What Do You See? Encouraging youth to challenge assumptions through art
Thursday, March 7th, 2019
Written by: Wing Young Huie, Independent Artist, Photographer, Writer
I’ve been photographing the complex realities of American society for 40 years. Although I’ve exhibited in galleries and museums nationally and internationally, my best-known projects were public installations that transformed major Twin Cities’ thoroughfares into epic galleries, reflecting the everyday lives of thousands of its citizens in the midst of some of the most diverse concentrations of
international immigrants in the country, providing a collective window and mirror of the them who are really us.
Almost all the people I’ve photographed are strangers I meet in all kinds of ways, often on the street. Many of them I interview and display their words alongside their photos.
Over the years I have increasingly found myself in educational spaces rather than exhibition spaces. I’ve given hundreds of presentations to all kinds of audiences, including K-12 classrooms, colleges, non-profits, and corporations, trying to understand how my photographic process is of value to anyone, whether it is a 6th grader or a corporate executive. I walk down the street and interact with strangers, thousands of them, and am continually confronted by my assumptions when I break out of my personal, cultural, and technological bubble and get to know someone.
We take photographs of each other every day—in our minds. How much of what we project onto that reality in front of us is shaped by those countless otherizing images produced by Hollywood, television, advertising, the media, and social media, rather than face-to-face conversations? We live in a diverse society that is driven by a corporate, mass culture point of view. What do you see when you walk down the street?
In the classroom [any classroom, from K-12 through college] I do an activity I call, “What Do You See?” where I simply ask students to interpret my photos that are like life, full of suggestion yet open to interpretation. After the discussion, or writing exercise, in which multiple points of views are shared, I then reveal a back-story that will complicate and challenge initial assumptions, widening cultural perspectives for a challenging and non-confrontational deep discussion.
Another activity I facilitate is called, “Chalk Talk.” After photographing for many years I started to think that no matter how good the photograph is, it’s still just a surface description. How then can you create a photo that goes below the surface and gives a glimpse of what’s inside? I decided to give strangers chalkboards and ask them open-ended questions, such as: “How do you think others see you? What don’t they see?” Having a conversation, especially an intimate one, with a total stranger is a kind of social therapy, for them and me. Their chalkboard statements, like messages in a bottle, revealed a wealth of emotions and vulnerabilities, prosaic and philosophical wishes, private hopes and fears.
With students, I have them pair up with a fellow student they don’t know well and have a Chalk Talk conversation. Some of the questions I pose: “What defines you? Does your identity shift? What advice would you give a stranger?” After the conversation each writes on a chalkboard something that expresses their authentic selves and then they photograph each other.
When I tell students I photograph strangers, most of them (and some teachers) think it’s creepy. Then I ask, “How many feel you are a stranger to most of the students in your school?” Most shoot their hands up. If we as a society, redefined what a stranger was, we would have more of a society.
High School Teacher, Roseville, MN
“Wing’s presentation is a powerful tool for educators. Participants will recognize and process though their media and ethnocentric driven pre-conceptions of how folks develop racial and cultural identity. Wing has the rare talent of facilitating a major paradigm shift through his non-threatening style of communication and the art of photography.”
Student, St. Louis Park Senior High School, MN
“It was an experience I will definitely remember forever! I walked out feeling like a new person and I looked at everyone I passed in the halls very differently; I looked at them with more respect and with more of a realization that their backgrounds and past reflects who they are, what they look like, and how they act, and that they matter in life just as I do and everyone else around me.”
Wing Young Huie is a photographer and artist based in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota. For more information, visit his website at wingyounghuie.com.