Wendy Ewald was born into a large family in Detroit, Michigan, in 1951. She studied photography at Massachusetts Institute of Technology under the photographer Minor White and graduated from Antioch College in 1974. Ewald's work has earned her numerous prizes and fellowships, including Fulbright and MacArthur fellowships.
Ewald creates photographs through subtle collaborations with children. Giving children cameras while also photographing them demands that Ewald acquire the visual vocabulary the children themselves use in this process of self-representation. This complex work confronts the lopsided relationship introduced as the subject is framed and contextually defined by the camera's gaze. While imparting to the photographer the spectacular power to extract from the world a controlled visual story, the camera also inserts an almost incontrovertible, hierarchical distance between subject and photographer. Ewald, recognizing the limited dialogue available to an artist within traditional photography, first began photographing alongside children on a First Nations reservation in Canada in 1969. Viewing the photographs the children made against her own, she saw the differences between the children's perceptions of their community and her own view as an outsider.
Ewald sought new processes to make images that would be drawn out of a shared interaction between herself and the children. The resulting collaborative approach resists placing a frame around another's world; instead she engages with the children, allowing their vision to shift her own sense of seeing and guide the artistic process. Though the photographs possess their own narrative power, which is similar to the work of other documentary photographers like Dorothea Lange and W. Eugene Smith, it is the creative process rather than the artifact that Ewald emphasizes. The intricate negotiations among her child collaborators, herself, and the worlds they are seeing challenge notions of photographic objectivity and sole authorship. The subsequent layered images operate from a documentary vantage point established by Walker Evans in the 1930s, which contests the privileged narrative of photographs composed by an outsider. Ewald's collaborative photography is also strongly connected to conceptual art like that of Alfredo Jaar, which requires not only observation but reflection on the logic of ideas present throughout his politically confrontational work.
Ewald worked with students in the Appalachian Mountains of eastern Kentucky from 1975 to 1982. Four central themes emerged from this work: self, family, community, and dreams. Giving the children simple point-and-shoot cameras, she asked them to make photographs. Together they developed and printed the film in school darkrooms, demystifying the photographic process and offering the children complete ownership of their image, from conceptualization to production of the final print. The children then wrote from these photographs, sharing their stories and elaborating their images into powerful narratives, rich with the embedded detail of their lives. This established the framework for Ewald's later projects in such places as India, apartheid-era South Africa, Colombia, Saudi Arabia, and Durham, North Carolina.
Ewald's work with children disrupts the notion that only adults can use artistic tools for personal expression or documentary intent. By revealing children's interior worlds, Ewald's approach complicates and questions the view of children usually attributed to adult society. These conventional conceptions perpetuate a homogenous portrayal of children's experiences that is ruptured as the children with Ewald both interrogate and construct the world using the extraordinarily populist medium of photography.
See also: ; Photographs of Children.
Ewald, Wendy. 2000. Secret Games: Collaborative Works with Children, 1969–1999. Zurich: Scalo.
Ewald, Wendy, and Alexandra Lightfoot. 2001. I Wanna Take Me a Picture: Teaching Photography and Writing to Children. Boston: Beacon Press.
DWAYNE EMIL DIXON