Stealthy photography reflects guarded opinions, promotes discussion

Photographs of Youngstown residents depict disgust and resentment, to name just a few of the responses brought on by controversial pamphlets and fliers strategically placed in their paths.

The pictures were taken surreptitiously by photography majors at Youngstown State University as part of an assignment.

Stephen Chalmers, assistant professor of photography, required his students to make inexpensive artwork that displayed a controversial topic through graphic imagery and text.

The materials were presented to people whose reactions were then photographed.

The process has been termed “culture jamming.”

The intention of the art, Chalmers said, is to change public opinion — not through written or spoken word but through photography.

Chalmers’ students chose the opinion-altering topics presented on the fliers and pamphlets.

“For the assignment, the students installed multiple copies of their artwork in a public setting, then documented the installation of their piece and the interaction of strangers with the student’s piece,” Chalmers said.

Students were instructed to “seduce” viewers in order for them to think about the selected topic. The students then had to turn in copies of their work, as well as digital images of responses.

Chalmers said the students responded well to the assignment, and they seemed to enjoy the relaxing nature of their tasks.

“The subject matter of the work was very different amongst the students in the class,” he said. “The topics chosen by the students were as varied as the students in the class.”

Amidst the projects were showcases of encouragement for taking better care of pets, not texting while driving, practicing safe sex and not forgetting about soldiers fighting the war.

Junior photography student Kristen Gismondi focused on contradictions in the Bible.

“Once I got past the initial fear of this assignment, I was extremely motivated to affect people with my message,” Gismondi said in an email.

Gismondi concentrated on the Bible’s perspective of homosexuality and the Catholic Church.

“When I was younger, I didn’t really know what it meant to be Catholic,” Gismondi said. “I just went to church every Sunday and wore a crucifix around my neck. It wasn’t until high school that I realized I didn’t agree with many of the rules that Catholics were supposed to follow.”

As a Catholic, Gismondi realized that the church’s attitude on homosexuality contradicted everything she was taught.

“As a heterosexual, I am a strong supporter of gay rights,” she said. “Many of these people are my friends and family, and they should not be denied any rights based on their sexual preference.”

Gismondi decided to place her pamphlets at local Catholic churches. She put the informational packets on the windshields of churchgoers’ cars during Mass and took pictures as the experiment unraveled.

No one at St. Luke’s and St. Charles churches in Boardman, both used in the experiment, commented on the fliers. Even

Gismondi admitted that the reactions weren’t dramatic.

Third-year photography major Calla Hierro also went out of her comfort zone for the project.

A bad bathroom experience with feminine hygiene products inspired Hierro’s endeavor. In her “documentary-like” photographs, she took pictures of bathroom stalls that she had occupied and posted them in that bathroom.

The posters — labeled “Don’t be a Hag, Use the Bag” — were aimed at making restroom-users aware of the resources available to properly dispose of their products.

“I believe that facilities supply us with bags for a reason, and that reason is to dispose of these things in a sanitary way,” Hierro said.

The students used this assignment as an outlet to enlighten the public, but also as a way to get comfortable with expressing themselves.

“Students in all fields of study could benefit from doing an assignment like this one,” Hierro said. “It is an assignment that teaches students how to be resourceful and passionate about a cause that they think is important.”

Chalmers said students could take multiple paths to promote social change and transform society.

“Dovetailing off a quote by Pablo Picasso that states, ‘If everyone would paint, political re-education would be unnecessary,'” Chalmers said.