In Conversation: Wayne Dunkley
Wayne Dunkley / courtesy of the artist (credit: © Judy Weiser)
Back in August, FFOTO's Cassie Spires had the pleasure of speaking with Wayne Dunkley. Wayne's photography is newly represented by FFOTO, and their enlightening conversation provides context for his artworks. Moreover, the conversation supplies rich insight into Wayne’s deeply perceptive and empathetic process. The interview describes the impact that he hopes his art has on viewers, and in fact the interview itself can be cause for self-reflection.
Starting this autumn, Wayne is a 2020/21 artist-in-residence at Ryerson University, working with Documentary Media students on a re-imagining of his #whatdoyoufeelwhen project. In mid-September he gave an interactive, online lecture during which he elaborated on the topics discussed below.
Cassie caught up with Wayne while he was sitting in the backyard of his new home outside the city of Toronto.
Cassie Spires: So, how are you? Did you have a nice weekend?
Wayne Dunkley: Good. Yeah, we’ve only been in our new place outside of the city for a couple of weeks, so we’re still settling in.
CS: That’s always exciting, to move to a new place.
WD: It’s exciting but it’s also the whole “ah I want to be settled already!”
CS: Yeah, for sure.
WD: But it’s great, we’ve got green all around us now.
CS: Yeah, that’s really nice.
WD: We were actually planning to get out of the city and change things up just as the pandemic hit, because my partner and I both work remotely. We planned it before the pandemic, and we just thought, why would we go back?
CS: That’s awesome, congratulations. So, when does your residency start with Ryerson?
CS: Let’s jump into my questions. Can you tell me a bit about the project from twenty years ago?
WD: Absolutely. I actually started that project in 1996 and it was one of those things where it kept evolving. I went to Ryerson, and during my time there I did all sorts of projects. A lot of the time when you’re studying photography you want to do these projects around identity - Who am I, and how does this medium grapple with those questions? It was so hard for me to find a place for that when I was at school, and I think part of that was the environment. The kinds of questions around my being Black in the larger sphere, those issues weren’t being addressed directly. Even as I was looking around at work being done in other places, none of it really resonated with my experience.
Screengrab from "the degredation and removal of the/a black male", 1998
Coming out of school, I thought, I need to keep pressing on these things, even though at the time I was working commercially. So, I started with this idea of a picture of my face. You know how these things evolve, they don’t start out with a big meta idea, they start out with one little thing that we build, and build, and build on. I had this picture of my face, and I thought, I want to see what will happen to it if I leave it outdoors. And it happened to be winter and I was walking around. I went by City Hall and the skating arena was open. I took some water, and I put the picture down on the skating rink, and I poured water over it, and it froze under the ice.
CS: That’s awesome.
WD: And people started skating over it, and I just started to resonate with the idea of being noticed, or being present but not noticed. The way things that happen to us when people don’t realize we’re there. And so, that evolved into my early project, which was called “the degradation and removal of the/a black male”.
WD: I gave it that name because I took four hundred of these 8 1/2 x 11 posters, and put them up in Toronto and Montreal. I then photographed them as they were written on and defaced, and as time did its thing to them. Next, I documented the posters and I put them on the internet. I asked people who saw them to send me stories of things that have happened to them. Whether racism, ageism - any sort of prejudice. And I ended up using a software at the time called Flash to just make these very small animated stories. The stories were not judgmental, they were just saying This happened to me; this happened to me. And then I put those stories up with those photographs of the posters.
I got hundreds, and hundreds, and hundreds of stories from people. And I think what was so interesting back when the site launched in 1998, there wasn’t a lot of work like this out there. We didn’t have social media – we had these text-based forums - but there weren’t a lot of places where people were seeing images and being given the opportunity to share their own experiences, so the project blew up. It took over my practice for years and years, but it was great, because as an artist that’s what you want. It really encouraged people to speak from a sense of safety that they often didn’t have in other places in their lives.
Screengrab from “the degradation and removal of the/a black male”, 1998
WD: That was the earliest part of this project and then twenty years later I catapulted forward to do it again, but differently.
CS: Can I ask you just a couple more questions about the original project? What was the process for the photographs and the posters?
WD: The image itself was just simply a head-and-shoulder shot. I wanted the image to, without words, just be... confrontational isn’t the word; I wanted it to be really active so if somebody saw it they would think, what is that? Something different as opposed to just more visual clutter that’s all already over the city.
At the time I was teaching an intro to digital photography class, which was so new at the time, and one of the things that was going on was people were discovering that Photoshop was being used to manipulate their response to images without them knowing it.
CS: Right. Like the National Geographic pyramids.
