On February 20, 1945, my grandfather’s plane–a B-24 called The Pale Ale–crashed in a farmer’s field near Dergneau, Belgium. Most of the crew was able to escape before the plane crashed. As luck would have it on this already ill-fated day, my grandfather’s parachute opened in time to save his life but not in time to save his leg. His leg was so badly broken in so many places that he found himself in a farmer’s field, unable to move, in Nazi occupied Belgium. Thankfully, the farmer–risking his own life–came out with a wheelbarrow and carried my grandfather back to his farmhouse. My grandfather was taken to a hospital where he would fully recover, return home, and start his family. As a child, I would often listen to my grandfather tell his epic tale of providence and survival. For him, it was a salvation story. And for me, it was the seemingly embellished memoir of a hero, with weighty consequences had my grandfather not survived.
Meanwhile, the significance for the people of Dergneau was a very different narrative. This crash coincided with the end of the occupation in Belgium. For the past several decades, a biennial memorial service there commemorates the Pale Ale Crew and celebrates the anniversary of The Liberation. A stone monument in Dergneau is etched with the names of the crew–including my grandfather’s name. An American flag that marks the crash site and, 71 years later, the earth still appears fuel-soaked and charred. The rusted remains of the plane are near by, covered in tarps to prevent further decay. Up until 2014 – which marked the 70th anniversary of the crash – none of the crew members knew about the monument or the biennial ceremonies. To think all of these years, as my grandfather recounted the harrowing tale of the crash to his friends and family, a Belgian farmer across the ocean was also telling this story.
The Shape of Memory
Every history has more than one perspective and every conversation more than one voice. I’m interested in the way stories are told from different perspectives, what is highlighted, and what is overlooked. The duality of storytelling and the way photographic information is consumed and remembered has been a recurring theme in my work. In 2012, I began researching and photographing the historical monuments and markers to the US Dakota War on the anniversary of each significant event. After photographing nearly all of the state erected markers that describe these events, the permanence and finality of these embedded stories calls into question the subjective nature of history and how we culturally do remembrance.
The US Dakota War took place in 1862 between the early settlers and the Dakota who are native to Minnesota. It concluded in Mankato with the largest mass execution in US history (38 Dakota men) and yet many Minnesotans are not aware of this tragic part of our state history. Most of these monuments were erected at the end of the 19th century and tell a settler-centric version of history using language that is outdated and polarizing. These monuments present a conundrum; to remove or alter them would be to censor a version of history and to destroy a historic artifact. But, to leave them seems to condone and perpetuate a hurtful and one-sided telling of the US Dakota War.
There is an interesting connection between the historic purpose of a photograph and the purpose of a monument. Each respectively function in a similar way: both imply truth and we tend to trust their authority. These memorials serve as a physical and permanent - albeit one-sided - reminder of Minnesota’s history. And yet, even in their perceived permanence some of the text is beginning to erode with age offering the viewer an opportunity to consider the endurance of these versions of history. Many of the photographic works from this project are a sculptural response to the historic tradition of the monument. They also explore the line between physical and digital and our often-suspended perception of truth in photography. Traditionally, photography is argued to be synonymous with recorded truth and the perceived permanence of these stone structures echo this idea. My altered images explore the idea that photographs are in many ways malleable and that not every history-set-in-stone is the full truth.
Fifteen Obelisks (after Bernd and Hilla Becher)
Erected at the end of the 19th century,each of these monuments tell a settler-centric version of the US Dakota War. Much of the language and imagery used in these historical accounts is outdated and often offensive. These monuments present a conundrum, to remove or alter them would be to censor a version of history and to destroy a historic artifact. But, to leave them seems to condone and perpetuate a hurtful and one-sided telling of the US Dakota War. These photographs underscore the complicated nature of monuments telling only the settlers version of history.
Two images, one with the monument laser-cut out and suspended over the background image. In the background image, the monument is digitally removed. It appears digitally altered, but it is in fact both physically and digitally altered.
From My Side of the World is a collaborative visual conversation between Michelle Westmark (US) and Magdel van Rooyen (SA). Over the course of six months, we have been posting photographic responses to each other’s images in blog-form. These 38 photographs explore cultural similarities and differences, landscapes, and current events. The photographs range from showing the difference in landscapes and difference in climates to visually talking about the monuments to the US Dakota war and ideas of cultural reconciliation and the illness and passing of Nelson Mandela. One of the most powerful aspects of this project has been being able to have a conversation in real time from two opposite sides of the world, through technology. Little did we know when we began this project, that it would conclude with the news of Nelson Mandela's passing. It has been a profound experience to see the overwhelming influence Mandela has had on not only South Africa, but also the world.
