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Xaviera Simmons: Documentary Photography and Self-Imagining

June 18, 2020

“Photography is performative even when it’s documentary.”

Xaviera Simmons: Documentary Photography and Self-Imagining

How do we see our individual selves, when given the chance to deliberate on it? When everyday actions feel loaded and simple gestures have taken on new meaning; when, perhaps acutely aware of our living spaces, possessions, and conditions, the outside world seems out of reach; when hegemonic, oppressive, and historical narratives are called out, once again, for dismantling — circumstances that seem extraordinary and yet? Close-looking and careful consideration can become powerful, generative, radical modes of engagement and self-creation.

For When You’re Looking at Me, You’re Looking at Country (2011–12), Xaviera Simmons set up an open-air portrait studio for community members of the Fulton and Elliot Houses, New York City Housing Authority facilities that provide government-subsidized housing, in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. Participants were asked to bring personal artifacts (family photographs, meaningful items of clothing, personal ephemera, etc.), and Simmons worked with each sitter to create photographic narratives based on their memories, supplemented by these items, before photographing her subjects. Once printed, the final images were gifted to each participant. It was important for Simmons to work with a large-format camera and analog film to create traditional studio portraits that could become cherished objects themselves and might function at a slower pace than the digital culture proliferating at the time. Another aim of the project was to ensure that these individual histories were shared, remembered, and honored — not lost through assimilation and cultural translation. Simmons reflects on the process below, in an interview conducted in the fall of 2017, excerpted from More Art in the Public Eye.

Photography is performative even when it’s documentary. Setting up an outdoor studio to invite passersby to make an image with me is akin to producing a mini theatrical work in the open air. In some regards, we are all performing when the works are being produced. We may not feel like performers, but to passersby we are. I don’t hold to tight rules for art-making. I mean, I craft all of my works tightly, or at least try to, but really artworks and artmaking flow from one type of practice to the next. They are all linked and therefore basically one practice with many parts. I don’t see artmaking in any other way, most of the time.

I make these works almost always in lower-income areas and most often those areas are filled with African Americans and lower-income people from other ethnic groups. I make those works to give back to communities that I work around or are interested in being in dialogue with. I am fascinated by our notions of community, and with the Free Portrait series I love the idea that multiple members of a community can have images of themselves produced by one photographer. There is a kind of unity in that moment and in the photographic gesture and the fact of each image placed inside the sitters’ homes.

Bringing a meaningful object helps the sitter stay present in the process. If the object has real meaning then you are more often able to commit to the entire moment of making the image with me. I hope that people feel a deeper connection to the image as they not only have a record of the project and the moment, but also a record of themselves in relation to something that they hold dear. I think that it gives the image a bit more weight, mostly for the sitter.


What narrative would you build your portrait around? Join the conversation — follow More Art on Medium and Instagram as we share updates on current projects and revisit past work to better understand our present moment and what’s to come.

Excerpts are from More Art in the Public Eye, distributed by Duke University Press, now available in paperback and ebook formats; Micaela Martegani, Jeff Kasper, Emma Drew, editors.

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