Graffiti. Road signs. T-shirt slogans. They can all show up in a photograph, along with the words they portray. Some words are subtle and have little effect. Others seem to leap out of the image and punch us in the heart. Whatever the case, words matter now, as much as ever.
This is the concept behind “Words Matter,” a juried art exhibit opening on June 15 at the Rhode Island Center for Photographic Arts, in Providence.
“The exhibit is designed to let us pay a little more attention to the words that surround us and how we react to them,” says Gershon Stark, an art photographer who is one of the show’s three judges.
The “Words Matter” theme is close to his heart. Stark, a native of New York City, worked extensively in commercial and product photography before settling in Rhode Island with his wife, Jennifer, who also is a professional artist. For the past six years, Stark has been photographing a portrait series called “Sticks and Stones,” in which subjects display – often on their bodies – the words that have most hurt them.
“In Judaism, there is something called lashon hara, which is translated loosely as ‘evil tongue,’ ” says Stark. “It really draws attention to the power and the pain caused by negative speech.”
Stark finds his subjects organically, usually through referrals or social encounters. The earliest works tended to be photographs of nudes taken in black and white on traditional film. The words appear in many ways, sometimes emblazoned on the subject’s body or painted onto an object such as a stone.
More recently, Stark has used digital cameras and made color prints, and most of his models are clothed. Sessions usually take place in the atelier that the Starks share on North Main Street, which is just down the hall from the photography center’s gallery.
“Words Matter” is an ensemble exhibit, with artworks selected by Stark, gallery director David DeMelim and physician-photographer John Femino. The many artists showing at “Words Matter” will display a wide range of subjects and tones; their single through-line is some kind of verbal element. A separate section of the gallery will be dedicated to “Sticks and Stones,” where Stark will showcase his own pieces.
“What I’ve been most surprised with is that there are many artists, many people, many photographers, who are attuned to the amount of verbal, visual cues that we get every day in our lives, and how they might affect us,” says Stark.
Stark himself is an observant Jew and has a renaissance personality: He’s a veteran surfer and avid cyclist, and has traveled all over the world, including to long professional assignments in Paris. His most creative projects have strong social themes and real-world applications, such as “Stop Traffic,” about the devastation caused by human trafficking, and the “Zipper Project,” which explores expressions through body ornaments.
“What I would like the viewer to experience or feel or react to is simply an awareness of the power of words, the power of speech,” Stark says about his series. “And hoping that in that awareness, there’s the slightest shift toward speaking more positively – not just about others, but even in a sense about themselves.”
ROBERT ISENBERG (email@example.com) is the multimedia producer for the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island and a writer for Jewish Rhode Island.