February 7, 2007


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The art of changing lives
Photography exhibit shows ordinary citizens
By Brian Early bearly@hippopress.com

Meryl Levin is a freelance journalist and adjunct professor at Southern New Hampshire University. She is a guest curator at SNHU’s McIninch Art Gallery for “The Art of Politics: Documenting Social Change,” an exhibit in which photographers from the Concord Monitor display photos capturing the lives of ordinary citizens. There is a student exhibit at the New Hampshire Institute of Art at Fuller Hall showcasing similar work by students at SNHU and NHIA. The show runs through Feb. 14. For times, check out www.snhu.edu/7163.asp.

Q:What is this exhibit about?
The timing of the exhibit was picked before the timing of the primary … it uses the primary as a reason to look at a lot of the issues that have been circulated through the headlines in this political season. We pulled together from primaries past as a way to get visitors … thinking about what are the issues at hand and how much [they] know about them. The majority of the wall space is filled with photographs and small text panels, groupings of images of photo stories that delve into the lives of individual New Hampshire citizens who are dealing with some of the issues at hand. For example, we have a story of a family who deals with the cancer and eventually of the death of the mom in that family. We have the story of a young husband and wife, and he is preparing for his second tour of duty in Iraq. We have the story of a young solider who didn’t come home and the aftereffects on his twin brother, his family and his fiancée. We have the story of an elderly couple whose son with disabilities will be left behind once they die, and as they reach into old age they are beginning to really worry about that. The story of an elderly couple, one of whom dies, and the other who is left behind, so what it does it mean both for the caretaker for the couple and the one who was left behind. Each of the stories [was] created by the photography staff at the Concord Monitor. As you walk through the gallery you get to think about the war, health care issues, domestic partnership. They are real faces and real stories and real names attached to them. The most powerful way to explore an issue is to explore the lives of individuals who are coping with it or dealing with it. That’s where the power lies.

How did this idea come about?
The director of the gallery, Debbie Disston, came up with the idea. She’s new at the gallery. My husband and I had done a book called Primarily New Hampshire, which documented young people who were here for a year during the ’04 cycle and looked at the notion of young people in politics. She had been told to come find me. She did, and by the time we were done talking she looked up and asked, “Do you think you could help curate this?”

Looking back at the news coverage of this political cycle, how would you rate it?
Most often the average newspaper doesn’t take the time to go in-depth, and certainly the people who parachute in here to do the work of the reporting of the primary. They may latch to a family or two that a candidate latches on to and might discuss. The gallery is a room full of these incredible intense stories. It is an in-depth telling of the thing we know we care about but we’re not sure why or we haven’t really met people who are dealing with issue X, Y or Z, but we know it is in our consciousness. This gives people the opportunity to explore some of these issues and let them soak in. … These issues don’t go away. In fact, the exhibit begins with a photograph that Lewis Hine took in the mills of New Hampshire about child labor. Of course we’re not dealing with child labor in particular, but we included that to give a sense of how far back this notion of documentary photography goes and far it’s come….

What’s the difference in perspective between the students and the professionals?
I had encouraged them to try to figure out how to do real storytelling and have a sense of the arc of the story and explore that. They weren’t getting any credit for this; they were just doing it just to do it. They were learning how to do it and how to work alongside the national media, which was like gazillions of people. They really explored what it is to get involved in politics, to see how a campaign works and to understand how citizens get involved. It’s hard. It’s really hard to shoot and elbow your way in there and have the balls to do it.

— Brian Early

Meryl Levin is the guest curator for the art exhibit “The Art of Politics: Documenting Social Change.” Courtesy photo by Dan Habib..