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A Brown Bag Seminar with nationally-recognized photographer Donn Young 

Donn Young
Photo by Jock Lauterer

What are the benefits of art and photography for research and solving social problems? How do artists work with social scientists to collaborate on research from the very beginning of a project?  These questions were addressed at a recent Center for Urban and Regional Studies (CURS) brown bag seminar with Donn Young. Young, an award-winning photographer, discussed using photography as a means to support, illustrate, and even influence research and policy making.

Young opened his talk with a quote from Lewis Hine: “If I could tell a story in words, I wouldn’t need to lug a camera.”  As the cliché goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. So why is there hesitation to use photos to illustrate and complement research, specifically research related to social justice?

Young added, “[Imagine if] you could change the field of research from a gray page and illustrate it… [creating] an information network that not only contains the written work which people have passion about, but that is backed up and contributed to with illustration.”

While we are able to understand research and issues at some level with written reports and statistics, we are able to get an entirely new understanding when photos are used to support, complement, and lead research. Art can often document the stories that the data doesn’t capture.   

child at farm labor campFor this sort of research photography to be different than simply getting an assignment to cover a topic, the researcher and photographer must be partners.  According to Young, the key to this type of storytelling is to work with an imaginative and flexible researcher. “In order to proceed from an individual assignment into a collaborative essayist with researchers, you have to create a library, a total amount of work, and that is the foundation of storytelling,” said Young.

Young also discussed his experience collaborating with CURS Faculty Fellow Maureen Berner of the UNC School of Government to work toward alleviating hunger and reducing poverty through dialogue, understanding, and education by documenting and illustrating hunger in the state. In their work, Dr. Berner gathers statistics on food pantries and the people who receive assistance, and Young documents their stories through photos.

Young has taken the approach of following the food pantry system from beginning to end, starting with the farmers growing fresh foods to donate, and extending to the people who volunteer to get the food to the pantries, the people who devote their lives to providing food to the needy, and the people receiving the food.

Young brings the photos back to Berner, who finds more research questions to be answered from the details of the photos. She notices the diversity in the food lines and the abundance of foods with little nutritional value on the pantry shelves. This leads her to ask more research questions and to dig for more answers to fill out a statistical picture of hunger in North Carolina.

child in food lineThroughout this process, Young stresses the importance of privacy, respect, responsibility, and accuracy. It is essential to understand the rules and regulations governing the research, especially when documenting life that is private. In addition, Young points out that there is a moral obligation, beyond legal requirements, when working with disadvantaged populations.

“Keep in mind that there is more going on in the world than photography,” Young says. There can be implications and repercussions for taking certain photos or being a photographer in certain places while working on sensitive topics, even if one has covered all the legal bases.

Hear Young talk about the repercussions of shooting a specific photo (8.5 minutes)

What is the final result of a collaboration of research and photography? Young and Berner have displayed their work in several exhibits throughout the state, and their work will become part of the state archives. In this way, Berner’s work has reached audiences beyond the normal scope for academic research. Berner also uses the photos when talking to policy makers, providing them with an artistic portrait of her statistical research.

Young’s work is on display through Fall 2013 at the Center for Urban and Regional Studies, Hickerson House, 108 Battle Lane, Chapel Hill. The UNC School of Government is hosting a companion exhibit in the Knapp-Sanders Building on the UNC campus.

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