Art

Snapshots of Conflict

Photographer Janice Levy understands her world through a camera lens. She and the two other 2013 Light Work grant winners used a camera to explore topics of class, privilege and conflict. Their dedication to highlighting microcosms of tension— and their access to the issues—creates a diverse and thought-provoking collection of work.

Light Work’s 39th annual grant fellowship program awarded Levy, Laura Heyman and Jared Landberg with $2,000.

Each will have their work published in Contact Sheet: The Light Work Annual and will display their work during an exhibit from Aug. 19 to Oct. 25 at Light Work.

The aspect of access was perhaps most important to Janice Levy, who spent 10 months from 2010 to 2011 teaching photography at Princess Nora bint Abdulrahman University, in Saudi Arabia. Levy was on sabbatical from teaching photography courses at Ithaca College and received an educator’s visa to live in the country.

Levy says that photojournalists typically have three days to stay, during which they are strictly guided to portray the state’s polished images. But Levy was able to roam the streets herself and to record what she saw. Behind the Mercedes cars and skyscrapers, she found residents living largely on state subsidies, an enormous immigrant labor force and a continued gender apartheid that crumbled the country’s facade.

In one of the photos Levy submitted for the grant, there is a pink corrugated aluminum wall with a picture taped to it of the king of Saudi Arabia with his brother. Next to the picture is a collection of wires and cheap trinkets for sale—an example of the paradox Levy saw in the society at large.

“He’s this element of power and stability, but he’s haphazardly taped against this wall that’s not permanent at all,” she says.

Heyman also experienced a higher level of access in Haiti, where she’s been traveling since 2009 to document the citizens’ place in the world, particularly in the wake of the earthquake that struck just three weeks after her first installment. Heyman photographs shop owners, takes portraits of passers-by and uses her photos from Haiti as a way to show how the United States interacts with the non-Western world.

Heyman teaches photography at Syracuse University and is a local curator.

She has traveled a dozen times or more to Haiti since 2009, and plans to spend several weeks during her upcoming fall sabbatical in the country. Her U.S. passport has given her access to the mayor of Port-au-Prince and other Haitian personalities, but she hopes to use her extended time to document the large non-governmental organization presence and the inner workings of the Haitian government, including Parliament.

Heyman’s goal for the Light Work exhibit is to give people a better idea of Haiti’s reality and a better understanding of the country’s political paradigms. “I hope they are able to think about Haiti in a way that’s a little less sensational than what they normally see,” she says, “a little more subtle picture of the place and also its place in the world right now.”

Landberg is also focused on political ramifications in his work, but he takes a different approach to the idea of access. Landberg centered many of his submissions for the Light Work grant on the hydrofracking debate in Cortland County and used the ask-forgiveness tactic instead of the ask-permission one. That earned him a confrontation with an eye patched farmer sporting a gold handgun earring, among others. Landberg’s goal is to photograph areas that might be affected by fracking, if the legislation to approve it passes.

Landberg is interested in the theme of hindsight, which comes from earlier photography projects involving abandoned structures near his family’s home in Indiana. Like Heyman, Landberg is a photography teacher at SU. He faces the challenge of deciding how much to insert his personal opinion about fracking in the photos he takes.

“I always want to try to be objective and show what I can, but it always winds up feeling a little stale,” he says.

But he also wants his work to be treated seriously, which can be muddied by inserting opinion. “When you start laying out your opinion so hard on such a crazy issue, you can also be quickly dismissed,” he says.

With all three photographers, there is an underlying whisper—or shout—of tension. In Saudi Arabia, it’s the sheen of high class against the reality of the workers who keep it glossy. In Haiti, it’s the way a third-class country relates to its wealthy counterparts in the wake of natural disaster. And in Cortland, it’s people fighting to use their land vs. their neighbors, who want clean drinking water.

Landberg hopes people who visit the exhibit will see that tension for what it is.

“I hope they walk away with what I feel of the conflict,” he says. “The beauty, but also the need, but also the issue.”

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