A Photo Dialogue

In 2009 I started a photo dialogue with Tiffany Fairey. Eight years later.... Read more

Since 2009 I have been sending pictures back and forth with Tiffany Fairey. Tiffany and I had worked together for a number of years at PhotoVoice during which time we had regular conversations about work, life and photography.  When Tiffany moved to Venezuala in 2009 we decided to continue this regular conversation through images.  There are no firm rules, the idea was just to respond to each other’s picture with a picture.  To create a visual dialogue and see where the conversation took us.  8 years later the conversation is ongoing. All the photographs can be seen here.

There is also an email exchange which took place more recently:

Tiffany Fairey, 1st October 2014

This project explores the idea of a visual conversation.  The images go back and forth between us.  Normally we think of photographs as moments extracted from the flow of life but in this project photography moves beyond the individual moments and becomes about the flow between them.  Individual images are connected up, tied together and are given meaning by their relation to others and their place in the dialogue.  As photographs flow in so many directions the conversation becomes inexhaustible.

We started this project with no grand intention but with a looseness, a responsiveness and an openness which has come to define my own parameters for a notion of photography as dialogue.  The conversation has had to sustain interest to ensure its survival.  Photography as a form of dialogue is open to invention.  There no set conventions, norms or rules.  You can stick with a certain theme, you can take it in off in a new direction, you can circle back to old topics.   The potential ways that we can respond to the image are so varied and multiple that it makes for compelling, unpredictable, fluid and invigorating conversation.  It requires us to look at the world, and to examine the patterns in how we see, but always in relation to another way of seeing and to how someone else is seeing the world.  We are both the creators and viewers of the image, no-one leads.  We get to participate on our own terms, the only requirement being that we find a connection, a link between what I see and what you see.  We could potentially go on forever or at least for as long as we can find a link.

Would it work between people that did not inhabit such similar worlds?  Would a purely visual dialogue, such as ours, hold too much potential for miscommunications and misconnections for those that see the world in very different ways?  Are there ground rules that need to be set for a visual conversation to succeed?

Liz Orton, 8th October 2014

I really like your idea of photography as flow.  It opens up photography to something more processual and relational, and helps liberate it from the limiting language of meanings. I have come to think of our images as a kind of ecology. Although each image is a chronological response to the previous image, just like any conversation it takes into account all that has come before. Each new addition changes the whole, and the images interact in multiple and ever-changing ways. As well as repetitions and currents, there are gaps and cul-de-sacs. I haven’t actually ever looked at the entirety of what we have created, as some of your images remain as email attachments, so there is the additional factor of how my memory has put together certain visual configurations. One of the images from you that I really remember is of Finn just after he was born lying on a table in a restaurant – it was one of the first moments of humor in the dialogue.

You identify something really important when you say that we are both simultaneously creators and viewers. Our dialogue disrupts these traditionally separate and hierarchical positions. As a viewer I am active, rather than passive. In looking I am also readying myself to respond. Equally important I think is the way that the dialogue takes place as an encounter between images. This is not a conversation mediated by images. The images are the conversation. It is significant in our case that the images have been for the most part and for a long time the mainstay of our communication, not a complement to verbal or written dialogue.  I wonder about the very nature of visual dialogue, between images taken by different people. It moves in ways that echoes verbal or written conversation, but it has different qualities too. It leaves permanent tracks and it resides in objects.  And it engages a different language too, one that speaks in patterns and associations, and which make networks and connections across ideas.

We started this dialogue in 2009. Since then I have done a lot of reading and thinking about photography. I have become increasingly interested in theories of photography that move beyond the static language of representation, and towards ideas of affect or performance. In other words beyond what images mean, to what they do or activate in people, things, other images etc.

What I love about doing this photo dialogue is the sense of sharing, of expectation, unpredictability, of involvement. The moment of decision, of how to respond, seems to be different every time. It brings with it the weight of other influences; it can happen in an instant or become attached to and complicated by other thoughts and priorities.

