About seven years ago, I was invited by Merry Foresta—director of the Smithsonian Photography Initiative from 2000 to 2010—to participate in a project that was designed to explore and raise awareness of the fourteen-million-or-so photographs residing in various Smithsonian collections and archives. The challenge was both daunting and a dream come true, given my fascination with, and respect for, the roles photographic images play in visual culture and in the shaping of institutions as complex as the Smithsonian. In 2007, and while I was working as a creative consultant to the Photography Initiative, an idea for a new project began to form. In conversation with Smithsonian curators, researchers, and staff, it became increasingly obvious how all around the National Mall—and by extension, all around the world—we use photography for various reasons and to different ends. The more people I met with the clearer it became to me that photography, which most of us think of as a documentary tool is, more importantly, an active agent of change in our culture, work, and daily life.
Given the Photography Initiative’s innovative website and its role in facilitating the digitization of images across the Smithsonian, we created an online project—click! photography changes everything —to explore the medium’s utility, power, and reach. Working closely with Merry, Effie Kapsalis, Susannah Wells, and Catherine Shteynberg, I made lists of people we hoped to engage and whose inclusion would bridge a broad range of experiences and perspectives. While many project participants were affiliated with the Smithsonian, we reached out beyond the Smithsonian to, for example, artists; experts in the media, merchandizing, and medicine; photographic and digital innovators; celebrities and public figures; and students and teachers. We targeted people who study photography’s role in culture and everyday lives, as well as those who rely heavily on photographic imaging in their specific work, but are seldom asked to talk about when or why or how of what they do.
Each project participant was asked to consider how photography transformed their personal life or areas of professional interest. The interdisciplinary stories they told and the images they’ve shared—on the website, and now in the just-published book version of the project, Photography Changes Everything (Aperture/Smithsonian, 2012)—reveal that photography, far from being a shared language, is complex and subject to rules, specific criteria, and expectations that vary from one context and field to another. And if we tend to think of photographs as rear-view mirrors, the reality, as this project proves, is that photography aggressively moves us forward and in that process, changes what we see and want, where we go, what we do, who we are, and what we remember .
We never imagined, when we started exploring photographic images in Smithsonian collections, that we’d end up creating yet another archive, one filled with provocative, informative, and entertaining stories about photography itself. But we did. And now, with its online presence and in its new print version, the project is reaching audiences and triggering conversations we couldn’t have anticipated a few years back. A standing-room-only launch event for Photography Changes Everything was held in Los Angeles in June. Come this fall, a Washington, DC special event planned for September 12 and additional events in New York are yet to be announced. We’ll keep you posted on details and hope to see you at one or another!