Nothing Changes If Nothing Changes: #firstdayfirstimage

exposure magazine
Mar 31, 2018 · 14 min read
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Does anyone really believe that we live in a post-race or a post-gender world? For those who value diversity, freedom of speech, social progress and a commitment to a vibrantly engaged culture of the arts, these seem like dark days.

When considering the current condition of equal representation in the business world, the art world and in the canons of art history, is there any proof that rectification of the pervasive under representation of women, people of color, gay, trans or other marginalized groups actually gets better over time?

Here are some statistics:

° Over 60% of art college undergraduates are women.¹

° 7 in 10 Fortune 500 company executives are white men (and only 6.4% are women)²

° 80% of the artists in NYC’s top galleries are white, and 20% of them went to Yale. In terms of gender, 70% of artists represented were male, and 30% female.³

° Venice Biennale representation in 2017: 57% white; 65% male, 35% women; 41% born on European continent.⁴

° The majority of art museum staffs in the U.S. have 28% of staff self-identifying as minority, but further drilling down of the data reveals that the majority of those individuals are in security, facilities, finance, or human resources, while among museum curators, conservators, educators, and leaders 84 percent are white.⁵

While there has been arguable improvement in conditions in the past 100 years, incidents like the recent firing of a diversity in the arts champion Helen Molesworth (chief curator at MoCA), can create the sensation that we’ve moved two steps forward and three steps back.

“Firing Molesworth seems like an act of institutional manspreading,” artist Micol Hebron told the arts magazine Hyperallergic. “We have seen three high-level women in the arts fired recently (Helen Molesworth at MoCA, Laura Raicovich at the Queens Museum, and María Inés Rodriguez at the Musée d’Art Contemporain in Bordeaux) — each for being ‘too’-something; too political, too outspoken, too feminist, too invested in diversity.”

In the face of such incremental change, what can be done? What moves do we have, if any, as individuals?

Over the academic winter break this past January, an idea was born and a movement took shape. What if, its founders posited, we effect change as educators from within the ground floor of these institutional power structures, and casually — but insistently — altered the popular and historic narrative of who gets shown, discussed and taught in the classroom? What if the canon we taught wasn’t dominated by white men? What if we set the tone on the very first day of class, with the very first image we show our students, by discussing one work from a historically underrepresented artist? And so #firstdayfirstimage was born.

We spoke with the some of the movement’s first participants to ask them about their experiences and impressions with #firstdayfirstimage in their classrooms; here are their thoughts:

Wendy Babcox (Univ of South Florida)

Early last year I traveled to New York to see the very terrific Kerry James Marshall exhibition and was overcome by the experience. The work was so incredibly powerful in person (I had never seen his paintings in the flesh before,) the narratives and strategies of his paintings made a profound impression on me. His mission to paint black painters into the canon, was made all the more poignant that particular weekend. It was the weekend of Dr Martin Luther King Jr Day and the very same weekend that Trump had gone after John Lewis so viciously. Honestly, I wept as I walked around the exhibition.. overcome by the power of the work, the weight of the circumstances and at the difficulties that would undoubtedly lie ahead. When I returned to Tampa I told Jason that as a result of this experience I pledged to myself to always show an artist of color, as the very first image in all my classes for the rest of my career. It seemed like a small act of resistance that I could personally take in my classes. I wanted to set as a priority that the very first experience of aspirational work would always feature an artist of color and that this would just be a natural part of my lecture process. As I say, Jason and I have talked about this, and I am truly interested in the question of whether it is perhaps more effective for the image to just be presented naturally without the context of my own desire and mission to create an impact through the gesture or whether it is best explored through a shared and stated goal of bringing diversity to the classroom. Part of me likes the quiet consistency of the gesture and that it would be normal. No fanfare.

I am teaching an Intermediate Photography class. We cover all kinds of technical issues in addition to really exploring the evolution and myriad possibilities of photography in an art context. I have always had a very broad sense of what constitutes a photographic practice. Having said that, the students often begin the semester with a desire to see photographs with a capital P. The first images I showed were by Zanelle Muholi. I had taken a class to see her show at Autograph ABP last year in London. I was struck of course by her photographs, but also by her activism. An artist of color, an African artist who belongs to the LGBTQ community… there was much to discuss.. I wanted to show students that photography can do something. Their first assignment was a lyrical photography assignment, and although she didn’t really fit the profile of the assignment, I wanted her to be the very first experience of the semester. She had been identified as a keynote speaker for SPE and so was a perfect person to begin our thinking for the semester. I also used images by Rinko Kawauchi, Tema Stauffer and Justine Kurland in addition to William Eggleston, Roe Etheridge and Alec Soth. We followed this up with images from the Vision & Justice edition of Aperture in honor of MLK Jr day.