Tiffany Fairey, 13th March 2015

I often look back at the entirety of what we have sent back and forth.  When I am stuck editing or choosing between images to send, I often make the decision by flicking back through and considering it in the flow.  Creative decisions made in direct relation to the viewing of the images.  For a long while as you say the images have been the mainstay of our communication and they have, in fact, kept us connected.  I think I have always been more interested in what images do rather than what they mean.  And in our case it feels like they have allowed us to continue a friendship that might otherwise have been interrupted with my move overseas.

I keep coming back to your idea of visual dialogue as leaving permanent tracks and how that endows it with a unique quality.   My mother has always kept family photo albums.  I spent hours pouring over them as a child.  I now am my own family chronicler.  It takes hours sorting through pictures – editing, making piles, chopping, sticking.  It often feels archaic and I wonder why I persist with it but I can’t let it go.  Sontag spoke of images as being like totem poles.  I often feel like when I am doing those albums that I am creating and deciding between memories, designating what I what to  have significance.  The physicality of it is key, creating as you say permanent tracks.

I have always used images as a way to orient myself.  Do you remember how Loria from the New Londoners project[1] spoke of photography as being like a therapy because it allowed her to break free?  For me it is like a form of therapy not because it allows me to break free but rather because it grounds me and lets me explore what I think is important.  It helps me locate myself in relation to the world. I guess that is a form of freedom but one that roots me.

In the form of a dialogue with someone, images as digital and physical objects, that you can refer back to, that you can memorialise, enable you to locate yourself in communication with someone else as well as the world around you.  It is as you say about finding patterns and associations, about making connections and having some fun.  The image you sent in response to my very pregnant belly of the kid bouncing on the great big red hopper was so spot on!

In my mind, part of the significance of the project is the fact it has survived.   For me, it has covered some busy years of pregnancies, becoming a mother, living overseas, moving countries, solitary working, lots of studying, lots of writing and lots of travelling.  There have been lulls but it has been a constant thread in a time of change and endless unfamiliar territory.  Over that period it has enabled the kind of conversation that is rare in my life at present – an unpressured, unhurried dialogue, one that lasts more than 5 minutes, that with each exchange requires me to slow down, to reflect, look around, look back and engage with what I see.

I am still interested in the idea of whether there needs to be a particular set of conditions, a specific context for a visual dialogue to succeed.  I keep coming back to this because I think we both interested on how images can facilitate dialogues over difference, between people and cultures who are different, who see the world differently.  How would it work between people who do not share a similar visual culture?  Friere[2] used the notion of dialogue extensively.  He proposed that to enter into dialogue presupposes an equality and trust amongst its participants.  Perhaps this is at the core to realising the potential of a visual dialogue – a mutual respect and commitment to the ongoing encounter – and if this is present then all sorts is possible.

Friere also says that dialogue cannot exist without hope.  It requires openness to seeing the world through other’s eyes.  You have to look and find things to respond to, ways to make a link.  It seems driven by a hope, an aspiration to play with the visual world, to find new ways to look and see.

Liz Orton,  24th June 2015

Your point about dialogue needing trust is interesting. Is trust a pre-requisite for dialogue or can it also be the objective of dialogue do you think?  I am interested in the conditions or framework that might enable dialogue to take place across difference, distance or conflict. And how photography might be part of such a dynamic, both reflectively and productively.  I ask this, because in some projects I have witnessed the way that photographs facilitate verbal discussion around difficult or sensitive issues.  Much of the time it doesn’t matter who has taken the photograph – the speaker doesn’t need to be the author.

Photographs build connections – between people, things, places, stories, ideas – but they can also allow us to take a more detached position. We can point to what the photograph is saying, and in doing so put a distance between ourselves and the subject.  Do you remember that moment from the Mental Wealth[3] project when a participant said, “I haven’t been able to talk about my father for fifteen years, but now I can talk about a photograph of my father”.  I am not saying that this always happens, and now that I think about it I can think of as many situations where talking about a photograph stirs up emotion and hinders dialogue.  There is nothing mechanistic or deterministic about the relationship between photographs and dialogue, but a very open field of possibilities. How does a photographic dialogue differ from a verbal dialogue? How does the appeal to the visual, to the ambiguous, to the evidential, affect the dynamics of the exchange?

