The son of a career army officer, Dwayne Dixon was born in Stuttgart, Germany. While studying printmaking and painting at Trenton State College in New Jersey, he began combining radical politics with his art, becoming active within the international punk underground and self-publishing a zine entitled Astronaut Etiquette. For two years following college, Dixon lived and taught in a rural town in northern Japan and traveled extensively throughout Asia. Currently, he coordinates the “Literacy Through Photography” project, directed by photographer Wendy Ewald, at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. Through his work, he combines activism and art, advocating radical change through education and collaborative art-making.
Throughout my collaborative work with children, I have been intrigued by the complicated yet clear narratives they create in describing themselves, their families, their places, and their dreams. Making and describing photographs is a powerful means for children to represent themselves and challenge the ways adults see them. For children in places such as South East Asia, it is also a way to reassert their identity in times of conflict and dislocation.
In August 2000, I began working with Karen teenagers who, having fled repression and violence in Burma, were living in Mae Kong Kah, a refugee camp of 14,000 people in the Thai jungle.
We talked about how they had arrived at the camp. I asked them to think about ways they could tell about their journeys with words and drawings, and then to think of ways they could make photographs of past events. They asked questions: “How can I make photographs of my own story when I am taking the pictures?” “Is it OK if the jungle here doesn’t look like it did back home?” “What if members of my family aren’t alive anymore?” Together we devised solutions. I asked them if pictures were a kind of “language” we could “read,” and, if so, do we all read them the same way? They quickly saw that they could use pictures to tell a story from the past by recreating symbols that were evocative of an experience. Then I asked about their dreams, and having tackled the notion of dramatizing an actual past event, the students were comfortable relating dreams and making them “real” in photographs.
As the project progressed, the translators, Naw Ken, Naw Say Moo Paw, and Naw Shar Lar Wah, became the primary collaborators of the students. These women quickly learned the rudiments of photography and, together with the teachers and principal, helped the students refine their writing. Having made their own photographs, they talked with the students about their different experiences, becoming teachers themselves as they guided and encouraged the students. The experiences of these three women are part of the multiple layers of connection that the project engendered throughout the camp’s social and educational structures.
While this project began with my own questions of how we see each other and respond to the historical contexts and changes in which we live, the images and writings of the Karen students represented their essential understanding of their culture through their own perspectives and memories. Shadowed by the definitions of themselves as refugees, and backlit by an epic but largely unnoticed war for freedom from brutal repression, these young people reveal a culturally complex world created and inhabited by individuals strong in their remembering, and eloquent in their lives.
—Dwayne Dixon, June 2001