- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 26, 2002

Passion pervades photographer Wendy Ewald's show at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. At the start of her 30-year career, Miss Ewald did what few other photographers have done: She gave her young subjects cameras to use.
Miss Ewald, 50, found children the world over to record what she calls "their fierce sense of place that is neither frightened or uninformed."
Home, whether a tar-paper shack in Colombia or a dilapidated house on an Indian reservation, turned out to be the most important thing everywhere she worked. "Home seems to give security," the photographer says, "and the loss of home can be devastating."
When Miss Ewald was an Antioch College student, she did volunteer work on a Canadian Indian reservation. The Polaroid Foundation had begun giving out cameras and film to teachers of what were considered underprivileged children.
She recalls that she and Merton, 14, went to photograph a reservation graveyard. She set up carefully composed shots while he photographed from below, opening up his lens to the tombstones. Miss Ewald says that his images were more frightening than hers and that he captured the feeling of the place.
The photographer characterizes this as a turning point for her because the boy's photos pictured reservation life more expressively than her images did. From then on, she began to work collaboratively with young people, enabling them to portray their lives through the camera or by writing on her film negatives. Hence the exhibit's title, "Secret Games: Wendy Ewald, Collaborative Works With Children, 1969-1999," a show that is traveling to six European and American venues.
Miss Ewald has worked in Canada, Kentucky, Colombia, India, Mexico, South Africa, the Netherlands, Saudi Arabia and, most recently, Durham, N.C.
Her subjects and those of the students can be specific, such as when a resident of a reservation in Canada photographed a "Peace" inscription on the rundown house he probably shared with 11 others.
The loss of home in rural Kentucky was wrenching for Johnny, 12, whose father left and went to prison. He did not return to his family after release. Johnny loved the wild animals that prowled near his home, especially the "big, black panthers" that once got into the hog pen.
"Life would be happy for me if Daddy would ever come back to us," Johnny said in a taped interview. "When I get older, if anybody's trying to break up my family up, I'll kill them. I know I will."
The retrospective focuses on 13 bodies of work, from 30-inch-by-24-inch portraits of Indian children, to more intimate 4-inch-by-4-inch photos made by youngsters in Appalachia, to a video in which Miss Ewald's North Carolina students pretend they're Holocaust survivors.
Philip Brookman, exhibit curator and Corcoran curator of photography and media arts, credits her with turning around the concept of documentary photography. "Wendy says she found collaborative photography more interesting than traditional photojournalism because it has many layers of meaning," Mr. Brookman says.
By giving cameras to children from disadvantaged communities and Third World countries, the photographer helps them express hidden thoughts about themselves, their families and their communities. She also finds that the camera gives them a sense of power they don't usually have.
For instance, she remembers Pratap from her 1989 visit to Gujarat, India. "He was a tiny kid from the harijan [untouchable] caste who pestered me so much I let him into the program," Miss Ewald says.
The photographer recalls he was frightened when she gave him a camera, but he quickly learned to make money with it. "When the class took a trip to a bird sanctuary, he took Polaroids of the tourists and sold the photos to them," she says with a laugh.
Miss Ewald also saw him posing members of his family for a photograph by telling them where to stand. "He just took over," she says.
When Miss Ewald was in Colombia during 1982 to 1985, she met a mother and community organizer named Alicia in a squatters' settlement in Bogota. Alicia told Miss Ewald stories by candlelight after she had put her children to bed. One was about how the squatters had fought off police who tried to confiscate their homes by throwing buckets of boiling water at them. Miss Ewald put together a book, "Magic Eyes," a tale that combines the story of Alicia's life, her photos and the photography students' pictures.
During Miss Ewald's stay in Kentucky from 1974 to 1982, she asked her students to photograph themselves, their families and animals, and especially to try to depict their dreams and fantasies. She remembers a young girl called Denise Dixon as one of her most talented students there and anywhere. Denise's Kodak Instamatic self-portrait, "Reaching for the Red Star Sky," is the signature photo for the exhibit.
Miss Ewald grew up in a family of six children in a Detroit suburb. "Photos and art were everywhere. I grew up around photographs," she says. Her grandfather had founded an advertising agency in Detroit, one of her brothers is an industrial filmmaker and another sister is a painter. Her father managed prizefighters and took her to all the fights.
One day, a car hit one of her younger brothers on his way home from school and inflicted neurological damage. Miss Ewald set up a wheelchair stop-and-go game and used her own drawings for the stoplight to help him regain his speech. "That's when I understood the teaching power of visual symbols," she says.
She studied photography at Abbot Academy in Andover, Mass., with Wendy MacNeil. She describes Miss MacNeil as "an incredibly demanding photographer who encouraged individual expression in her students."
Miss Ewald began photographing her siblings with a large-format, 4-by-5 Graphlex at the time, and the hefty catalog reproduces some of this work.
The photographer says she attended Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, because of its co-op work program. "I had studied enough," she says.
Miss Ewald volunteered on Indian reservations for four summers and also started and ran an art gallery in London. After graduating from Antioch, with a stint at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she went to Appalachia with her then-theater-director husband. "He left after the first year, but I stayed for seven," says Miss Ewald, a petite woman with a shock of graying blond hair who loves to talk about her work.
Miss Ewald has received National Endowment for the Arts and Fulbright grants, a MacArthur "genius" fellowship and a Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest grant. She works in the Literacy Through Photography program in the Durham, N.C., public schools with backing from Duke University's Center for Documentary Studies.
A resident of Red Hook, N.Y., she lives with husband Tom McDonough, a writer and cinematographer, and their son, Michael, 5, whom they adopted in Colombia.

WHAT: "Secret Games: Wendy Ewald Collaborative Works With Children, 1969-1999"
WHERE: Corcoran Gallery of Art, 17th Street and New York Avenue NW
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except Tuesday, until 9 p.m. on Thursday, through April 8
TICKETS: $5 adults, $8 families, $3 seniors and member guests, $1 students (12 to 18 years old with valid ID)PHONE: 202/639-1800

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