What is the distance between us, and what has sustained our dialogue over all these years? While you have moved continents, and countries, from Venezuela to Argentina, had two children, and written a PhD, I have been working in London, done an MA in Photography, and hardly left Hackney. We have seen each other twice during these six years. I like being able to see what you notice, how you see it, and from what perspective. I have picked up snippets of your life – newborns, holidays, a sense of your neighbourhoods – but mostly I have enjoyed the sense of sharing, and creating something together.  A verbal conversation leaves few visible traces, but a photographic dialogue is like a visual cartography. We are making our own terrain as we go, without a particular destination, and no obvious landmarks on the way. Now it also feels like an archive of sorts, though one which only has a singular sequence at the moment.

It is interesting that you have a sense of the whole, I have much more of a feeling of the present or the fragment.  But looking back now I can now see how we have made a structure of sorts, a certain cycle of repetitions.  There are silent codes and rules.  Most images are recognizably responding to what has gone before, but there are occasional surprises and shifts that change the pace, and give it a kind of punctuation. I am starting to think that the dialogue might be better compared to a poem than to speech.

You mention the family album. I am also the maker and keeper of our family albums (my parents never made any). I feel our dialogue is radically different from the family album. Family albums feel like they have to fulfill a certain job of celebration, of representation, of ideology. I feel that our dialogue exists outside of such pressures.  We are each other’s audience.  The framework is very loose.

Tiffany Fairey, April 5th 2016

The framework is loose but there is still a pressure of sorts – to find a visual connection because if we didn’t succeed at that wouldn’t the conversation be long dead?  I guess my link between the idea of the family album and this project was more about how we use images to orient and locate ourselves, which relates to your idea of cartography.  We are acknowledging the different ways we have or haven’t looked back over the images as part of the ongoing process.  I wonder if the fact that for me this dialogue has covered years of much change, movement and foreignness while you have been rooted has affected how we have engaged and used the archive of the images differently.  I find myself looking back for the pleasure of looking and for that sense of time passing. It has created a unique record – visual snippets of the lives we are living – that is both highly personal and also shared, a record of what we have seen in relation to each other.

I find it amazing to think we have seen each other so few times over these years.  It drives home how images can keep people connected but perhaps it helps if those people get such pleasure out of images.  I can imagine a similar kind of dialogue for music lovers where people sent songs back and forth like we have sent our pictures.

I think trust is a pre-requisite yes – and of course is created thorough the process too – but I think without that initial trust and willingness to engage a dialogue cannot go far.  Through the PhD I found ideas around pluralism invaluable for giving me new ways of thinking about participatory photography and its purpose.  This links to the potential of photography as a form of dialogue.  In pluralism, difference and how we chose to engage with difference is fundamental to shaping politics. Connolly[4], who is seen as the architect of pluralist political theory, argues that biggest impetus to fragmentation and violence is the suppression of a political engagement with the paradoxes of difference.  An active engagement and exploration of how we are all different to each other in a manner that resists converting difference into modes of otherness is vital to a functioning pluralistic democracy.  He calls for practices of ‘critical responsiveness’ which cultivate and facilitate people’s capacity to actively engage with and respond to difference – that presses them to rethink their positions and rework their relations to the diversity of different people that mark a pluralist culture.  Critical responsiveness takes the form of careful listening, a readiness to explore, a presumptive generosity, a cultivation of creativity and a close attunement to new circumstances.

Engagement with difference is fundamental because it is only in relation to others that our own identities are formed. It requires that we be open to changing ourselves.  Re-defining your relation to others requires modifying the shape of your own identity.  It is challenging and not always easy.  You have to trust and believe in the value of the dialogue, in the value of the encounter and the attempt to engage in order for it to have a chance.  In that sense I guess my point, by way of the detour (!), is that trust is both a pre-requisite and the purpose.

