What is the global Inside Out movement?
Dona Geagea: Inside Out was initiated by a French street artist named JR, who won a TedX prize for an innovative idea that can “change the world.” His idea consisted of engaging communities through photography—a global art project that would transform messages of personal identity into works of art. He went on to test it himself. He photographed local community members across various geographies around the world (i.e. slums in Nairobi, Palestinian/Israeli wall, slums in Brazil etc.). He captured black and white portraits of those who represent the everyday life of the community in their element, but chose to represent them in atypical ways that embodied dignity (funny faces, large smiles, laughter as some examples). The photos were then enlarged and posted in those very communities. They were large enough to become focal points in public environments, mostly in spaces where they make strong political statements.
What is the movement’s goal regarding social justice or awareness?
Dona: Upon winning the TedX prize, JR opened up the project for locally initiated action groups to execute it themselves with support for printing posters. The project quickly turned into a movement as it grew to be executed in many countries around the world, and adopted for diverse issues (i.e. in Tunisia during the popular uprising, in the U.S. in Aboriginal communities). A common thread in all communities who adopted the project has interestingly been to address a matter of social or political injustice. Primarily the idea is to bring to focus the “forgotten” or marginalized who make the heart and life of a community—hence turning the world inside out—but it was also open to creativity, and to artists who chose to put their own twist on it.
What made you want to contribute?
Dona: A couple of us were deep in conversation one day, as we gathered in the Globalization Studies office for our daily dose of “sanity” talks, and realized we had come across the video with JR’s presentation, and were very intrigued and inspired. We called for a group meeting that resulted in eight of our colleagues joining our initiative. We all agreed that it was something we could do given the applicability of the concept to downtown Hamilton.
The initial purpose was to shed light on Hamilton’s condition as a historically industrial city that has many scars: abandoned homes, abandoned businesses and low socio-economic status neighbourhoods, all of which are contrasted by affluent neighbourhoods within the same vicinity. As we set up regular meetings and delved deeper into dialogue with our ideas, there was a shift to focus on the social injustice aspect, a result of the processes of gentrification that swept issues of poverty and homelessness under the rug.
How did the project relate to your globalization studies at McMaster?
Dona: We felt this related to our studies as we were a) Participating in a global movement that involves— via art and media—bringing social injustices to light, and b) These social injustices are caused by neoliberal globalism—the global economic tendencies of our current era that continue to focus on market-based economic solutions at the expense of limiting opportunity and support to those who cannot compete in the market. The Inside Out Hamilton Action Group emerged with the purpose of bringing a global movement to local Hamilton that would give representation to the often marginalized individuals who make up the life of the city—and to connect them to others around the world who were suffering from similar or different issues.
We applied for funding to cover some of the project expenses and are very grateful to the IGHC for believing in our idea and supporting us financially, as well as OPIRG (Ontario Public Interest Research Group) who donated a sum to assist us in our project logistics. Our team also generously volunteered their time, skills and efforts for several months.
Can you describe the process of taking the photos? Who did you want to photograph and how did you convince them to participate in the project?
Dona: The process of photographing took a period of three weeks and several attempts. We created action teams of 3-4 team members who would take to the streets during the day and intercept community members in their element—on park benches, riding their bicycles, waiting for buses, panhandling, playing, etc.
The reason we intercepted them midday is because typically, those who have day jobs will not be anywhere to be seen, yet those who were around, we realized, would be individuals with no jobs, part-time jobs or irregular jobs. We focused our efforts on representing the diversity of the community while giving participants the freedom to express themselves as they felt comfortable. We wanted to capture their image in dignity.
We faced a lot of resistance initially and decided the best way to get people to warm up to the idea of having their picture enlarged and posted on building walls is by providing an incentive—a foot in the door. We invested in Tim Hortons gift cards that worked like magic! We were able to take photographs of 35 community members, from which 20 made the cut to be posted.
Were there any tense or awkward moments? Did you have any concerns about a line between creating awareness and exploiting people?
Sara Loureiro: Our team had many discussions about how to manage this project before we even began to take pictures. We all wanted to empower the people we spoke to and documented but we didn't know how to go about selecting them. In the end, things worked out. We decided to ask people on the streets if we could take their pictures rather than singling them out from organizations that they may have been a part of. That way, we didn't associate ourselves with any other community services—we just simply took pictures of a diverse number of residents and glorified the city walls with their presence.
