Photography Used for Social Change

By Viola Brown

Vanessa Morales ''15 takes in the Iris Parker exhibition. Graham Key/Index

Photographs of children in a South African town, an elderly woman in a bathtub, and the late great Nelson Mandela and his family are just some of the photographs taken by Iris Dawn Parker, an American photographer, (based in South Africa) and an Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership Visiting Fellow.

On Jan. 29, 2014 the Arcus Center hosted a leadership dinner in the Banquet Hall of Hicks called “Africans and Photography: We Wish to Tell Our Own Stories NOW,” in which a Q&A was conducted by Dr. Lisa Brock, the Academic Director of the Arcus Center.

During the dinner, Parker had slides of her work to share with the audience, as well as personal stories behind each photograph.

“I think anyone in any practice, no matter if its photography or the sciences, or if you are a filmmaker or a writer, you have to know about your subject, you have to have a strong foundation in the medium you are working in,” said Parker on the relationship she has developed between her and her subjects.

As explained by Dr. Brock, the photos have “dignity and express Africans in a loving way, which isn’t usually what is seen.”

Parker explains that the amount of trust she has her subjects, so they don’t feel exploited, is an important aspect of her work. She explains that the reason why her photos have that sense of dignity is because she wanted to make sure that there were meaningful and truthful images of Africans and people of the African Diaspora on record.

Parker, who will be turning 50 this year, is the youngest of 11 children from a small town in North Carolina. She said that she believes her path has been set up for her since birth since she was giving the name “Iris,” a part of the eyeball that is very useful in photography.

Before her pictures were shown on the slides, a quote said by writer Alan Alda was displayed: “The creative is the place where no one else has ever been. You have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition. What you’ll discover will be wonderful. What you’ll discover will be yourself.”

Parker explained that this quote is very useful to her in her work and the amount of risk and chances she has had to take.

During the dinner, Parker spoke about her experience in South Africa. She first went there in 1998 on a fellowship, teaching the area’s youth about photography. For many of the children it was their first time out of their home-townships and holding a camera. This is due to their Bantu education, which only prepared them for household work. She has been living there since 2009, and has gone back to teach at the Market Photo Workshop, which has expanded since her absence.

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