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A Photography Workshop Teaches How Images Can Spur Social Change

A Photography Workshop Teaches How Images Can Spur Social Change

Jan Mercker

Charlotte nonprofit plans ‘Seeing Voices: Community (Un) Heard’ photography workshop

Images are changing the world. We see it daily in our newsfeeds. At The Light Factory photography center in Charlotte, NC, it’s not just about what stories are being told but who’s telling them. 

The gallery’s community engagement director Dustin Shores and executive director Kay Tuttle want to use photography to bring voices from around Charlotte to the table — especially from the city’s communities of color. And with the effects of COVID-19 and protests around the nation shaking up the summer, the project is more meaningful than ever.

Photography workshop: Seeing Voices

Shores and Tuttle have organized “Seeing Voices: Community (Un) Heard,” a three-part online workshop starting Saturday, June 20. Four talented Charlotte-based artists of color will be leading the class, designed to help diverse community members use the written word and photos to find new ways to speak out.

“Something that was really important in the development of this project was thinking about how important text and image is in our society,” Shores said. “If you think about all the text images that we’re seeing right now given our current events…memes shared on social media, signs, mailers. All of those things are changing our society.” 

The workshop will focus on using the camera with impact, adding text to amplify images and synthesizing work to distribute and share — in print or online. And while the online workshop times out well with ongoing Black Lives Matter protests, it started out with a completely different bent.

More relevant than ever

The initial plan for the workshop involved engaging diverse communities in response to the Republican National Convention, that was slated for Charlotte this summer. The Light Factory staff envisioned an in-person workshop, where participants made self-published booklets to distribute around the city during the convention.

Since then, everything has changed. COVID hit. Republican leaders have moved the convention to Jacksonville, Florida. And the “Seeing Voices” workshop went online. But with protests following the death of George Floyd in Charlotte and around the country, organizers say the photography workshop couldn’t be more timely.

“Everything we started out knowing and thinking about this project has totally changed,” Tuttle said. “I think the workshop is actually even more relevant now that everything has changed than it was before that.”

Photographer Hector Vaca and text artist Renee Cloud have collaborated on a series of images reflecting on Charlotte during COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter protests. Both artists are instructors for The Light Factory’s upcoming “Seeing Voices: Community (Un) Heard” online workshop.

Shores’ role at the Light Factory includes building relationships with local artists. He used those relationships to find the right instructors to help neighbors capture and express their own realities. Instructors for the workshop include text and mixed media artist Renee Cloud, poet, theologian and visual artist de’Angelo Dia, community organizer and street photographer Hector Vaca and self-taught multimedia artist Julio Gonzalez.

The Light Factory is organizing the “Seeing Voices” workshop in cooperation with Charlotte’s School of Good Citizenship organized by artists Nora Ligorano and Marshall Reese. That project includes a series of virtual and in-person events this summer and fall focusing on voter rights, immigration and social justice.

A history of social engagement

The Light Factory has a nearly 50-year history of social engagement in Charlotte. The nonprofit gallery and educational center opened in 1973. It changed locations numerous times before finding its current home in 2014. The gallery is housed in a former school building in a diverse East Charlotte neighborhood and shares space with a range of cultural and community organizations.

As it has for most arts and culture organizations, 2020 has brought big changes for the Light Factory. Once the COVID pandemic closed its doors in March, the gallery launched a Perspective in Place program which focused on sharing images and creating connections during quarantine. 

“That was a way to build some online community. Since COVID, we’ve actually come together closer as a staff. We’ve involved a lot more young people with diverse backgrounds, which has been pretty wonderful,” Tuttle said.

The pandemic has dramatically changed how The Light Factory operates and reaches out. With in-person shows canceled, staff has been ramping up online activity. In the pre-COVID world, the gallery used its social media for announcements and to publicize upcoming in-person events. Now, it’s a forum for showing work and providing a platform for artists.

“We have totally changed the way we use social [media],” Tuttle added. “We’re trying to use it to build community,” Tuttle said.

The gallery now uses Instagram as a way to showcase local artists. They’re planning a takeover by photographer Maleek Loyd, who has been documenting Black Lives Matter protests in Charlotte.

Clockwise from top left: Charlotte artists Renee Cloud, de’Angelo Dia, Julio Gonzalez and Hector Vaca will lead the “Seeing Voices” workshop at The Light Factory starting June 20.

The power of image

Shores, who is a photographer and teacher, has been building relationships with local artists since joining the gallery. Part of his focus is on providing space for diverse voices in the city.

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“How do you create a platform that amplifies those voices in our community,” Shores said. “How do you do better, how do you continue to ask those questions and do better?”

As of last week, more than 30 people had signed up for the free workshop. Most participants are from Charlotte, but the online format allows anyone from around the country to join. Only a smartphone or camera are required. The Light Factory will also record the program for community members who want to tune in later.

For Shores and Tuttle, the photography workshop is one way to highlight the power of image in shaping current events. It’s also a way to make sure diverse perspectives are represented among those images.

“When you see an image, sometimes it elicits a visceral response. And if you add words to it, it’s probably even more powerful,” Tuttle said. “I don’t know that things would have happened the way they’re happening now without image. That’s what started, hopefully, a change in our society. I think the images staying in our face is really important right now to make a positive change and keep the momentum going.”


Enroll in the “Seeing Voices: Community (Un) Heard” photography workshop at lightfactory.org. Follow The Light Factory on Instagram or Facebook.


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