WD: Exactly. And this was before newspapers and magazines had to indicate that an image had been altered digitally. So, people were just encountering images that had been manipulated and they had no idea. And there was a football player named OJ Simpson, who was on trial for killing Nicole Brown Simpson, his ex-wife. There was a photograph of him, and the same image was used on the cover of Time Magazine, and the cover of Newsweek Magazine. And Time had considerably darkened him and digitally altered him to look like a ‘criminal’. And it was amazing because both those covers hit the stand at the same time, and it was so obvious what had been done to one and the other. So, I wanted to delve into these ideas of what’s informing us when we choose to represent someone who isn’t like us? And what goes into that thinking, and what is the net result?
WD: The poster itself had that thinking but there was another thing that informed it. Back when there was slavery in Canada the United States, escaped slaves often came up to Canada. The American slave owners would put ads in Canadian newspapers - in particular the Montreal Gazette, because it was one of the biggest - looking for escaped slaves. The drawings that they did were pen and ink crosshatch, and they were visually very rough and very crude. I wanted my poster to resemble that, and to reflect the idea that when you see a face in public and it’s Black, you’re often associating it with criminality. And so, when you look for a Black face, you’re looking at someone who’s escaped, someone who shouldn’t be there. There’s kind of this ongoing sense of mistrust that just gets fed through on so many different levels.
Those are two little examples, and we have thousands and thousands throughout our history, where just the perception of encountering the face of another that’s specifically Black provokes a particular reaction in people. That’s the genesis of that face on my poster.
CS: And why Toronto and Montreal?
WD: Those are two cities that I’ve lived in.
CS: Okay, that makes sense. Is the website for that project still online?
WD: No, I pulled it down because Flash software was being supplanted. It was up for fifteen years, so it’s a testament to what my explorations looked like at that time. In the interim, my practice had evolved, so it wasn’t just about that photography, and it wasn’t just about those questions. I started to become involved in workshops, finding ways to work with different organizations and individuals on cultural sensitivity. I look for different ways to talk about a lot of these problems that we’re faced with today. So, it evolved, and it is archived, but no it’s no longer live.
CS: #whatdoyoufeelwhen came out on the 20th anniversary of that original project - how did you get led to that point, and in what ways did your practice evolve and change over those twenty years?
WD: When I first did the project in ‘98, I was really putting the work out there and asking people to comment on it, and then I would bring it back, put it through my filter, and put it out again. And I think culturally, putting work up out in the world and having people actually write on it actually worked. There was a lot of response and there was back-and forth, which was interesting. But visually, culturally, we have kind of exploded from there, and I think there’s more of a visual fatigue. Today, the idea of putting up a picture for somebody to write on didn’t resonate the same way. Much of what I’m interested in is the things that are going on inside of us that we don’t talk about out loud. I was trying to figure out how to access some of those places with people online, even as the online world has evolved, so it made sense for me to move into social media.
WD: That’s where I’m working now, with Instagram as a place for delving into some of these other questions.
CS: What was the platform that you used for the original project? You had a website but was there somewhere else online that you were using as well?
WD: It was just a website and an online forum.
CS: Ah, okay.
WD: When I wanted to embark on the 20th anniversary, it was less about what’s changed in the world in twenty years. I realized that, actually, not much has changed in the world because it’s the same questions, today. The questions I’m raising are questions that were around ten years ago, twenty, fifty, a hundred. These are larger questions that I think are bigger than just Black and white issues - they’re issues of the human condition. They’re questions about how we deal with the fears we carry inside of us, and how we project and reflect those on others around us. Because of the larger existential questions that I was interested in, I wanted the work to be more nuanced and to reflect some of that grey. Especially in these issues, it’s not a surprise that things get distilled down to a Black and white conversation. But I think the challenge is for us to try to step back from the specificity of these incidents that keep taking place, and to say, how do we look at these in a systemic way, so that we can actually do things differently.
Moving to the poster, I wanted it to be bigger for the impact. For #whatdoyoufeelwhen I used a 24 x 36 inch poster and had a thousand of them put up across Canada. That gave me a larger pool to draw on - it gave me more opportunity to put it out into the city context, and to draw on peoples’ responses. For the previous project, Toronto and Montreal were easy because I was going back-and-forth and working in the two cities. But once this became a Canada-wide project, I realized that I would actually need to spend time in each city in front of the posters to see what people would say, and to do other things to the posters.
CS: How was the effect of the project different from the original one?
WD: It’s funny how there’s kind of a confluence of things that happen, the postering for the second project was done two years ago. As we know, the world has evolved lately, so I think that it has had a particular kind of a relevance to right now.
WD: It’s one of those pieces that defies me in some ways, because when the original project started up, it was specifically about my experience - I wasn’t trying to speak for all Black people. Even so, many people found their own way into it - people who weren’t Black, people who were struggling with the way that they are treated because of who they are. And that kind of openness to the work was exciting to me.
