Socially Distant Social Documentary

Socially Distant Social Documentary

Anna Gefke, The Spread of Weaponized Words, 2020, Digital photograph (Left); Habiba Nowrose, Concealed, 2017, Inkjet print, Museum purchase with funds given through the generosity of Linda Wyatt Gruber (Class of 1966), 2018.295 (Right)

This online tour was created by students in the Wellesley College class, “ARTS 108: Photography I,” taught by William Van Beckum, Visiting Lecturer in Studio Art, during the 2020 Summer Term. In this foundational studio course, students explore the key concepts, methods, and theories behind photography as a form of visual expression.

With the restrictions placed on in-person coursework due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Van Beckum and his students shifted from the darkroom to virtual learning, focusing on the tools and “cameras you have with you,” such as smartphones and digital editing programs. Similarly, classes that originally would have taken place in the Davis Museum were transformed into virtual lectures and discussions facilitated by curators.

One such lecture series focused on social documentary—photography in the service of social reform. The students read essays that elucidate the multiple approaches to social documentary photography, from Lewis Hine’s optimistic valorization of the genre to Martha Rosler’s claim that we have yet to find or create an effective documentary. The students studied works from the Davis collections by the likes of Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks, and Carrie Mae Weems, and asked important questions about the potentials and the pitfalls of photography as an agent of social change. For this tour, each student chose a work from the Davis collections that engages in social critique. They researched the photograph and created their own work responding to the methodologies in the original piece.

We are currently living through multiple crises, which will require reform to almost every social, cultural, and political structure that makes up our world. Presented in reverse chronological order according to the source image, the artwork in this tour represents the pressing concerns of eleven students from Wellesley College. The psychological stress, health risks, and racial inequalities exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic loom large, but we are also reminded of other unresolved and dire issues, from humanity’s detrimental impact on the environment to child labor. The students responded to these issues with the materials and environments available to them, and it has been inspiring to witness the ingenuity, creativity, and resourcefulness with which they have completed this challenging project. 

— Carrie Cushman, Linda Wyatt Gruber ’66 Curatorial Fellow in Photography at the Davis Museum, and William Van Beckum, Visiting Lecturer in Studio Art at Wellesley College