Case Study 1 – Dana Lixenberg – Imperial Courts

This short presentation introduced us to initial ideas for publishing the FMP, and encouraged us to think about this throughout, not waiting until the end of production to decide how it should be shared with the world.

Case Study 1 Dana Lixenberg – Imperial Courts was an example of how one photographer turned two decades of revisiting one community into a cohesive project.

Dana Lixenberg – Imperial Courts

Lixenberg used 5×4 black and white film photography to document the portraits of  community members living in one housing project, Imperial Courts.   She revisited the community regularly, deepening her knowledge of the people and their stories.   Over 22 years she created a record of time passing in a largely unknown and voiceless American community. Sadly, she sometimes returned to find that her subjects had disappeared or died.

As a photographer working with other people as subjects, the question is likely to arise as to what is in it for them. Why should people participate?  Lixenberg found herself having to address this when asked by a resident of the housing project and did not know how to answer the question.   “I still can’t really answer his question. What do photographs give to people, outside of the opportunity to remember our past and those we might otherwise forget” (Lixenberg, in presentation, falmouth.ac.uk)

There is a consistency in the photographic work. 5×4, black and white, no attention to detail in the background, often plain background e.g. a wall, and flat, unposed expressions of the sitters.  She captures people of all ages from baby to elder, all with the same presentation.  It could be said that her use of large format was to adopt a technology traditionally reserved for important subjects, and that she was elevating these individuals, giving them substance in a world where they may feel overlooked.

When it came to publication, her approach was varied. She attracted grant funding, which allowed her to develop her work broadly and gain the support of a production team, as she used sound and video in addition to 5×4 photography. Photographically, her work was shown in galleries, and she used different sizes and layouts of portrait, using rows and grids, sometimes surrounding individual portraits with images of their relatives, including the portrait of a young boy whose life was not long enough.

The result was a series of exhibitions and a book published, but also a web piece with the community as collaborators.  The web piece includes video interviews, poetry and spoken word, letters and artefacts, creating an archive for this community, and allowing a voice for the participants.

The success of the project lies not only in planning, funding, and logistics, but in Lixenberg’s vision. She knew her aims at the beginning, she knew she wished to represent a community who had little voice. She knew her 5×4 style from the outset and used it consistently.  A successful project needs such vision.

To me, the power in this material is in the audio and video clips in the web piece. To hear the stories from the residents’ perspective adds a level of humanness that is not as intense an experience as when looking at the photographs alone.  Shrimp, for example, talking about her cousin DJ’s imprisonment for murder is powerful. In this type of community death and murder is frequent. People live with death in a place described as being “like a walking mortuary” (Shrimp).  Shrimp says how she doesn’t go out any more except to go to and from work, that she has seen a lot of crime in her life in the community and she is deeply saddened about the situation.  She doesn’t wish for her own life to end on the streets.  The sadness and fear is clear in her voice.

In photographic terms, I find this work inspiring, too. It is deeply sad from the perspective of a community that is struggling to change. It is as if no one there wants gun and gang culture, but no one has the power, support or resources to change it. A photography project like Lixenberg’s not only puts this housing project on the global map, it expresses a way of life that is familiar to these kinds of housing situations, and by following it over a long period of time it reflects how deeply seated the issues are.

I cannot help, now, wondering what will become of this community, whether Lixenberg’s project will contribute to helping these people, or if it already has.  I can’t help wondering whether her contribution will bring about the changes needed for these families to live in safety.  Societal change will take time, of course, and photographers may hope for this as they carry out such work. This project is a passionate attempt to highlight the struggles of this community in their own words, giving people a voice  not often heard on an international stage.  Maybe for the individuals, simply by expressing themselves openly to someone who will listen, someone who is interested in them, is helpful to them. I would like to think so.

As a body of work it is an inspiration as to how to create a project and bring it into a cohesive ‘product’ in order to disseminate it.  Lixenberg crosses many bases by using video, audio, Internet and photography, opening up her audience and further strengthening the voices of those whose lives she reflects.

http://www.imperialcourtsproject.com
(Accessed 30 September 2019)

Publishing your FMP – Case Study 1 (Dana Lixenberg)
Available at: https://flex.falmouth.ac.uk/courses/468/pages/publishing-your-fmp-case-study-1-dana-lixenberg?module_item_id=31297 (Accessed 30 September 2019)