It also allowed the work to be owned by other people at the same time. The capacity for my work to evolve and be owned by others is something that I’ve been integrating into my practice ever since. So one of the biggest things is that the most recent project, #whatdoyoufeelwhen, was actually designed to be open-ended. The hashtag is kind of strange and a little vague, until you spend some time in the project on social media. There you see the way that I use that hashtag as a way to drill down into all sorts of different questions surrounding prejudices, not only the question of racism.
CS: Right. You mentioned that it very much addresses systemic issues - it also feels very psychological.
WD: I’m really, really interested in how we can have different conversations. Part of that is my own ongoing frustration. The work was really popular, and I got invited to a lot of conferences and speaking engagements. They’d have a particular theme that they were trying to look at but after fifteen minutes the conversations would always turn to “this thing happened to me and I want to talk about it and I am going to take this opportunity to do so”. Since these things that have happened to people are so incredibly personal we should definitely respect each other’s narratives but that means all these conferences become contexts for telling ‘war stories,’of the things that have happened to us.
I’m absolutely not trying to take anything away from that, I can speak to many times when I’ve spoken my stories out loud, and people have pushed them aside saying that they’re not legitimate and not authentic. So, I recognize the need for those spaces. But what I found is in simply retelling all of our stories again, and again, and again, we bump up against a limit to the effectiveness of storytelling.
There’s an emotional component in how we tell our stories and how we move past them that I think isn’t addressed. Why? Because we’re trying to respect each other, we’re trying to make sure that everybody’s heard and everybody’s narrative is validated. I am one hundred percent behind that, but I also recognize that if we just keep telling our stories without any other actions, nothing’s ever going to change. That’s part of the psychological component to this new project.
WD: I am really interested in the reflection process and how, in the moment we encounter a Black face, there are so many things that going on inside of us. We just need to look to the stories like that of the woman in the park in New York . Immediate panic. Where does that come from? Is it because of experiences that she’s actually had? Or is it something she’s constructed in her mind assisted by media? There is a reflection process that we need to all engage in, and if we can do that together, we’re actually able to ask some very, very different questions. And when we ask different questions, I think that will allow us to come up with different answers. Maybe we can actually do things differently than they’ve been done before.
CS: I like that. I noticed, just looking through your Instagram, that you shared some backlash that you had received from the project, and some more negative comments. So, I’m just wondering how you handle dealing with that stuff, and if it put you off the project at all, or made you feel negative about it in any way?
WD: No, mainly because when you decide to put out provocative work, one has to expect a range of responses. In fact, I think more often for me, the negative responses are telling me more about the things I’m interested in.
CS: Yeah, for sure.
WD: I am interested in the things that make you say, “no you’re wrong.” So, all of the sudden there’s a person denying a narrative that’s been put in front of them. What’s causing them to do that? Why is me telling a story about when I was nine years old and got harassed by police, why is that threatening to you?
WD: That’s the more interesting question for me. Because that person is the one that goes online, who joins a militia, and does all of these other things. So, how do we find a way to figure out what’s happening with those people, because those people are a big part of the way things are right now. We’re all participants. We all bring something to the table that helps our current social challenges to continue as is, but I think there are some people who have very, very strong responses, and that stuff never gets talked about other than to just condemn it.
CS: On FFOTO.com you have the Poster Project, which is a result of #whatdoyoufeelwhen. It seems pretty clear to me, but I’m wondering if you have anything to add about how the #whatdoyoufeelwhen project fed into the Poster Project?
WD: Well the Poster Project is kind of the output from #whatdoyoufeelwhen, and so as I had mentioned, in the evolution of the project, I took myself to each of the cities, Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Montreal, and I stood in front of the posters, and I talked to people on the street. But then I recognized that the question wasn’t what how had the world changed in twenty years regarding prejudice but what had changed in me over that time? What was I looking for now? The questions were greyer and more nuanced than they were previously. I wanted the current posters to start to reflect that shift in my attention and focus.
WD: I had all these questions bubbling in my head, so I decided to just start writing them on the posters myself. So, the images that you see on FFOTO are a reflection of that. And I took it to the next level. I also felt an emotional component to what’s going on in me, and I wanted that to be reflected in the work. That’s when I actually started to physically manipulate the surface of the posters.
CS: Okay, I didn’t know that so I’m glad I asked. How do you plan to translate #whatdoyoufeelwhen and the Poster Project for your artist in residency position?
WD: That’s going to be fun. It is a workshop that I do as part of being a cultural mediation consultant, which means that I use my lived experience to help people get a better understanding of what it’s like for people from underrepresented communities.