We also watched a video in which she described her practice and thinking in regard to her work. The students were struck by the astonishing aesthetic power of her work at this point in their experience they are very curious about how images are constructed, and they enthusiastically talked about the way she uses very quotidian materials to create overtly exoticised self portraits. We also talked about the way her work reaches out into the community. There was a lot to talk about.

This was my third semester using this strategy in my classes. It is a wonderful way for me to re-evaluate my own teaching and holds me accountable for broadening my array of references. I still question the efficacy of unpacking the whole #firstdayfirstimage philosophy for my students, but instead wonder about it being a reminder for me… it is a way to remind myself that I have to do better. How do I best serve my ever more diverse body of students. How can I bring meaningful work to them, given their vastly different experiences. I guess I want students to find seeing aspirational images by artist of color completely normal… BUT, opening up the goals of the project in class also provides an opportunity for dialog around representation and photography’s often disastrous history.

I have pledged to begin each semester this way for the remainder of my career… One of the most exciting aspects of the #firstdayfirstimage project is that it brings together a community of educators in a simple gesture of shared resources. Seeing the work posted by others was inspiring and educational! I loved seeing who was showing what work.

Jason Lazarus (University of South Florida)

One good issue not yet resolved for me in the #firstdayfirstimage campaign is: do we discuss the campaign with students or do we just do the campaign and not further ‘bracket’ the artists included?

With my two classes I tried it both ways: for beginning photography I did not mention the campaign and just highlighted our firstdayfirstimage that I put on the syllabus (Deana Lawson); for a more advanced, special topics class I did mention the campaign alongside the firstdayfirstimage (Jimmy Robert)

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In the more advanced class, I discussed the campaign and explained that broad image culture/the art market are systemically biased against many artists and this is something to begin paying attention to in their classes, feeds, advertising, and exhibitions they attend. I think in the beginning class i wanted to operate out of pure enthusiasm and love for the artist image on day one. With the beginning photography class I can mention the campaign later in the term when we start to talk more about politics, power, agenda, and context — perhaps this preserves the love at the beginning and grows in complexity later in the term…

On another note, the growing archive created on instagram (and a bit on FB too) is so exciting! Having around 170 posts on instagram really becomes a pedagogical resource and the fact that each post represents a real-life action by an artist-educator to many students each is a thrill — makes me wonder how many students had been touched by the project?

Angela Inez Baldus (University of Illinois):

On the first day of ART 140 this semester I showed Lorna Simpson’s work Momentum (2011), and after showing the piece I made a point to explain the canon and the #firstdayfirstimage project. On this day, I also made a promise to my classes to continue with this mission throughout the semester. We are in week five of the semester and so far I have noticed many positive responses from students in my classes. Most of my students take the class as a general education requirement and their main interests lie outside of the humanities. Some of my students have not taken an art class for five or six years and their exposure to contemporary art is either limited or nonexistent.

I find it difficult to fully reflect on the practical implications of #firstdayfirstimage on the class at this point in the semester, yet thus far it seems as though students are more engaged in their processes of making, careful about the associations and stories they are telling, and overall critically and creatively thinking. I am not confident in crediting these observations completely to the act of engaging in the #firstdayfirstimage campaign (as I believe that the pedagogical approach is also at play here), however I believe that the impact is noted and noting this is impact is important. I find the accessibility and sustainability of the campaign to be hopeful and impactful — so in answer to the final question, yes, of course, I will be doing this again.

Christopher Meerdo (School of the Art Institute of Chicago):

I participated and was one of the original incubator artists who helped develop Jason’s concept. I teach at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and showed work to my intro to photography class. I decided not to frame the work under the hashtag because I show similar work often without defining it as such. Overall, I think it was a great exercise to look at work on a day that might only be used as a syllabus hand-out day. I showed the work of Gordon Parks starting with this image:

My students were very interested in hearing about the work and life of Parks and we had a good discussion about how things don’t feel like they’ve changed all that much relative to the concerns that Parks bring up in his work. I think in this political climate its important to remember artists and activists who were working towards goals of social justice that reflect concerns we have today. This project allowed us collectively, as educators, to check in with the reasons we are here in the first place — to educate our students so they can feel empowered to make the changes they want to see in the world.

I honestly cant remember any of the specifics of what students said — they were very surprised by the list of notable accomplishments by Park. I got the impression they were inspired to see someone who, at the surface, appears to just be a documentary photographer, but has in fact worked very successfully in many many areas including being a writer, filmmaker, and entrepreneur.

Jen Delos Reyes (University of Illinois at Chicago):

For my first day, first image I shared Felix Gonzalez Torres and the image of Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) 1991.

