ArtReport: Fred Ritchin Speaks About Activism in the Digital Age

(by Alison Sher, reprinted from ARTREPORT)

Fred Ritchin has built his career on using documentary photography to promote democracy. At Asheville’s first ever photo+craft festival, he presented as the keynote speaker on the topic behind his most recent book, Bending the Frame. Ritchin shared about how digital photography, citizen journalism, social media, and smart phone technology can be used to create social justice (rather than low-level discourse).

The founders of the photo+craft festival created the four-day event, that ran from March 31 to April 3, as a way to consider the intersections of photography and craft — two disciplines that are typically viewed as distinct. Eric Baden, a founder of photo+craft, says they don’t have to be. The message in an image can be conveyed through multiple forms that photographers are experimenting with to explore where craft can be found in the field of photography.
“The new generation is entering a new world with multidisciplinary endeavors,” says Baden; something he notices with his students at Warren Wilson College, where he teaches as a professor of photography and the director of craft programming. “It’s a changing landscape. Without pushing an agenda, we wanted to see what happens when you hold certain things together. What are the parallels and the creative frictions?”
Alongside Ritchin, other presenters at photo+craft included: Namita Gupta Wiggers (the other keynote speaker), Clarissa Singh, Elijah Gowin, Harvey Wang, James Huckenpahler, and Alejandro Cartagena. Artistic spaces across downtown Asheville and in the surrounding area came together to offer their venues to host exhibitions, panel discussions, and workshops that were mostly free all weekend.
Back to frictions. In his 1990 book In Our Own Image, Ritchin accurately predicted many of the impacts of the dawning digital revolution. As the Dean of the School at the International Center for Photography, Ritchin teaches students and travels the world speaking about both the troubles and the potentials of photojournalism in an online world that lives in the eternal present; where the last five seconds of our newsfeed are all that’s relevant, and where content is created for free by users who post for virtual validation, like addicts.
In his keynote, Ritchin addressed the difference between using cellphone cameras to be passive witnesses of our world and creating images that will influence the world of politics, prove acts of injustice, and provide memory and context to victims in a way that gives them clarity and healing.
“How can something so horrific be so moving?” Ritchin asks of the photos that have sparked movements and policy changes throughout many decades.
He refers to the images of Syrian refugees, Vietnam vets, and LBGT youth in South America, among the many other portraits that have helped people across time and space believe what really goes on in the world. Although a photo had more value in the days before Instagram, there can still be an empathy in media, an impact that is measured in terms other than likes and page shares.
Does a picture of a housing crisis help a family keep their apartment, even if only three people see it? Does a portrait of a street person inspire you to give a dollar to the next person you see in need?
There is an illusion, says Ritchin, that the speed and accessibility of media in the digital age has somehow made us more empowered, when it’s still grueling to get any real life action toward justice moving. And because of this, the global digital revolution that Ritchin says the world urgently needs will not come through advancements in hardware. It will be a revolution in consciousness, economics and politics, fostered by the scenes from the world around us that can shake us from our ‘cocoons of privilege’ and remind us of our humanity. It will happen through multiple mediums — and without a gatekeeper — as we find a way to unite the millions of disorganized voices in the photos on our DIY, online publishing platforms. It will come through pointing out both the good and the serious.
“It is the most exciting time in the history of media,” Ritchin says.


Alison Sher is a creative and commercial writer who likes people who like themselves; and like Picasso, she sees art as the way to wash the dust of daily life off her soul.

(published in ARTREPORT. See:

PHOTO of Fred Ritchin by Ports Bishop


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