One of the questions I get asked a lot is: Isn’t it really brutal putting your face up in public and letting people do stuff with it? And I’ve said, well sure, at the beginning. But after you’ve been doing it for twenty years, it evolves into something else. The face on the poster is an image, it’s a representation. I barely feel like it’s still me but I still recognize that there’s real power in the idea of putting oneself out there in a literal way. So, in the workshop students will do that and experience what it feels like to place oneself out there to be seen and observed.
A student who is from an underrepresented community and takes part in the workshop will start to form questions to identify and name what those feelings are. For someone who isn’t necessarily aware of those feelings, it may come as a shock to realize that they are being observed while in public. We’re going to be workshopping together online, in smaller sessions, but also as a larger group. Throughout the semester we will be putting up posters of each person’s face, so that they will continually be in this process of reflection.
CS: So, they are going to be physical posters. Will there be a digital component as well?
WD: Yes, They will be physical posters as well as a digital component. We haven’t finalized what that looks like. But we will have a unique Instagram hashtag, just as I’ve done. I’ve used Instagram as a journal or a diary so I’m going to be encouraging the students to do the same.
CS: Why this project, why Ryerson? How did this all come about?
WD: I am a Ryerson grad, and I have kept contact with Ryerson over the years. My practice has some unique aspects and with Ryerson there is an opportunity with students to allow for deeper self-reflection. I believe public engagement needs to happen hand-in-hand with inner reflection. My process really resonates with the ideas that the Documentary Media Research Centre are concerned with. So, Ryerson approached me, and said your practice seems like a really good fit, do you have any ideas of anything you might be interested in doing with us that would take advantage of that? And I said yes, let’s adapt my actual practice and share it with everybody.
As I mentioned, I like work that people can find their own way into, and that they can eventually take their own ownership of. I feel that opening up my practice to students will give them a chance to say, this really works for me and perhaps this part, not so much. It’s that push-and-pull that forms a useful creative tension as students develop their own practices.
CS: Complementing your Poster Project on FFOTO are two other series of photographs: Water and SkyWater. Can you tell me about those projects, because I don’t really have any context and I wasn’t able to find much online about them.
WD: The deeper I have been going into #whatdoyoufeelwhen and the poster images, the more I’ve wanted to connect the landscape work. The two are definitely related. At the root of the Poster Project is a question of how do we connect with each other in a profound way? Is that even possible? These days it seems like such a far-off idea, we’re simply trying to literally not kill each other. Is it even possible to talk about this kind of deeper connection that we have as human beings? Ultimately, I believe that our connection with each other is as important and elemental as our relationship with the earth.
When I’m at Ryerson, I’m going to be doing a class about the sublime idea in landscape, which I actually kind of have a problem with. The notion itself feels antiquated, as though it’s tied to old ideas of the way people envisioned God and nature. To me the sublime is an attempt to put language to the elusive and indescribable inside of us, profound feelings of being connected to things larger and outside of ourselves.
CS: That’s awesome. And I am actually on my last question. This is on topic, I think, but it’s not super connected with Ryerson. I’m just wondering if you can explain a little bit more about your career as a cultural mediation consultant, and how that all works, and how it ties into what you do with your photography practice?
WD: Well as I said before, you know, cultural mediation really is about me using the core of my experience to basically establish a context for other people to have a better understanding of the issues that confront underrepresented people. And the way into it has been interesting. So, I did the original project, and part of the evolution was that I started to conduct workshops and talks around it.
I do cultural mediation work with the Toronto Art Therapy Institute. I was interested in assisting professionals in helping fields to create context that anybody could access. We often don’t even recognize that within a place like therapy, there’s a very specific cultural character to it, and it can unknowingly be exclusionary without the therapist even recognizing it. Out of that I started to recognize the necessity for my social practice, that there’s a real value in the outside world to find others ways to have conversations about these topics.
I've engaged a lot of people who have been involved in anti-Black racism teaching and cultural sensitivity training. So much of that work, which is essential and necessary, is about the transfer of knowledge. The thinking is if I can get you to understand this thing, you will change your behaviour because you’ll understand my experience the way I lived it. Time has shown me that’s not how we tend to work as people, often when somebody tells us we are supposed to behave or think a certain way we are probably going to do the opposite. We can have all the knowledge in the world, and that’s not going to change our actions or attitudes. So I began to focus on a transformation of person rather than a transfer of information.
WD: I’m not trying to belittle all of the work that so many people I know and love do, but I want to accept how we are as people so we can get past the limits that we keep bumping up against. I think focusing solely on education is not sufficient to move us to new ways of being with each other.
CS: Thank you. I think what you’re doing is an amazing project. I’m really excited for Ryerson to be able to participate in it. This has been such a really great interview. Thank you so much.
WD: It was great chatting.
Interviewer Cassandra Spires holds a BA in art history from Queen's University, and is currently an MA candidate in Ryerson's Photo Preservation and Collections Management program. Her current research interests include Canadian photography and decolonial practices in public institutions.