“See Potential” by Emily Schiffer
Conversation with Emily Schiffer
by Paola Núñez Solorio
Can you talk a little about how did you start your See potential project? And how did you get involved with the food security and the urban agriculture movement?
Food and organic farming have been important to me since childhood. I grew up working on an organic farm each day after school. This experience connected me with food and introduced me to the politics surrounding food production and consumption in the US. When I was nominated for the Magnum Emergency Fund Grant, I wanted to propose an emergency that has fallen below main stream media’s radar. Chicago’s “food desert” problem resonates with me, and fit this criteria. The See Potential public art project stems from my long standing desire to use my images for tangible social change. It evolved our of my relationship with community activist Orrin Williams, who has developed sustainable (and easy to implement) redevelopment plans.
In See potential you are working in partnership with organizations, artists and community leaders. Is this the first time that you do a project like this? And what are your considerations before starting this kind of projects? What does it take you to say “yes, let’s do it”?
I have worked collaboratively in the past on other projects, such as Cheyenne River and Natural Lang. However, this is the first time I have embarked on anything at this scale. I began See Potential because my partnership with Orrin Williams and the Center for Urban Transformation is solid. We enjoy and respect each other’s perspectives and ideas, and have easy and open communication. Without this dynamic the project would not be possible. Orrin’s ideas were already out there, and he was already in the process of setting them in motion, but instead of showing a written proposal only to the people who read those sort of things, I’m using advertising tactics to present his ideas to the community so we can engender support and put pressure on the administrators. Orrin and I really have a true collaboration, I’m responsible for the artistic side, and he’s in charge of the grass roots community activism and planning parts, but we discuss everything together.
Putting artistic concerns aside, what does See potential gives you as a person?
It gives me a place to channel my outrage about unfair social, racial, and class dynamics.
Some photographers say that doing a photographic essay consist of becoming invisible and blending into the community you are documenting. Do you feel related to this statement? Can you talk about it?
I can’t imagine being invisible, and I don’t think it’s possible or appealing to become invisible. On the contrary, photography is inherently subjective, and I think it’s important to acknowledge that our images are a visual extension our biases. Therefore it’s very important to be in touch with your personal stereotypes and perspectives, to examine and challenge them. I think all photographers strive to make their subjects as comfortable and natural as possible, but I can’t imagine anyone ever fully disregarding the presence of a camera. The relationships I build with my subjects drive my work, giving me insight, intimacy, and a genuine personal connection to the issues I photograph. My relationships also enable me to become part of the communities I photograph (as much as possible, in certain aspects I will always be an outsider).
You support a lot of social causes, do you consider yourself an activist rather than a photographer?
I consider myself a photographer who cares about the world and feels connected to the people around me.
About the artist
B. 1980. In 2003 Emily Schiffer received her BA in Fine Art and African American Studies from the University of Pennsylvania. In 2005, she founded the My Viewpoint Youth Photography Initiative on the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota, where she continues to teach and shoot. Awards include: a 2011 Magnum Foundation Emergency Fund Grant, the 2010 Arnold Newman Prize for New Directions in Portraiture, the 2010 winner of the PDN Photo Annual Personal Project Category, the 2009 Inge Morath Award, presented by Magnum Photos and the Inge Morath Foundation, a 2006-2007 Fulbright Fellowship in Photography, and recognition as one of the top ten portfolios for the 2007 Leica Oskar Barnak Award. Emily has exhibited her photographs internationally. Publications include: Smithsonian Magazine, PDN, Burn Magazine, and The Raw File. Emily lives in Brooklyn, NY and is available to work internationally.