We had a discussion on what makes the piece a portrait, and how it challenges those assumptions, and how audiences interest in museums. Many of the students in the class have experienced the piece first hand, so I had them share their experiences and impressions. Beyond talking about the specific piece, we talked about representation, the canon, inclusion and exclusion, and how to think critically about what they are being taught in art school.

I am always asking students to be critical of their education and the art world and participating in #firstdayfirstimage is a great way to start the class and always make sure this thinking around inclusion and the canon is at the fore.

Allison Yasukawa (Cal Arts):

I did not explicitly discuss the project with my students.

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I used this image in a class for first-year undergraduate international students who are non-native English speakers to begin a conversation about their right to engage with, respond to, and actively question the contemporary American socio-political landscape. We discussed how the United State’s ubiquitous presence in the world means that its discursive construction is created by Americans and non-Americans alike and read and excerpt from Jaap Kooijman’s Fabricating the Absolute Fake: America in Contemporary Pop Culture.

Adam Farcus (Sam Houston State University):

One note on my answers: two of my classes are collaboratively taught, with different professors, and while both of them are super down for this initiative I spear-headed and presented the #firstdayfirstimage works.

We have not introduced the #firstdayfirstimage project to the students, instead we have folded the goals of the project into how we began our classes and have continued throughout the semester to diversify the contemporary artists we show and de-colonize the history of art.

I used the following images for the following classes:

Space & Space (two linked courses, first-year experience, taught in collaboration with Valerie Powell)

WASH Lecture ( first-year experience, taught in collaboration with Jessica Simorte)

Website Development :: David Kyu — Me & You, Keanu (video documentation of performance) 2010

The discussions in all 3 of the WASH courses (*WASH is the Workshop in Art Studio and History program, at Sam Houston State University) was engaging for the students. In particular we spent a lot of time talking about Lalla Essaydi’s piece because we begin the WASH Lecture course by talking about remixing and appropriation. We looked at Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ La Grande Odalisque and continued our discussion. It was a good introduction into not only how contemporary artists practice but also began a conversation about diversity, oppression, and privilege that we continued later in the semester.

My experience with #firstdayfirstimage was overwhelmingly positive: the students wanted to talk about the artworks for longer than we had time for.

In terms of what I might do differently in the future: my website development class is online, so direct engagement is hard. I used David Kyu’s piece as a metaphorical introduction to HTML coding and as a way to begin a discussion about basing your work on what has come before you. I would like to use this piece, or another one in its place, in a way that can generate a discussion.

I plan to do this again, yes! Every semester. I advocate for my colleagues to do it also.

Bahareh Khoshooee (Montclair State University; Hudson County Community College):

For all four of my classes, after reviewing the syllabus I told my students that now we are about to look at some inspiring artists and discuss about their work one by one. I did not introduce the project at all. I always have started my class with this agenda even before we started this project (as I know a lot of other educators do) and there has always been a genuine excitement and love for the work I chose to show, so I don’t see a reason to break the magic and to degrade the piece to a “theatrical gesture”.

This semester I showed the following images to the following classes:

Meriem Bennani’s interview with Art21 to my morning Digital Literacy class:

Shana Moulton’s Whispering Pines to my afternoon Digital Literacy class.

Jacolby Satterwhite’s interview with Art21 to my Computer Arts class.

Reactions definitely differed in each class based on what I showed them. I think interviews worked actually better than the actual artworks I showed. These students are all very young and new to art and it seems to be helpful for them to watch the artist talk about their art. They seem to be way more open to understanding that artist’s work when they see where the artist is coming from and what the content and techniques are. We discussed about race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and anxiety and how all of these topics could be interrelated and intersectional.

In terms of what I would do differently, I’ve already mentioned that I think I would stick to interviews that accompany clips of the artist’s work and follow that up with one work of art by that artist. I believe this way their attention and level of understanding is steered towards the right path and that itself opens a door through which they feel confident to analyze the artwork.

#firstdayfirstimage exists in multiple forms in multiple places. A website explicating the project and its goals is here. It also has a Facebook page, and you can explore all of the images and their caption information on Instagram using the #firstdayfirstimage hashtag.

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The above essay has been brought to you by the Society for Photographic Education, as an article published within Exposure, its flagship publication. SPE is a nonprofit membership-based organization that seeks to promote a broader understanding of the medium in all of its forms through teaching and learning, scholarship, conversation and criticism. SPE has Affiliated Chapters with events and conferences in every part of the continental US, with Chapters developing internationally, and has been instrumental in fostering community and career growth among photographers, lens-based artists, educators, students, and the broader community of image makers.

Interested in submitting to Exposure? Read our submission guidelines here.

Find out more about SPE here, or learn about the many benefits of membership here. Join with other thought leaders in the field and add your voice to the direction of the organization. Find out more about the 2019 Annual Conference “The Myths of Photography and the American Dream,” to be held in Cleveland, Ohio.

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