Imagine you have a pen pal that you never met, but instead of exchanging letters you only communicate via photographs sent through the mail. What images would you send? How would you respond? What interpretation would you give to the photos that you did receive?
These intriguing questions lie at the heart of Shoot Back, a photographic exhibition at the Lee Matasi Gallery in the Byward Market. The project is a collaborative effort between students at the Ottawa School of Art and the School of the Photographic Arts: Ottawa (SPAO).
Earlier this year, eight Ottawa School of Art students exchanged photographs with 12 of their counterparts at SPAO as part of a visual conversation. “We would send 12 photos to SPAO and then they would respond with 12 and we did this seven times,” says Maggie Knaus, a professional photographer and teacher at the Ottawa School of Art who co-led the project. “The students never met in person, so they only ‘met’ by exchanging pictures.”
Angelina McCormick, an instructor at SPAO, was the other co-lead in this project that lasted two-and-a-half months. The resulting pictorial dialogue produced twelve separate photographic threads – each containing sevens photos. This visual correspondence is on display until October 3 as part of Festival X, Ottawa’s photography festival.
“There was this excitement of waiting to see what they would send back,” recalls Carina Profir, a second-year student at the Ottawa School of Art who participated in the project. “Some of them were obvious and some we were puzzled by.”
This wide range of reactions to the photos is one of the charms of the exhibition. As I “read” each photo thread in the exhibit – which can be viewed as twelve separate photographic short stories – I was captivated by the various narratives that formed in my head. Some of the pictorial dialogues were quite clear to me, as I spotted themes of self-awareness or graffiti art. Others were more abstract. What all of the threads offered, however, was the feeling that you were reading a private conversation between two groups who were discovering one another.
“Art doesn’t have to always be serious, it can also be fun,” says Knaus. “This is what I think art is about: everyone has their own interpretation.”
The idea for Shoot Back goes back to a photography workshop that Knaus attended in Maine about fifteen years ago. At the time, she was a teacher at a school in Washington D.C., and it was during this trip that she met a teacher from another D.C. school. During the workshop, the two teachers decided to launch a project in which their respective students would take a photo and paste it on a piece of paper, and then describe the photograph on the back of the page. They then sent this self-made postcard to a student in the other school. “Instead of mail correspondence with words, why not have a visual correspondence?” recalls Knaus, while describing the initial project. “It was a huge success.”
This idea stuck with Knaus when she moved to Ottawa a decade ago – something that she shared with her students last year. The current exhibit is the second instalment of the Shoot Back series. “It was a lot of fun,” says Profir, when asked to summarize her experience. “We were always waiting to see what we would get.”
Shoot Back continues at the Lee Matasi Gallery (35 George Street) until October 3.