Cross - Pollinations

Photography and Social Change in the Americas

A Retrospective by Deborah Barndt, Photographer/Educator

Since the mid-1970s, I (and my camera) have moved back and forth between Toronto and Latin America: Peru in the 70s, Nicaragua in the 80s, Mexico in the 90s. True to my name (Deborah means “bee” in Hebrew), I have sucked the nectar out of practices in one place and pollinated projects in another. Such an intercultural exchange is common in the lives of Torontonians, and of the people who manage and frequent Tinto Coffee House; our artistic and political practices are fusions resulting from our diasporic lives and collaborative work.

The journey reflected in these photographs is reflective of particular political moments and movements, and of revolutionary educational practices linked to them. Revolutionary not only in the substance of the stories told but also in how those who have historically been voiceless and invisible to us participate in the storytelling and art-making.

LIMA, PERU (1976)
Foto-Novelas for Migrants to the City

In the 1970s, Lima received daily thousands of Indigenous migrants from the countryside, as they were pushed off the land by the industrialization of agriculture, abandoning villages and finding work in urban markets.

They had to learn Spanish to survive in the city. Literacy classes used the pedagogy of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire turning conventional education on its head, transforming it into a collective process leading to social change. I helped produce photographic codes to represent situations of social injustice: how a squatter settlement, for example, had water delivered by truck, because they had no water.

In Peru I also discovered the popular foto-novelas that even illiterate people can follow.  We created photo-novels about the daily lives of the literacy students and community issues, returning their images and stories to them so they could learn to read and write, name and change their own worlds.

TORONTO (1977-84)
Photo-Posters for ESL Classes

The same pressures that pushed Peruvian Indigenous peasants off their land and into the city drew many Latin Americans to Toronto, to take on menial jobs – making other peoples’ clothes, cleaning other peoples’ washrooms.

They also had to learn a new language, this time English. We adapted Paulo Freire’s approach in the English in the Workplace Program, and created plays, songs, and photographs of the workers and their stories. We followed Oswaldo along Dundas Avenue as he cleaned the street car rails, and traced Gloria’s journey on buses and subways as she looked for work in a new country.

NICARAGUA (1981-84)
Photo-journalism for Popular Education

Ironically, the photo-story process I discovered in Peru and brought to Toronto caught the attention of a Nicaraguan Vice-Minister of Education visiting Toronto in 1981. He invited me to Nicaragua in the early years of the Sandinista Revolution, a time of great hope and transformation, epitomized by the National Literacy Crusade which sent 100,000 volunteer brigadistas to teach 400,000 peasants to read and write in five months.

Many new literates were migrants who had to move from harvest to harvest. I trained a team of popular photo-journalists to photograph and gather stories, creating a magazine, Caminemos, that migrant workers could carry with them, reading photo stories about their own lives.

TORONTO (1986-93)
Photo-stories for Social Movements

The late 1980s witnessed much social unrest in Canada, provoked in part by the emergence of neoliberal trade, an influx of refugees, and a growing awareness of threats to the environment and health. First Nations people continued their struggle for self-government and homeless people joined anti-poverty groups fighting for housing.

As part of The Moment Project at the Jesuit Centre for Social Justice, we produced photo-stories based on the ways these issues played out in the daily lives of those most affected. The Moment publication also offered a broader analysis (naming the moment), actions being taken (grabbing the moment), and potential uses by educators.

The photo-stories were co-productions with groups who told their stories, created storyboards, and acted in the dramas. Some community workers learned to be behind the camera, through our Photography for Social Change course.

Exhibit sites:

– Tinto Coffee House, Toronto, 2008

– Zig Zag Gallery, York University, Toronto, 2009

Promo flyer for travelling exhibit is attached – Cross Pollinations travelling exhibit flyer