Art & Social Change—
A Hypothetical Interview
By Skip Schiel
April 23, 2003, revised April 3, 2005
© All text copyright Skip Schiel, 2005 and earlier
With gratitude to students at Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina who invited me to participate in their Art & Social Change conference, 2003
1. How is your art about social change?
I don’t make photos purely to make change; indeed, I try not to think along this line, that what I make and do will change anything. I might harbor hopes, I might have dreams, but I can’t say I usually, if ever, consciously plan to stir social change thru my photos. I remain mindful of Thomas Merton’s plea that artists should not strive to be useful. Their role is elsewhere—play, experimentation, delight, beauty, maybe social critic.
I offer my photos to others who are the change makers. This could be the Savannah Dept of Community Services in their campaign to honor neighborhood leaders, or the Selma National Voting Rights Institute celebrating another bridge crossing, or the social agency in the township of Evaton in South Africa succoring the elderly, or the Quaker Peace Center in Cape Town, South Africa with their multifarious programs in service and change. Or it could be the local Eviction Free Zone in their various campaigns, or Peacework, the journal of the New England region American Friends Service Committee, and its readers who are often on the front lines of transformation.
But equally important are the mysteries. I think of the woman gazing at my American Indian photos in the Chicago Cultural Center in 1992. Who was she, how might she have changed after viewing my photos, what was her work? Or the readers of the South African Development Fund’s annual report viewing my photos from Alexandra. Would they be moved to contribute money to the Fund which then might be funneled to social change organizations in South Africa?
So, in myriad ways, some of my photos might contribute to social change. I am cognizant of that. But my measure is not the change, it is the quality of the photo. Rightly or wrongly, I pursue excellence in photography—beauty and emotional content—rather than political and social effect.
2. How do you support yourself in this endeavor?
Thru various funding sources—grants, fees, teaching—also subsidies for housing, food, and medical services. Plus—the community aspect. How what I do is deeply embedded in Quaker practice and community. This is the real secret.
3. What difference does political view and insight have for your work?
That is, how important is grounding myself in the issues?
Vitally important. I read, interview, meditate, muse, struggle, before, during and after any foray into a photo project. Preparing for the Auschwitz to Hiroshima pilgrimage in 1995 I read about the Balkans, Hiroshima, the death camps, Cambodia, Vietnam, and WW2 history. Some reading before, but much after. With the Middle Passage Pilgrimage, similarly, I read about slavery, the civil rights movement, key figures, the South, racism, South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and other topics germane to slavery and racism. And now, preparing for a trip to Palestine and Israel, I read A History of God by Karen Armstrong, the writings of Edward Said, various books recommended by Hugh Barbour, the many articles sent me, while attending events about the area and issues, and meeting people who’ve been there.
Even if the preparation doesn’t show directly in the photos, I believe it underlies the appearance and undergirds the photographer.
4. What is your center, your anchor?
A combination of American Indian practice (naming and honoring the powerful forces Wakan Tanka and Tunkashila and Creator), thanking, meditating, Buddhist practice (with its emphasis on the bodhisattva and its non-deism), Quaker practice (the silence, committee work, and clearness groups especially), and remnants of my Catholic upbringing (ceremony, endowed figures like priests, the social witness arm of Catholicism in the Catholic Worker movement, etc). Which in real life means I begin each day with yoga and meditation, walk in the spirit of the sacred, read inspirational and devotional and challenging literature, plunge deeply into my 3 core communities (Friends Meeting at Cambridge, Nipponzan Myohoji, a Japanese Buddhist group that builds peace pagodas and conducts walk and pilgrimages, and Agape, a lay Catholic non violence center), and struggle constantly with the notion of god.
At the core of my center is silence, sacred silence. This is fertile ground for the inner voice to manifest, that still small voice inside that might be conscience, higher power, pulse of the universe, or god itself speaking. I go to and come from silence, building it into my day, resisting to the best of my ability the impulse given by this mad and reckless society to abandon silence and join the maddening yelling crowd, thereby swamping my center.
5. And what is your path?
Look at my photos, look at my life, and you will see it is an unending and faltering attempt to walk the talk. The talk of freedom, justice, community, peace, environmental integrity, and the sacred. The walk of the walk itself—walking, pilgrimage, my photo series from various walking pilgrimages, my relations with peers and family, my teaching.
6. What would you do if you realized your photography had grown ineffective (in the sense of inspiring social change)?
First, how would I know this? What is the measure of effect? Aren’t we called to be faithful, beyond successful? Faithful to the call, rather than effective in implementing it.
Let’s assume I am ineffective as a photographer, measured by lack of effect on the society and lack of attention from audience, critics, and funders. What would I do?
If money dried up, I’d probably have to retool, as I did when that happened 20 years ago with my filmmaking. If the sustaining and confidence-building flow of equipment, supplies, grants, gifts, and subsidies disappeared, by definition, by popular demand, I’d have to find alternatives. But if I could continue making photos, even without an audience, I do believe I would.
7. Do you regard yourself as a success?
I regard myself as a work in progress, a stumbling bumbling neophyte, insistent and not always as gifted as I’d wish.
In the words of Thurgood Marshall, “I do my best with what I have and who I am.”
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