There's photojournalism that's considered fine art because it somehow transcends time-specificity and an emphasis on content. Despite its origins as work for hire, such work is worthy of being featured in galleries and museums. Then there's comparable work initiated by a photographer like Heather McClintock—personally motivated and usually produced over a longer period of time. (In McClintock's case, during four years of travel to northern Uganda to document its civil war victims, beginning in 2005.) Whichever category these images fit into, they bear witness. They open our eyes to lives lived in other places, under circumstances often beyond our comprehension.
An exhibition of McClintock's photography opening tomorrow night at 2 Many Pixels Gallery and Photo Studio includes subject matter viewers might find hard to understand or accept. However, other pictures document moments of joy, hope, and desire—emotions humans everywhere experience. Together, they reveal more than McClintock's familiarity with, and sensitivity to, the culture she now knows so well. They also project unflinching insight as sharp as her talent.
That insight, perhaps resulting from what McClintock calls "an intimacy so pure it still leaves me in tears" (referring to the strength of "women and children whose souls stare into mine") could be perceived as maudlin if it weren't for her restraint. Upon seeing McClintock's work, one senses that the people pictured are telling their own story. Many have broken bodies and broken hearts, but whatever the suffering exposed in McClintock's portraits, it doesn't feel translated or manipulative.
For instance, in "Akidi Janet and her Grandmother, Kitgum Hospital" a burn-scarred toddler with world-weary eyes grasps the nipple of a sagging breast, the chest above it also scarred. But something about the tightness of the shot—the proximity of those photographed—draws the viewer in to the extent that she no longer feels she is looking at the image.
"Abalo Joyce, Lacor Hospital, Gulu" shows a lone child with her head wrapped in gauze, her upright body puckered by burns. Against a diaphanous background of mosquito netting, the girl's mottled skin is that much more pronounced, yet her perfect posture and intelligent gaze convey a maturity and independence sadly beyond her years. In contrast, a portrait of four young girls playing a clapping game while a fifth girl stares confidently at McClintock's camera ("Adong Jennifer with Schoolmates, Rwot Abilo Primary School") is peaceful—and astonishingly beautiful.
Other than portraits, McClintock presents a hazy village scene titled "Night Commuter Dream, Noah's Ark, Gulu"; close-up shots of hands and feet; a semi-abstract image with a figure obscured by printed cloth; pictures of people playing, as in "Luroo Child and Family Programme, Unyama IDP Camp," with its perfectly arched jumping rope; and the strikingly colorful and gentle "St. Jude Children's Home, Gulu."
In addition to the current show (at which McClintock will be signing her new book), 2 Many Pixels exhibits work by a different photographer each month. Founded and run by French photographer Patrice Argant after his move to Knoxville two years ago, the Jackson Avenue gallery is this city's only venue dedicated exclusively to fine-art photography. And it's long overdue.
As for McClintock's exhibition, on view alongside a substantial number of her prints—the sale of which benefits the African Youth Initiative Network (AYINET)—are drawings by victimized children. Created at the Rachele Rehabilitation Center in Lira, the children's art shows families and homes they dream of one day having. But other drawings depict abuse and atrocities no child should have to endure. Imagine two-thirds of Neyland Stadium populated by kids who've been abducted by the Lord's Resistance Army and forced to become soldiers, sex slaves, and the murderers of their own families, and you get some idea of the scale of Uganda's 20-year-long tragedy.
So how does a longtime New York-based professional photographer now living in Los Angeles end up spending months at a time in Uganda? McClintock's personal journey began following her involvement with a two-week photography workshop in Kampala. When she expressed that she wished to remain in Uganda for another three and a half months and head north, feeling it was something she was "meant to do," McClintock was introduced by a fellow workshop participant to Victor Ochen. Now director of AYINET, Ochen previously hosted a radio program in which he interviewed teens and discussed HIV/AIDS, reproductive health, and sexual responsibility. He soon became McClintock's guide and close friend.
McClintock, too, has become a guide of sorts, visually steering us through treacherous territory. Yet within her images we find light as well as darkness, and the universal spirit of survival and perseverance.