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Scripps Magazine: Critical Action


Rachel Warecki


Ken Gonzales-Day, Fletcher Jones Chair in Art and professor of art, is an interdisciplinary artist whose work considers the history of photography, the construction of race, and the limits of representational systems. He received a John S. Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship in 2017 and has exhibited work at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, the Getty Museum, the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, elsewhere. His work on the history of lynching in California has been profiled in the Los Angeles Times. In addition to teaching photography courses, Gonzales-Day is also a faculty member in the Core Program in Interdisciplinary Humanities.

Marketing and Communication: Much of your work focuses on recognizing and recentering underrepresented stories and histories through photography, and your recent high-profile interviews and exhibitions have raised public awareness of these stories beyond the art world. How do you hope to shift the worldviews of audiences who experience your work? What actions do you hope they’ll take as part of their new understanding?

Ken Gonzales-Day: I’m trying to help audiences think about how art can help solve the cultural dilemmas of our times, and how artists can reflect on our own historical moment. I hope my work will help people reexamine some of their assumptions around race, racial formation, and notions of difference, which are often articulated in both negative and positive ways. Negatively expressed through stereotypes and racial profiling. Positively expressed when it leads to greater diversity, equity and inclusion.

MC: You teach a Core III course called “The Mechanical Eye,” which focuses on the nuances of photographers’ roles in documenting society. Last year, Core III students learned how to think critically about the relationship between photographers and their subjects, and the narrative that photos tell as a result of this dynamic. How have your students applied this critical thinking?

KGD: We have such a remarkable collection of photography at Scripps and The Claremont Colleges—very few programs allow undergraduate access to these kinds of materials—and a central component of the Core III course is that the students learn how to access those collections and curate an exhibition to share with the full Scripps community, using the Clark Humanities Museum as a teaching and learning experience. Last year’s class examined ideas of photographic truth, and this year’s students are thinking about the questions that exhibition raised and adding their own questions to that ongoing dialogue. And it’s a dialogue that really goes beyond the actual course, because these exhibitions are shared with community members, some of whom will later take the class themselves and contribute their own questions in turn. It’s a process that’s essential to the Core program and to the overall academic experience at Scripps.

MC: With the rise of smartphones, photo-editing apps, and social media, arguably more people have access to photography than ever before. Many are using these platforms to raise awareness about issues related to race, class, queerness, disability, and more. How are you teaching your students to think critically about social media’s role in their photographic lives?

KGD: Back when I was teaching darkroom photography, there was a time when students would come into my course without ever having taken a photo before. Now, of course, every student who arrives at Scripps is already a photographer, engaging in various methods of online self-representation. I try to teach them to think critically about how their media stream is influencing others, either intentionally or unintentionally, and what messages they’re sending around issues such as body image, solidarity, or friendship. These messages could be empowering or oppressive, they could trigger or alter behavior, or they could change the way someone understands their concept of self. There’s a responsibility inherently linked to our own self-expression.

I also ask students to think about why they post what they post: Are they looking for an acceptance represented by clicks or likes, or are they looking to start a dialogue and raise more complicated questions? I try to get students to take ownership of and responsibility for the images they produce, to think critically about which images society does and does not value, and to see their images as part of a cultural production that will either liberate or oppress others. Ultimately, I hope they learn how photographers can use their work to move people toward a shared idea, to build community, to change photographic and societal practices, and to think about culture and community as an aspect of selfhood.

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