Michelle Westmark Wingard, posted June 10, 2013 at 9:10am near Green Point, South Africa
Shadows to move in
Magdel van Rooyen, posted June 11, 2013 at 9:27pm near Cape Town, South Africa
Michelle Westmark Wingard, posted June 13, 2013 at 4:12pm near Constantia, South Africa
Shadow under the cross
Magdel van Rooyen, posted June 13, 3013 at 4:19pm near Constantia, South Africa
In the shadow of the table
Michelle Westmark Wingard, posted June 17, 2013 at 3:33pm near Cape Town, South Africa
In the bushveld light
Magdel van Rooyen, posted June 22, 2013 at 9:25pm near Manyane Camp, South Africa
In a corn field, on the other side of the world
Michelle Westmark Wingard, posted June 24, 2013 at 3:55pm near New Glarus, Wisconsin
My side of the world: Obama visiting and Madiba slowly moving on.
Magdel van Rooyen, posted June 29, 2013 at 12:03pm near Elarduspark, South Africa
Thinking about Mandela and his example of peace, equality and reconciliation
Michelle Westmark Wingard, posted June 30, 2013 at 7:35pm near Spring Park, Minnesota
Switch off Mandela's life support?!?
Magdel van Rooyen, posted July 5, 2013 at 8:22pm near Sunnyside, South Africa
This one took me a while to find a response...and really, there are still no words. Just praying for peace and for light.
Michelle Westmark Wingard, posted July 11, 2013 at 1:13pm near Minneapolis, Minnesota
There is a thin line between honoring and exploiting. Mandela day 18 July.
Magdel van Rooyen, posted July 24, 2013 at 4:49pm near Brooklyn, South Africa
The thin line between useful and obsolete, between fear and engagement
Michelle Westmark Wingard, posted July 24,2013 at 6:27pm near Minneapolis, Minnesota
Real or fantasy...snow or rain... Car wash or a floating module in another world...
Magdel van Rooyen, posted July 25, 2013 at 11:25am near Hatfield, South Africa
Steam on the asphalt after the storm
Michelle Westmark Wingard, posted July 27, 2013 at 12:16pm near Saint Paul, Minnesota
Mist on a cold winters morning.
Magdel van Rooyen, posted July 30, 2013 at 6:43am near Mooikloof Ridge, South Africa
First morning light in downtown Minneapolis. Light reflected and falling on the still shadowed street.
Michelle Westmark Wingard, posted August 2, 2013 at 9:31am near Minneapolis, Minnesota
Last light in the bushveld. Buffaloes walking the dusty bush streets.
Magdel van Rooyen, posted August 11, 2013 at 5:24pm near Dwaalboom, South Africa
Caribou conversation...some where between real and artificial...Bell Museum diorama
Michelle Westmark Wingard, posted August 21, 2013 near Minneapolis, Minnesota
Monologue...sculpture studio University of Pretoria
Magdel van Rooyen, posted August 31, 2013 at 1:25pm near Pretoria, South Africa
A lone figure...interestingly similar to one of the sculptures at the Voortrekker monument.
Michelle Westmark Wingard, posted September 7, 2013 at 5:20pm at the State Fair of Minnesota
Dawn after a great get together.
Magdel van Rooyen, posted September 20, 2013 at 9:33am near Thabazimbi, South Africa
A gathering at the orchard to celebrate little Allie's 4th year. Bright and crisp.
Michelle Westmark Wingard, posted September 23, 2013 at 11:18am at Deardorff Orchards, Waconia, Minnesota
A visitor flown in with the wind from the first summer rains.
Magdel van Rooyen, posted September 27, 2013 at 12:00pm near Pretoria, South Africa
A colleague, a dark blue gingham shirt, a sunset.
Michelle Westmark Wingard, posted October 2, 2013 at 2:46pm at Bethel University, Saint Paul, Minnesota
Friends, witnesses at an exhibition agains human trafficking.
Magdel van Rooyen, posted October 6, 2013 at 8:58pm at Freedom Park, South Africa
Columbus Day, a national holiday and a day that is complex. It was the discovery of an already inhabited new world.
Michelle Westmark Wingard, posted October 14, 2013 at 4:08pm at Bethel University, Saint Paul, Minnesota
Loss and destruction, progress and prosperity
Magdel van Rooyen, posted October 22, 2013 at 9:23am
We traveled to New Ulm today. A town full of history, monuments and markers referencing the 1862 US Dakota War.
Michelle Westmark Wingard, posted October 27, 2013 at 6:12pm near New Ulm, Minnesota
Shifting baseline syndrome: West African Black Rhino has officially been declared extinct.
Magdel van Rooyen, posted November 17, 2013 at 1:48pm near Elarduspark, South Africa
The great horned owl was heavily hunted and endangered until the practice was outlawed in the mid-twentieth century.
Michelle Westmark Wingard, posted November 19, 2013 at 7:28pm in Naples, Florida
My vantage point on my way to work
Magdel van Rooyen, posted December 5, 2013 at 10:49pm near Pretoria, South Africa
First light after the first heavy winter storm. Taken the morning after Nelson Mandela passed away. Thinking about you and your country today as the news is filled with stories of South Africa.
