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Documenting Truth

Documenting Truth

Faculty member Jo Sittenfeld MFA 08 PH exposes a diverse set of students to the world of documentary photography.

During fall semester photographer and adjunct faculty member Jo Sittenfeld MFA 08 PH taught two parallel classes, working with "two wonderful and very different groups of students," as she puts it. A documentary photo class offered through the Photography department drew a mix of students from RISD and Brown with varying levels of experience with photography. As an artist-in-residence with RISD's high school outreach program Project Open Door (POD), she also taught an after-school digital photography class at Charles E. Shea High School in Pawtucket, RI.

As the semester unfolded, Sittenfeld was repeatedly reminded of "why I decided to devote my life to this medium," she says. In fact, she found the excitement of both groups of students to be so contagious that it inspired her to bring their work together in Access, a group show at the Photography department's Red Eye Gallery in the Design Center. "As I taught students about photography and tried to pass on the knowledge I've gained as an artist, I was continually wowed by their fresh, intimate approach to photographing the lives of their families, friends and surroundings," she says.

In the RISD class, students explored the meaning and ramifications of documentary photography, a medium that has historically been thought of as impartial, accurate, honest and truthful - as evidenced by clichés such as "the camera does not lie" and "a picture is worth a thousand words." Today, however, as Sittenfeld points out, documentary photographers are faced with a host of questions about the role of the photographer, the truthfulness of the medium and the relationship of documentary photography to artistic practice.

During the semester, students were encouraged to arrive at their own working definitions of what documentary photography means through two major projects - one documenting something totally unfamiliar, the other documenting something or someone they're close to, such a family member, the place they live or a community they know well.

In working with high school students enrolled in POD's Young Photographers Program, Sittenfeld taught them to work with digital cameras on loan and asked them to focus on photographing their families, friends and home lives. As with her college class, the high school students really rose to the occasion, notes the photographer, who exhibits widely herself and has work currently on view in the RISD Museum's major exhibition America in View: Landscape Photography 1865 to Now.

The work on view in Access, which continues through February 7 at the Red Eye, "shows the beauty, the power, the immediacy and the continuing relevance of documentary photography," Sittenfeld says. RISD Professor and POD Director Paul Sproll points out that the quality of the student work is also a reflection of the efficacy of the teaching and learning that led to it, and adds: "The opportunity for teens from Shea High School to have their photographs exhibited in RISD's Red Eye Gallery alongside the work of students from RISD and Brown University is a testament to Jo's extraordinary commitment, especially to access."

Access continues through February 7 at Red Eye Gallery on the fourth floor of the Design Center, 20 North Main Street, Providence.