Photographers Andrea Bruce, Carlos Javier Ortiz and Aida Muluneh have won this year’s CatchLight Fellowships, which come with $30,000 to develop projects that use the power of visual storytelling to drive social change.
Bruce won for her investigation of democracy in the United States. “Americans are passionate about democracy,” she told In Sight. “Many would die for it. And yet definitions vary widely. This project is meant to push people to look beyond politics and examine the social conditions that underpin our society, providing a visual record of the state of local democracy at this moment in U.S. history.”
“Our Democracy” sees the photographer move from one community to another, spending a month at a time immersing herself in the locality, taking pictures but also inviting people to participate, an idea, Bruce said, that “has been forgotten with the loss of small-town and community publications across the United States.” Bruce, formerly a Washington Post photographer, said that in each town she visits, she works with high schools “where photographic work is presented and classroom discussions on democracy are led,” she said, “diving into the students’ and teachers’ own thoughts on democracy as it plays out on a local level. They are then involved in documenting their own community, and their images are shared on Instagram with their own thoughts on the definition of the word and their lives.”
Last year, Bruce visited the communities of Pamlico County in North Carolina, Buchanan County in Virginia, and Provo, Utah. She now plans to expand the work to other cities in Arizona, Florida and New Hampshire, using funds from the CatchLight Fellowship. “My goal in the next few years is to create an intimate reckoning of how average U.S. citizens see, experience and define democracy,” she said. “My hope is to push people beyond the rhetoric they hear every day and to ask themselves what democracy means to them and their community on a deeper level. And, when pulled together, to record a picture of what democracy means at this point in U.S. history; but most of all, a project that will try to get people to pay attention.”
Ortiz won for his project “Between the Lines,” which looks at relations between the communities of Del Paso Heights and South Sacramento in California and the police. “The fellowship comes at an important time for me,” he said. “I have been working on this project for some time now and didn’t have sufficient funding to go out and just do the work, which means getting out into the community, taking photos and shooting film, making connections with people, and building trust.” The documentary photographer and filmmaker believes his project is especially relevant today, as “we’re not hearing as much in the national media about policing and the community [while] these problems have not gone away,” he said. “People are still deeply affected by police violence and violence, in general, as we’ve just seen in Sacramento with the killing of Stephon Clark. I want the work to continue to bring light to these issues, even when they fall out of the national media spotlight.”
Muluneh received her fellowship for “The Distant Gaze.” The project is inspired by a collection of images of Ethiopian women documented at the turn of the century by foreign photographers. “Many of these images, later commercial postcards in Europe, depicted foreign fantasies in relation to the black female body,” said Muluneh, a former Washington Post photographer and the founder of Desta for Africa Creative Consulting, a company that promotes development in Ethiopia through culture. “I found it impossible not to question the implications of each sitter’s returned gaze,” she added.
Using the fellowship’s funds, she will organize workshops and mentorship programs in Nigeria, Ethiopia, Uganda and Italy for high school students, photojournalists and fine-art photographers. “As I attempt to interrogate the foreign gaze and also to raise the awareness of the impact of photography in shaping cultural perceptions, participating students will develop their own stories based on what they are confronted within their own countries, historically or through current depictions in the media,” she said. With “The Distant Gaze,” Muluneh’s ultimate goal is to develop “a richer, broader discussion of the question of representation,” she said.
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