On the Wednesday before break, Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist April Saul delivered a lecture on her work, currently on display at McCabe library and the List Gallery. Saul’s work, primarily based in the Greater Philadelphia area, documents the experiences of individuals and families in celebration, hardship, and their day-to-day lives.
“I always see myself as someone who is trying to help people understand one another better through my art, whether it’s in a newspaper or magazine or hanging on a wall,” said Saul. “My greatest passion is photographing families.”
Saul’s earlier work, displayed in McCabe, highlights this passion. During her lecture, Saul noted a major turning point in her work that came in 2005, when she followed around Victoria Yancey. Yancey worked with grieving families and employees in the Philadelphia School District. During her time spent with Yancey, Saul heard about the high number of children who lost their lives to gun violence. She subsequently produced a column, Kids, Guns, and Violence: A Deadly Toll, for the Philadelphia Inquirer to cover the children and their grieving families.
This brought Saul to her next body of work, currently displayed in the List Gallery, that focuses on documenting life in Camden, New Jersey. The exhibition brings to light many salient problems in Camden around poverty, guns, employment, and drug addiction, but tries to avoid the commodification of suffering.
“There’s tremendous heart in Camden,” said Saul. “Most of the residents are just trying to lead normal lives against really difficult odds.”
The exhibition also includes Saul’s photographs of mentoring organizations, pageants, and outdoor boxing matches to illuminate parts of Camden that are often overlooked by the media.
Throughout her lecture, Saul also discussed the process of documenting the lives of others, occasionally noting the friendships she formed with many of her subjects, or how and when she decided to pull out her camera equipment. These procedural blurbs helped explain Saul’s work and offered general insight to photojournalism or photography.
“Her work is fascinating and challenging because it’s the intersection of so many different kinds of practice,” said Andrea Packard, List Gallery Director and the curator of the exhibition. “Fine art, in the sense that she’s choosing images that have a…compositional clarity that…connects you with her subject matter. They’re obviously [also] documentary.”
Professor Ron Tarver of photography, who worked alongside Saul for the Philadelphia Inquirer, is responsible for bringing her work to the attention of Swarthmore’s Art Department and the List Gallery. On Wednesday, Tarver introduced Saul and her work, noting the countless awards she has received, as well as the tension between photojournalism and art photography.
“These photographs, from a photojournalistic point of view, are not art,” said Tarver. “They are documents that tell a story—that communicate. As photojournalists, we used to bristle with the word ‘art’…but what April does transcends photojournalism.”
Packard noted the various challenges that came with curating Saul’s photographs. For example, Packard and Saul were not able to display all the photographs they wished due to logistical issues—one individual did not like the way their hair looked in a photograph, and thus asked that it not be included in the exhibition. Respectfully, Packard did not include these images. Other challenges arose in navigating the sheer size of Saul’s work.
Although April Saul described trying to avoid the commodification of suffering, responses to the exhibition have been mixed. Zoe Wray ’16, one of the List Gallery interns, noted the generally skeptical responses of students she spoke to, who found the exhibit problematic.
“One thing I’ve heard brought up,” said Wray, “is that while Saul’s intentions might have been very good and she might have been genuinely trying to help the people she photographed by telling their stories, and telling a story that may not otherwise be told, that may not change the end result of how these pictures are perceived.”
Wray noted these responses in comparison to the positive responses of older adults that visited during her shifts monitoring the gallery.
“I don’t know why that is exactly,” said Wray on the somewhat polarized nature of the responses. “But perhaps it’s because, as Swarthmore students, we’re a lot more aware of the effects of images like that…What role is having these images in general serving, and what role does it have being exhibited specifically as art, specifically at a place like Swarthmore College?”
However, by generating such a wealth of conversation, the exhibition has already accomplished one of Saul and Packard’s goals.
“Viewing art can be a very solitary experience,” said Packard. “But my hope is that people would be in dialogue with others, conversing with others, about the experience. ‘This is how it made me feel, do you feel differently after reading the artist interview?’”
Saul’s work in Camden will be on view in the List Gallery until April 3. Free copies of the 70-page catalogue, which includes an essay by Packard and an interview between Tarver and Saul, will be available in the gallery and during the closing reception.