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Re-presenting our Communities

In my community there is an owl called Perry Chocobow Swanet. It was commissioned as part of Birmingham’s ‘Big Hoot’ in 2015, which aimed to celebrate the diversity of Birmingham and its different communities through giant customised owls, as well as celebrating a kind of civic unity. Without the paint, the owls were essentially uniform.

I have mixed feelings about Perry Chocobow Swanet. All of the different motifs depicted on the owl are explained on the Big Hoot website. I understand the references, but I don’t feel that Perry the owl represents them. When I chatted to the artist, who’d visited different parts of Perry Common to come up with the design, I found that he had similar frustrations.

In visiting so many different groups within the community, who all had very strong ideas about what the owl should represent, the final design ended up looking like ‘something that could belong in any park anywhere’. In attempting to satisfy the diverse outlook of a community, the owl said nothing distinctive. The intriguing name, which was apparently chosen by children at a youth group I volunteer at, was quietly ignored on a local press release about the owl, which referred to it simply as ‘Perry’.

As part of a collective of artists, and as part of the community of the church, I find the challenge of representing a people fascinating. It sounds really difficult.

A couple of years ago, I came across an artist whose body of work accomplished this really well. KC McGinnis is a friend (and a photojournalist) from America. Hailing from Iowa, in the Mid-West, KC’s work frequently represents communities in the States in a way that is striking, unique and incredibly reverent; three words that probably couldn’t be used for the Big Hoot project. I sat down with him over Skype to ask some questions about how he looks to represent communities through his art.

Most of the communities KC has photographed are local to him, but different. These include Iowa’s Iraqi and Roman Catholic communites, as well as what one might view as a more ‘traditional’ picture of rural America.

I ask how KC approaches a community as a photographer, and how he goes about being an ‘outsider’. KC says that accepting you are foreign is an important step. Photography is inherently autobiographical. You are present and so people are different. KC embraces this autobiographical element, attempting to be fair in what he represents, but not trying to blend in. Having some knowledge of the community helped, though. Knowing how mass worked, or learning some Arabic enabled small talk and engagement.

Representing is a good verb, says KC, because he aims to re-present. Although he wouldn’t identify as a ‘representative’ for these communities, KC instead aims to say ‘this is what I interpreted with the tools available to me.’ He then asks ‘is this voice fair?’ A photo can be stylised and effective, but for KC, the fairness of the voice is a deciding factor. He references a series of photos he took of a GOP rally with a harsh flash that made the most of a gathering storm in the background. The image was striking, the symbolism clear, but KC and his editor decided they were unfair. And so the photos didn’t get published.

My thoughts turned to PJ Harvey, whose album The Hope Six Demolition Project, released in April of this year, attempted a cross between song-writing and journalism in documenting housing projects in Ward 7 of Washington D.C., a city KC incidentally moved to shortly after our interview. Ward 7 was a community to which Harvey did not belong, and though the album drew generally positive critical reviews, it backfired spectacularly in the projects it attempted to document, where PJ Harvey was accused of desertion, described as ‘inane’ and worst of all, as ‘the Piers Morgan of music’.

I ask KC if strangers have ever reacted negatively to his work. ‘Oh yeah’, he says. There was an Iraqi man whose hair was receding. When this was made evident in a photo of KC’s, the man objected, believing the photo was taken to make him look bad. We live in a snapshot culture, says KC. Intentionality is unexpected, and so people can be annoyed if a photograph is not overtly formal or spontaneous. People think photography exists to either make you look good or exploit you, and as a result the photographer is themselves both trusted and distrusted.

I’m also intrigued to understand KC’s identity as an Iowan. Though worlds apart from Birmingham, Iowa is often dismissed in familiar disparaging tones. It is renowned for its corn, and when I tell Americans that I’ve been there, most respond with an incredulous ‘why!?’

For KC, Iowa is home and he says that the best storytellers are always the locals. Preconceptions about Iowa generally include corn, farmers, and weirdly, food on a stick. I ask KC if he tried to combat these assumptions. He says that he can be a bit defensive, but that ultimately stereotypes are there because elements of them are true. He instead sees Iowa as a microcosm of the United States, with sustainable energy, agriculture, faith and the loss of rural life all important national and local themes.

KC is currently working for USA Today in Washington D.C. You can have a look at some of the work described here on his website. Hopefully this can provide some insight into how we re-present our city, the church, our neighbourhoods, whichever community you are a part of. How can we tell local stories in ways that are striking, unique, beautiful and fair?

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