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Photography With Heart

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Back when the old year was giving way to the new, Amanda Sapir, research coordinator for the Southwest Center for Economic Integrity, started showing up at local labor halls at 5 in the morning and asking the people gathered there to tackle a new kind of work.

"We asked if they were interested in photography, and in expressing themselves through art," says Sapir. "There was a lot of interest, but so many people are struggling, filling every slot of available time with work just to survive, that for most, there isn't a lot of time to make art."

But some--a waitress, a car-wash worker, day laborers and migrant workers--did find their way to Southwest Center for Economic Integrity administrator Kelly Griffith's photography classroom, and five weeks later, says Griffith, they've proved that "the soul of an artist is within each person. These are artists; the images they've created are art, and when you look at them, you'll feel it."

Unseenamerica is an exhibit of 20 photographs by Tucson workers and 50 photographs from the national touring exhibit of the same name, on display through March 10 at the UA Student Union Art Gallery (Mountain Avenue and Second Streets). The organizers of the national exhibit--who work with communities and universities around the country to get the works shown as well as develop local photography classes and exhibits--describe unseenamerica as "a national documentary photography exhibit of images taken by garment workers, day laborers, domestic violence survivors and formerly homeless men ... people whose lives go unseen and ignored in commercial media, public policy decisions and daily interactions."

In conjunction with the UA Faculty Senate Task Force for Monitoring Human Rights and Labor Issues, the Southwest Center for Economic Integrity approached UA President Peter Likins for project funding. The first session of the resulting five-week bilingual photography class, Griffith says, was a lesson not just for the students, but for the teachers as well.

"When we first started the class," Griffith says, "I really didn't know what to expect, but I'd made certain assumptions. I assumed that adult learners bring tremendous amounts of knowledge to whatever they do, but then I ... had to back up. For that first class, we ended up just focusing on how to get film in the camera, and we went through quite a few rolls with that. When you compare that over the course of time, where at the end people were looking at their photos and really looking at them, knowing exactly what shot they were looking for, this new confidence--it was an amazing sort of unfolding.

"I think that so often, art is only accessible to people of privilege, the middle and upper class," Griffith continues. "The working class, you don't see that. It's a luxury for you, and yet when you're given the tools and support and space, the artist inside comes shining through. The stories, the lives, the depth of perception, how they see the world ... they just need a mechanism to demonstrate how they see the world, and how they see it is really amazing. Their life and their work are very worthwhile."

Griffith goes on to tell some of the stories behind the photographs, from a world she describes as "life on the edge."

One photograph reminded the artist of his father; an image of a dark, cloudy sky lanced with telephone poles made the photographer wonder what the skies in Iraq looked like to the people who lived there; a roadrunner that showed up in one picture turned out to be one of two befriended by day laborers who live in a camp outside of Tucson.

"The theme I saw emerging from the photographs over and over again was one of relationships," says Griffith. "So much of what they were trying to do was capture relationships. And relationships teach so much about humanity; they are our humanity. A point of reference--that was clearly what was emerging through all of this.

"During one class period," Griffith added, "we talked about the difference between a camera and a human eye. The biggest (difference) was that a camera doesn't have a heart, so how does one take a picture and convey what the heart is feeling? They were really able to do it. Some of the pictures you'll see, there's just so much love for whatever it was they took a picture of."

For information about the Southwest Center for Economic Integrity, call 882-2165. For gallery hours, directions or additional exhibit information, call the UA Student Union Art Gallery at 621-6142.

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