Why images seem so successful at this task is because of their open-endedness.  They create connections in unpredictable ways, we can never be fully in control of the encounters they give rise to.  The endless possibilities keep us gripped.  But I guess over the years what I have become more wary of is becoming too romantic about where those possibilities lead us.

Susan Meisales talks about the power of photography as being all about potential rather than certainty.  Thinking about photography as a form of dialogue I am interested in what the pre-requisites might be in order that potential to be realized.  I think in our ongoing visual back and forth these pre-requisites are givens that we have never had to consciously acknowledge or vocalize because there is already an established respect, friendship and trust.  So we have been free to explore and take pleasure in the dialogue.  Lulls in the conversation have not broken the flow.  There has been an under-stated commitment to keeping it going and give each other the space when life has got too busy to respond promptly.

It has been 6 years now, nearly 200 pictures shared.  I wonder when this ends?  Or does it?

Liz Orton,  23rd May 2017

At the moment I certainly don’t feel any sense of an ending, and I am taking pleasure in the repetitions that are occasionally happening, the sense of revisiting things from a different place.

Thanks for sharing those ideas about pluralism, and the reminder that photography itself has been so complicit in the very idea of the ‘other’. I can recall various emails between us over the past few years where we have discussed how photography might help frame a critical space for exploring difference. It is notable now how our written conversation is veering away from ourselves towards a broader potential for photography within civil or political dialogue.

Recently, I have been thinking about the potential of photography to mediate between doctor and patient, but I am interested in how photographs might reach across any kind of divide.  How photography might play a role in community-building for example. But of course photography can’t overcome or inverse power differences. As you say there needs to be political commitment in the first place (though perhaps this is different from trust, which requires time?). Were there such a commitment, how might photographs shift or expand an exchange between communities? How might it do something different from speech-based dialogue?

Last year I attended a one-day training on dialogue held by St Ethelburgas for Peace and Reconciliation. We explored various philosophical models for dialogue including Bohr and Bahktin. I found the idea of the space between subjects helpful.  Some theorists advocate for dialogue as a facilitated process and others emphasise the value of participants shaping the process itself as the most important thing. I wonder: If dialogue is all about accepting uncertainty and instability, how might photography with all its ambiguities, be a resource for such processes.

Photos can represent experience in a qualitatively different way from speech.  The visual field not only enriches speech, it offers something else.  When we relate an experience verbally we highlight what matters most – that which is unsaid remains hidden. In an image, everything within the frame is seen.  Though the photographer might focus our attention towards a particular aspect of an image, we can see for ourselves everything else that is in the picture.  Images have the capacity to disclose so much, in an instant. Any aspect of an image can trigger an interest or connection with the viewer, regardless of the intention of the photographer. I think this possibility for connections is enlarged by the space of the picture in way that is less likely to happen with speech. Understanding what another person sees or understands by an image necessitates an exchange.  And the photograph as an object facilitates this.  Two people discussing a picture might more inclined to sit or stand next to each other, shoulder to shoulder, rather than face each other. It’s less confrontational.  The image changes the dynamic.

That brings me back to us again. We have been apart but not separate. We have been building foundations.  This conversation couldn’t have happened without the photographs, which have created their own form of intimacy between us.

I did an interesting experiment with my medical students this week. We compared how long it took to understand an experience or event through verbal description compared to looking at a photograph of it. On average, we thought it was about fifteen minutes to describe it compared to about 20 seconds of looking at a photograph.  For us, that’s the equivalent of 3,600 minutes of conversation as we have shared 240 photographs.   It feels like we’ve hardly begun.



[1] We first meet each other when Liz started working with PhotoVoice in 2002 (which Tiffany co-founded and ran from 1999-2009).  Together we developed and led PhotoVoice’s work with young refugees in London.  New Londoners was a photo mentoring project that supported young refugees to work with professional photographers.  Loria was one of the New Londoners photographers.

[2] Freire, P., 1970. Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 2Rev Ed. ed. Penguin, London.

[3] Mental Wealth was a participatory photography project with adults living with mental illness run by PhotoVoice and United Response.

[4] Connolly, W., 2005. Pluralism. Duke University Press, Durham, N.C.


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