Michelle Westmark Wingard, posted December 10, 2013 at 7:15am near Minneapolis, Minnesota
'Hamba kahle Tata' - Go well Father. The headline on one of our newspapers. Today the memorial service of Nelson Mandela.
Magdel van Rooyen, posted near December 10, 2013 at 8:20pm near Elarduspark, South Africa
Memorial service for Mandela today in St. Paul. We lit a candle for him and for the legacy of change and reconciliation he leaves behind.
Michelle Westmark Wingard, posted December 14, 2013 at 6:15pm near Saint Paul, Minnesota
A beautiful African sunset. Peaceful and hopeful.
Magdel van Rooyen, posted December 22, 2013 at 7:06pm near Warmbad, South Africa
Christmas Eve: frosty, merry and bright
Michelle Westmark Wingard, posted December 24, 2013 at 3:46pm near Minneapolis, Minnesota
Ending 2013 in proper South African style: sunny with slight chance of afternoon showers.
Magdel van Rooyen, posted December 31, 2013 at 3:10pm near Sinoville, South Africa
The Telephone Booth
Michelle Westmark's The Telephone Booth, is a photographic social experiment, that took place at the Minnesota State Fair on August 26th, 2012 from 9am-9pm.
Fair-goers were invited to participate in a game of visual telephone. Similar to the game of telephone (you may remember it from your Middle School days), nine Holga film cameras were available for participants to check out and take one photo somewhere on the Fair Grounds that responded to the photo previously taken on that camera. Holga cameras are known for their low-quality plastic construction that offers the unpredictability of light leaks and vignetting. You may be familiar with the Instagram aesthetic which draws directly from the look of a Holga image. There were seven simple rules listed on a sign on the Telephone Booth:
1. Fill out the camera checkout form.
2. Read the previous photographer’s descriptive phrase in the camera’s corresponding logbook.
3. Familiarize yourself with HOW to use the Holga camera (we’re going old school and shooting film!)
4. Take ONE photograph somewhere on the Fair Grounds responding to the previous descriptive phrase.
5. Do NOT advance the film once you’ve taken your photograph.
6. Return the camera to the Telephone Booth and log your own descriptive phrase about the photograph you’ve taken.
7. Please make your photograph within the ONE HOUR time limit. This will help us complete each roll of film today!
Each camera started with an image taken by Westmark somewhere on the fairgrounds that morning and each camera had a corresponding log book with a one sentence description of the first image. Each additional participant took a photo that responded to that sentence in some way and then logged a sentence of their own about the photo they took, and so on and so forth until we finished each roll of film. One-hundred-and-fifteen people participated in the project over the course of twelve hours. The images are printed in the form of contact sheets with photo credit given to those who participated, they are available for view on Facebook (fan page: The Telephone Booth).
Camera #1, Roll #1
Camera #1, Roll #2
Camera #2, Roll #1
Camera #2, Roll #2
Camera #3, Roll #1
Camera #3, Roll #2
A Reasonable Facsimile
Based on Charles Baudelaire's claim that a photograph can never be an authentic copy of real life, 12 photographers interpreted one another's photographs in a visual conversation that progressed around the country resulting in a photographic experiment in interpretation that functioned similarly to a game of visual telephone. This project explores the complexity of communication, perception and the inter-connection in an increasingly globalized/digitalized world.
Michelle Westmark began the photo chain by sending a 4"x6" postcard version of her image to be interpreted by the next photographer on the list who had a two week window to photographically respond to the image's subject, content or formal elements. They then sent a 4"x6" postcard version of their photograph to the next photographer on the list. This photographer interpreted the 2nd photo in the chain without seeing the original image and then continued the chain and so on until the conclusion of the project. Photographers and their locations include: Michelle Westmark (MN), Conor King (CO), Lindsay Borden (WA), Sarah Christianson (CA), Yasmin Etemadi (CA), Sarah Baron (NC), Sarah Stacke (NY), Salma Khalil (NY), Rachel Loischild (MA), Jason Flack (MA), Carl Sweets (IL), and Brett Kallusky (MN).
The Duality Project
The Duality Project started as a very simple study of the clothing people have in their closets. In the beginning, I asked people to choose two outfits to be photographed in, one comfortable and the other uncomfortable.
It was important that each item of clothing be something that the subject owned. The idea stemmed from all of the clothes I hang on to, purchase and never wear as well as from my mother’s “maybe it will fit later” philosophy.
As the project progressed it evolved into something much more complex and it became clear that the project is about something more socially encompassing than body image.
It has become a study of identity, gender difference, the viewer’s perception of the model, judgment of self, and each model’s duality within their respective portrait. I have been photographing people with a specific set of guidelines; which I encouraged each individual to interpret in their own way. I then set up my camera in one stationary spot and ask the model to move to different places in the frame with each change of wardrobe. Then, I digitally superimpose the two portraits together. The viewer is then faced with the judgment of which persona that particular person embraces as reality.