “I’m trained as a photographer. But instead of photographing myself, I was more curious about the images already made. Thousands of pictures being brought back to U.S. soil—the place where the wars are launched,” she says. “The wars are ‘over there.’ But we have this important material right here. I wanted to dig into that.”

On the cover of the compiled work from Riley and his story, Haller writes, “Art can be a series of acts and challenges… The artist can mobilize information by provoking, listening, imagining, organizing and reorganizing. Right now, I am the artist. I want you to see what this war did to Riley.” She asks us, the audience, to be “tactical readers,” and likewise books are defined as “objects for deployment,” prompts for discussion.

Monica Haller. Photo courtesy of LOOK3 Festival of the Photograph
Monica Haller. Photo courtesy of LOOK3 Festival of the Photograph

The books in the Veterans Book Project similarly provide visibility for previously underrepresented subjects as well as a mode for discussing those subjects’ experiences and reflecting on how they relate to our own. Images range from photos of medic tents in combat zones to scans of doodles made by soldiers during their deployment. Under Haller’s curatorial guidance, these images combine with written memories from the soldiers to create an immersive experience. By working collaboratively, “I think the mutualism that goes on in community-generated projects like this can be quite strong. We reach somewhere we could not alone—creatively, in discourse, and other ways,” says Haller.

For her collaborations to succeed, Haller demands a marked level of vulnerability from herself and the veterans she works alongside. Each must be willing to engage openly and reflect on his own personal experiences.

“These dozens and dozens of books are curated compilations by her of amateur photographers who are vets. And to put that in their voice, I think, is a really important statement,” remarked LOOK3’s Hindley.

In part because the veterans featured in the project have varied experiences and unique perspectives, Haller’s project doesn’t attempt to prescribe an outcome or advocate for a specific sea change. Rather, the Veterans Book Project seeks to simply make visible the experiences of individuals and the issues they faced related to war. It creates space for making meaning where there was little or none before. It places the power of self-representation in the hands of the individuals while also sharing their personal perspectives with the rest of us. The creation of these books is a way of speaking back to the dominant narratives of war and empowering individuals to be active in representing their own experiences.

Ayanda Moremi on her wedding day. Kwanele South, Katlehong, 9 November 2013
Publishing her images of black lesbian weddings is one way photographer/activist Zanele Muholi creates a visual history for South Africa’s LGBTI community. Photo courtesy of LOOK3 Festival of the Photograph

Identity politics in South Africa

Zanele Muholi is another LOOK3 artist focused on empowering individuals through representation and awareness of human rights issues. In her work, Muholi explores the identity politics and personal lives of the LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex) community in South Africa. Though her first major show in the U.S. is currently on display at the Brooklyn Museum, LOOK3 brings Muholi’s photographs to be exhibited outside as public art, across from the Free Speech Wall.

Growing up in South Africa, Muholi has been an activist for most of her life. After training at the Market Photo Workshop in Johannesburg, she began integrating photography into her activism, and vice versa. Indeed, she defines herself as a visual activist rather than a photographer.

Though South Africa legalized same-sex marriages in 2006, discrimination against the country’s LGBTI community has grown—and with it, the frequency of violent hate crimes, ranging from assaults to corrective rapes. Living in South Africa, Muholi is on the front line of these issues. Obviously, her work stands in opposition to this violence, asking the world as well as her own neighbors to see the resilience and nuance—indeed, the shared humanity—of the LGBTI community.

Zanele Muholi. Photo courtesy of LOOK3 Festival of the Photograph
Zanele Muholi. Photo courtesy of LOOK3 Festival of the Photograph

Like Haller’s work with the Veterans Book Project, Muholi’s photographs act as a tool for empowerment. They bring visibility to these issues in order to help community members understand themselves as part of the world and in relation to others. And they do so by balancing a celebration of queer identities with an awareness of their violent oppression. With her subjects gazing directly into the camera—and in turn at us—Muholi’s portraits establish a visual vocabulary for marginalized and queer identities in South Africa. Likewise, her more candid photos of black lesbian weddings create a visual history for a community where that hasn’t existed in the past.

Even before she became a photographer, Muholi was invested in activism and co-founded the Forum for the Empowerment of Women, an organization representing LGBTI rights. More recently, she formed Inkanyiso, a resource encouraging black lesbians in South Africa to represent their lives through media and archival advocacy. And though Muholi asks a lot of her subjects, who risk their own safety by being represented in her work, their images ultimately help challenge accepted ways of living and bring attention to the breadth of the human experience. By sharing these perspectives, Muholi’s photographs create an alternative history where the underrepresented and marginalized are no longer so.

Photography as activism

Muholi and Haller are arguably two of LOOK3’s most overtly activist photographers. However, their political and social activism show primarily in the form of representation. The festival’s other featured artists deal with less political subject matter but are equally provocative in their efforts to bring visibility to social issues and to challenge viewers to question dominant narratives. “I think it is a kind of activism to show us what the mainstream is not. Activism is a way of suggesting alternatives,” says Hindley.

Fulfilling its goal to empower this sort of awareness and reflection, LOOK3 also offers free mentorship and educational opportunities for students and early-career photographers, encouraging critical use of photography to champion social and political change. In the two nights of WORKS photo projections, these themes continue. Even those creatures hanging above the Downtown Mall are carefully orchestrated works of art that seek to bring attention to parts of our world that often fly or crawl past, unseen. Photographed by Piotr Naskrecki—an entomologist at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology—each of these species is at risk or living in endangered ecosystems. Each of these photographs represents a social cause in addition to an engaging image.

When viewed together, festival artists’ work raises awareness of a variety of social causes, but also showcases the potent strength of photography as a medium. Reflecting further on her work on the Veterans Book Project, Haller says, “I heard a writer/activist talk about his experiences in the Mathare slum in Nairobi, Kenya. He talked about representations and identities of poverty, handed out and built up through media and history. And in that context he said, ‘When people are not in charge of their own image, that’s quite problematic… That’s why making images is a political act.’ I believe this statement.”

This is where LOOK3 is truly remarkable: in its ability to empower individuals through photography, to raise awareness of the activism inherent in simply showing our many corners of the world as they actually exist. The Festival does this through the TREES exhibition, but also through its extensive other high-caliber photographs and programs that require nothing of us beyond curiosity and a desire to question the way we see the world.

All LOOK3 exhibitions are now open and will remain on display through the end of June. Artist talks will take place at The Paramount Theater. For a complete schedule and list of venues, or to purchase tickets, please visit look3.org.