How did you choose locations for posting the photos?
Sara: We decided to post the photographs in the same area that we took the pictures. That way, the citizens in the images could more accurately correspond to the city walls that carried them. We wanted to post our photographs in highly visible areas. If we wanted to post our images on the sidewalls of businesses, we would ask the owners’ for permission. For most other images we just posted them onto the walls. We took advantage of preexisting grooves, colours and surfaces on the walls that blended well artistically with our photographs. Most businesses were happy to cooperate with us. We respected any business owner who did not wish to partake in our project.
What material did you use?
Dona: We used homemade biodegradable glue—made from flour, sugar and hot water. It was a great selling point when trying to convince shop owners that the posters would not damage their property and in fact would dissolve after a few rainfalls.
How did passersby react as you were posting them?
Dona: Passerby would stop and watch. Many asked questions about who these people are and what we were doing. Others intervened to inform us that we were not allowed to poster on privately owned buildings, and after politely conversing with them to explain our project, we would ask them to take us to the owner so we could get permission.
Did you come across any of the photos’ subjects while posting their images, and if so how did they react?
Dona: One of our participants was a marginalized member of the community who would always stay at the same spot during the day. We made it a point to visit him and show him his enlarged photo. He was shocked and incredibly grateful for it. We asked him where he’d like to have it posted and he indicated anywhere in the area was fine. We chose the public tourism information centre—not surprisingly, the poster did not last there for very long.
What was your project’s goal? Do you feel you accomplished it?
Dona: The goal of this project was to bring a global movement (Inside Out) to Hamilton. Its purpose was to start the conversation around local social issues by using black & white portrait photography to tell untold stories of local community members.
Hamilton is a large city increasingly suffering from stark divisions between an affluent area and a less privileged socio‐economic community. Many suffer from the ramifications of poverty and hunger as a result of their regressing conditions. Our project engaged in a non‐profit activity with the Hamilton underprivileged socioeconomic community that has been marginalized with increasing gentrification and continues to suffer from poverty and from indifference. While our goal was to shed light on these issues, not all of our participants were homeless or impoverished. We asked many people from all walks of life to partake in the project since they were the face of the area. We connected with local NGOs and created relationships with local participants. Our project was primarily aimed at empowering participants as they would be “starting the conversation” by telling their own story and by choosing how to express themselves. Our secondary goal was to encourage those who encounter the project to engage in the conversation, to break the indifference and to become more aware of pressing issues by taking a more active role in their community.
We would have liked to run this project for longer, to have had more funding to invest in more photos and to occupy a local space that would get far more coverage. We do feel we accomplished our goal in starting the conversation with our participants and those who encountered the posters—some posters in our follow-up phase were taken down, others were covered with interesting graffiti, which we welcomed as a form of engagement with the project, and some are still standing to this day.
What did you learn about Hamilton in the process?
Sara: McMaster students generally do not venture out into Hamilton's downtown and we wanted to learn more about the city that we were studying in. The area around McMaster generally represents a very small portion of such a diverse city, so we wanted to explore a different neighbourhood. We had a lot of discussions before we started this project about what neighbourhood we wanted to work in. Initially, we wanted to work in Hamilton's lower east side and obtained information on its demographics. Finally, though, we decided on Hamilton's downtown core. A few of us were living there at the time and were aware of the gentrification process occurring on James St. South. Hamilton is such a diverse city with so many boroughs and income disparities at every corner. The downtown core holds much historic significance and is bustling with new and old businesses with their own unique cultures. We learned so much about the people and the gentrification process of the city just by talking to local business owners, even before we started posting the photos. We had the opportunity to meet Hamiltonians and to see how their photographs interacted with the space that they lived in. After visiting the site months after our project date, we saw that many of our images were still visible, but weathered, slowly changing by their surroundings. We only hope that our photographs can do the project justice.
To learn more about the project and to see where else it has been taken up around the world, please visit: http://www.insideoutproject.net/
To watch the TedX video of JR’s presentation, please visit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0PAy1zBtTbw