On Tuesday, December 6th, the Esther Thomas Atkinson Museum at Hampden-Sydney College will host its first student-produced social documentary. Unlike the annual student visual-arts show, which includes works associated with classroom courses, this documentary was produced over the course of this past summer. Witnessing, the photo and text documentary project, is the work of Jonathan Miyashiro'06 and Corey van Vlymen '08. The project was made possible by an Honors Council summer research grant and was directed by Fine Arts Professor Pam Fox.
The show will consist of the photographs and text produced during a summer of documenting the lives of Virginia's Jehovah's Witnesses. The photographs will include those taken at various services held by the Witnesses; the text was produced by conducting interviews of Witnesses. At the opening of Witnessing, Jonathan and Corey will give a talk offering their perspective as photographer and author, respectively. Through their experiences, and the show, they hope to explain the process of producing a documentary. The talk will include a nuts-and-bolts introduction to documentary work, and there will also be discussion about the process of putting together the gallery opening.
The idea for the documentary on the Jehovah's Witnesses came originally out of an Honors 101-102 seminar taught this past year by Professors Pam Fox and Claire Deal (Rhetoric Department). After much discussion, the Witnesses were chosen as the focus of the summer documentary project because of their perceived obscurity and tendency to provoke the, sometimes, unforgiving opinions of outsiders. According to Jonathan, "The choice of the Jehovah's Witnesses as the focus of the project reiterates documentary's function to create visual records of the lives of various groups of people and to help others gain an understanding of people in the community in which we all live. I was raised as a Jehovah's Witness and know that most people do not understand their beliefs and practices. I was hoping to help others understand the people and culture of the religion." Whereas Jonathan has been raised as a Witness and has had an inside view of the community his whole life, Corey had never been privy to the lives of the Witnesses, but, according to Corey, "We both shared the same goal in presenting the lives of the Jehovah's Witnesses in an objective light. So, we started the project, he as the photographer and I as the author of text."
The concept of using photography and text to create a documentary project is one that Fox and Deal taught in the Honors seminar and a practice that goes back to the early years of photography. When asked about the combination of images and text and whether each is necessary to successfully document an event, Professor Fox replied in the words of the social documentarian Lewis Hine, "If I could tell the story in words, I would not need to lug a camera [around]." Documentarians view text and image as being highly complimentary and suggest that both offer concrete objectivity as well as the observed subjectivity of the author/photographer.
When producing the documentary on the Witnesses, Jonathan and Corey were able to learn firsthand the importance of combining the two forms of media and also the amount of work it takes to do so. When looking at the project on paper, the two did not imagine the amount of work associated with not only gathering the information for the documentary but also the difficulty they would encounter in producing the gallery showing of the work. It turned out that reviewing potentially hundreds of photos and then pairing them with text written by another person was a long and arduous process and one that previously has not been undertaken by Hampden-Sydney students as an independent project.
Difficulty also arose when they had to combine the views of an outsider who for the most part was new to the theology and concepts that drive the Witnesses with the views of a Witness who already has a great understanding of those concepts. By the time the actual interviewing and photographing process had ended, though, Corey felt as though he had learned a great deal about the community and Jonathan was able to watch and document an outsider's crash course in the community. The result of their efforts is the work that will hang in the museum.
The exhibit, which opens December 6th, will run through March 25th. The Esther Thomas Atkinson Museum of Hampden-Sydney College is located on College Road on the campus of Hampden-Sydney College. The Museum is open Tuesday through Friday, 12:30 to 4:30 PM and by appointment. The Museum will be closed from December 24 to January 3.