Wendy Ewald – Creative Photographer and Educator

Wendy Ewald, photographed by Denise Dixon, a former student (1988) from Kentucky. © Denise Dixon (Hughes,2019)

My tutor, Jesse Alexander, advised that I look at Wendy Ewald’s work. What a great recommendation! One of my main aims is to develop myself as a Photographic Educator. Wendy is a groundbreaking, selfless photographer and tutor.

“Since 1975, the American artist has been entwining photography, activism, and education in a series of collaborations that upend our prevailing ideas of authorship and authority.” Teaching photography to children and amateur photographers is unique and one is rarely able to get them to progress from the mere use of the camera to use it creatively beyond a course. Wendy is continuedly finding ways to get to engage them with the art of photography (Scott, 2019). “

Looking at her website http://wendyewald.com/ and other on-line resources she presented possibilities that adds real value in the lives she touches. When Jesse says that I need to find people to collaborate on my project I did not realise the extent of that statement until I viewed Ewald’s work. I found this gem: ” “As the photo community wrestles with questions about who has the right to tell someone’s story, many photojournalists are choosing to put their subjects in control—by giving them cameras or asking them to contribute to the process of making and choosing images. Wendy Ewald has been doing that for almost 50 years (Hughes, 2019) .”

In a way, Ewald addresses the criticism that Sontag raises in her “On Photography”. Ewald is neither a voyeur, flaneur, a thief or acquirer of images. She is the ultimate immersive photographer. Not wanting to look from the outside in or have a distance between her and her subjects, she gets involved as a participant, seeking not to direct but share with her subject- the target of her goodwill and co-discoverer.

She challenges photographers that use collaboration with an ulterior motive. Ewald is not a photographer who chooses to give cameras to their subjects because she’s uneasy in the role of the outsider photographing a community that’s not hers, or that she is critical of the relationship of the outside photographer to the subject. When asked what she thought about that as a motivation for a collaboration she responded:
 I don’t think it’s great, actually. I’m genuinely fascinated by what I do and what I get to see. I’m sorry if people have used my work to say outsiders shouldn’t come in. Because I don’t believe that, either, but I believe as an artist I can get something through collaboration that I couldn’t get any other way. And I’m always looking for fresh ways of seeing. If collaboration comes out of a defensive impulse, I don’t think it does justice to the people you’re working with. (Hughes, 2019)

Let’s let Ewald introduce herself: “For over forty years I have collaborated on photography projects with children, families, women, workers and teachers. I’ve worked in the United States, Labrador, Colombia, India, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Holland, Mexico and Tanzania. My projects start as documentary investigations and move on to probe questions of identity and cultural differences (Ewald, 2019) .”

lecture by Wendy Ewald on her projects (Ewald,2019)

On her website, Ewald presents six collaborative works. Her collaborator’s – students. These include Portrait of dreams ( Letcher County, Kentucky, USA 1976 -today), Black self/white self (Durham’s inner city, 1994- 1997) , Retratos y Sueños (Mexico, 1991), American Alphabets (1997-2005), Towards a promised land (Margate, 2003 – 2006, UK) and This is where I live (Israel/Palestine, 2010-2013). All of these projects see how she contextualises her education to help issues her students are struggling with. This has the effect of getting incredible engagement and growth. Even if she does the photography work she freely acknowledgement their part in the project. But they are fully engaged at the creative level. I can see so many possibilities in my space that I will probably be rolling about with ideas throughout the next couple of weeks. She breaks all the boundaries. She engages and fully immerses herself in her photographs and the lives of her subjects. She teaches, assists and even learns from the insights of her collaborators. She has discovered how selflessness can be achieved in a world of photographers seeking fame.

I have a lot to learn from her approach of which the following is an extract from her interview with PDN

PDN: How did you figure out how to teach kids to photograph their lives or their dreams?
 I just taught myself. I’d give them assignments about what to shoot. Some were based on shape or other visual cues. Eventually, I got the very simple idea of asking them to photograph their families, their community and their dreams and fantasies. But that came later when I was working in Kentucky. (Hughes, 2019)

PDN: Do you think the switch from analogue to digital changed your collaborative projects?
 “It was a big deal. I think the analogue process gave the kids a real focus and it slowed them down—and me too. There were discreet steps—developing film and making prints—which gave them an opportunity to understand how the medium worked.

The first time I worked digitally was in Israel for the project “This Place.” I spent a lot of time looking for cameras to use, and trying them out to see what were the best, the easiest to handle, so my collaborators would be successful. I guess I’m always trying to simplify the experience so that they can just look through the viewfinder, rather than having to fuss with the equipment.

I think a lot of people think that you can just give cameras to kids or whomever and they’ll come out with an innocent vision. I’m much more interested in them controlling and understanding what things will look like in the photos.

Some of the young people in Mexico were so small they couldn’t make the stretch between the thumb and the forefinger to click the button. They had to figure out another way to press the shutter. They carried around buckets of sodium sulfite because we were using Polaroid positive/negative film. And they made fantastic pictures.

You want to give the kids control, and they can gain that control. It doesn’t matter if it’s complicated. They learned, and I learned how to teach them to do it. It was amazing. (Hughes 2019).”

This brief encountered resonated with me and I will revisit her work in the new semester. It will make a lot of sense to incorporate some of her ideas in the progression of my project on Ubuntu vs Modernism. I have access to students from my past courses whom I want to get to engage more with their photography. Another immediate opportunity is the possibility to teach children photography in a school I am involved in.


Ewald, W. (2019). Wendy Ewald, Photographer. [online] Wendy Ewald. Available at: http://wendyewald.com/ [Accessed 6 Dec. 2019].

Hughes, H. (2019). Interview: Wendy Ewald, Pioneer of Collaborative Photography | PDN Online. [online] PDN Online. Available at: https://pdnonline.com/features/photographer-interviews/interview-wendy-ewald-pioneer-of-collaborative-photography/ [Accessed 6 Dec. 2019].

Scott, A. (2019). What Resulted When a Photographer Gave Rural Children Cameras. [online] The New Yorker. Available at: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/photo-booth/what-resulted-when-a-photographer-gave-rural-children-cameras [Accessed 6 Dec. 2019].

Ewald, W. (2019). Lecture By Wendy Ewald. [Video] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m7svQrFOdRQ [Accessed 6 Dec. 2019].

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