Self-portraiture is having a moment. The current digital version of the self-portrait is of course the selfie. Like that one taken at the 2014 Oscars which, to date, is the most retweeted image ever.  But in fact, the photo self-portrait has been around nearly as long as photography itself and its popularity as a means for self-expression seems unlikely to diminish.

What has this got to do with WITNESS? Well, one of the ways that guests get creative at our annual Focus For Change Benefit is to take a picture at the Self-Portrait Project photo booth. I had a chance to talk with Andy Lin, SPP’s creator, via email about how he got involved with WITNESS and how the project goes beyond allowing people to take really fun photos of themselves at celebratory events.

Matisse Bustos Hawkes: For those unfamiliar with the Self-Portrait Project, can you explain it a bit?

Andy: The Self-Portrait Project is a photography-based, interactive art + social change project that uses a camera, a two-way mirror and a remote control to enable participants to tell their own visual stories, under their own terms.  Think of it as a visual Storycorps.

In one respect, it’s a fun photobooth where people can revel in the narcissism that a mirror provides, and in the power inherent in having control over a camera shutter.  In what I would consider its best possible usage, the project is a tool for self-empowerment and can lend agency to people who have been dispossessed, marginalized, or victimized here in the U.S. and abroad.

MBH:  What was your inspiration for the project?

Andy:  It really came from being inspired by – and photographing – alternate economies.  I was a co-founder and lead photographer for an organization called Other Worlds, a multi-media non-profit dedicated to documenting and disseminating living, breathing case studies of large-scale alternative economies around the world.  As such, I had the amazing fortune to photograph groups such as the Landless Workers Movement (MST) in Brazil, worker-controlled factories in Argentina, and the gift economy in Mali.

[pullquote]In what I would consider its best possible usage, the project is a tool for self-empowerment and can lend agency to people who have been dispossessed, marginalized, or victimized here in the U.S. and abroad. – Andy Lin[/pullquote]

A common tenet throughout virtually all these societies was that: if you are directly affected by a particular decision, you should then have some direct hand in making that decision.  I wondered what such a philosophy would look like when applied to photography, and the Self-Portrait Project is what I came up with.

MBH: How did you get introduced to us and come to participate at our annual Benefit?

Andy:  I know this is pretty personal, but I think it’s important to share:  my father died in a plane crash in Chicago when I was 18 months old.  When I was 18 years old I came into a huge sum of money as a result of legal proceedings in the wake of the crash, due to American Airlines’ negligence.  Though I did my best to waste the money as fast as possible, my amazing sister – a civil rights lawyer in Berkeley – challenged me to do something better with it.

I spent a lot of time meeting with inspirational activists, organizers, and philanthropists, to see how I might leverage the wealth to be a catalyst for social change.  Along the way I met Josh Mailman, who was on the WITNESS board at the time.  He asked me to come to the gala that year as his guest, and that was it.  I fell in love with the organization.

For a number of years I went to the benefits as a donor, but after I spun down my wealth, I asked if I could volunteer as an event photographer.  And now I’ve come back to two of the galas – including this year’s fantastic 10-year anniversary – with the Self-Portrait Project.  I couldn’t be happier, because in many ways my earlier experiences with WITNESS shaped the trajectory in my life that led to the creation of the Self-Portrait Project.  The organization holds a very special place in my heart.  Also, Peter Gabriel bought me a Guinness once.  That was pretty awesome.

A sampling of Self-Portrait Project photos taken at 2014 WITNESS Focus For Change Benefit
A sampling of Self-Portrait Project photos taken at 2014 WITNESS Focus For Change Benefit

MBH: Is there a particular WITNESS campaign or project that resonates for you as an artist who also works in a visual medium?

Andy:  I think it’s brilliant how Peter Gabriel was able to look at what explicitly was/is an awful scene – the Rodney King beating – and see the potential for an organization that could avert the very brutality that was being displayed.  I think it took a very special creative, compassionate eye to see through all the ugliness.  And I love how seemingly prescient it was to create WITNESS before social media and smartphones, embedded with incredible photographic capabilities, were nearly as ubiquitous as they are now.  I have an incredible amount of respect for the organization and for those who continue to inspire through their work.

MBH: You bring the Self-Portrait Project to many events across New York City in a given year and so you must see thousands of faces. What is most striking to you about the portraits people take of themselves?

Andy:  I’ve been doing the project since 2009, and I have edited through over 400,000 portraits.  And the thing that struck me most when I first started is still the thing that strikes me most now – that, as a photographer, it might take me 10, 20, 30 frames to capture a great portrait of someone, but a Self-Portrait Project participant very often captures an indelible image of her/himself within the first several shots.  I think a good picture is always an honest picture, and the project’s mirror facilitates a very particular kind of visual vulnerability – you are looking at people who are looking directly at themselves.

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MBH: After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, you collaborated on Self-Portrait Project dedicated to housing rights there. Tell us a little bit about how that came about and what impact the SPP has had since the project began.

Andy:  I have an incredible community of friends in Williamsburg in Brooklyn.  They’ve been there almost since the inception of the project, and are a big reason why it’s as successful as it is today. A few of them had been working at a real estate development company called Pinkstone, and brought the Haiti Self-Portrait Project on as the first grantee for their new foundation.

As you know, there was and is still a great need to highlight the housing crisis in Haiti, with some 250,000 internally displaced Haitians still without proper homes or sanitation.  The plan was to set up in some of these encampments, as a means for people to take their own portraits, under their own terms.  My mentor and co-founder at Other Worlds, Beverly Bell, has been allied with Haitian social movements for 30+ years, and we were able to access the networks she’s built over that time, and work with grassroots Haitian activists – this aspect was very important to us since the last thing we wanted to do was to replicate any negative power dynamics as outsiders going into the country.

The challenge now is how to leverage the images we collected in these encampments into real, quantifiable change for the Haitians living there.  To this end, we’ve been collaborating with filmmaker Jon Bougher, who directed a documentary called Mozayik, about the forced eviction of just one of these encampments.  We’re putting on exhibits and mini-conferences on housing rights at different universities in the U.S., and looking into partnerships with Amnesty International and others.  If there was a way to amplify the work that WITNESS is doing around housing rights, we’d love to be there too.

Click on any image below to enlarge. 

MBH:  Regarding housing rights: We worked with a wide network of activists worldwide, Amnesty International, as well as our amazing designers at Pentagram to create the multimedia and multilingual Forced Evictions Advocacy Toolkit. You could share that toolkit when visiting universities for gatherings and with your traveling exhibits.

Last question: Where would you like to see the project go next, both figuratively and literally?

Andy:  If I’m doing everything right with the project, I shouldn’t be doing anything at all – this is another way to say that the user should have control over her/his image from inception to share.  My main priority right now is to set up a network of permanent Self-Portrait Project kiosks all over New York City, which will enable New Yorkers to participate and contribute to an ever-growing and dynamic archive at will.

Central to this is a mobile app that literally puts the power of the picture in the participants’ hands – I’ve tried for two years to have one developed, but am still in search of a competent and talented team to work on it.  This is the long-term component I’d like to create – something that will outlast me, and contribute to the visual profile of the city for decades to come.

And I would very much like to focus on this social change component of the project, for it to be a tool in helping bring to light the struggles of those who have been pushed to the seams, and in so doing help in some way to transform and elevate those situations.  Basically, I aspire for the project to be as wonderful as WITNESS.

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