Benjamin Wightman's Keynote Speech
Benjamin Wightman: Hello. Thank you guys very much for inviting me. This is super exciting. If this was in person, I’d probably be petrified right now. So I don’t mind being on this stage. It’s pretty cool, it’s a great segway. My name is Benjamin. I’m an artist and photographer. I’m based in Los Angeles, California. I’m working on pretty exciting projects that I’ll get into in a minute, but I wanted to start to sort of explain the origin and how this project came to be, and a little bit about my background. In 2017, I ended up taking a trip. I traveled to 30 countries working on architectural photography. At the time I thought I wanted to be a commercial architectural photographer and travel the world and photograph luxury hotels and live this great lifestyle. And so what I did was I started traveling. I started reaching out to these different properties and asking them if I can stay basically for free and in exchange, I would do photography for them. And I was building my portfolio and it was a creative way to fund this trip.
And along the way I was in Kenya and I got involved with this orphanage in Nairobi and they invited me to stay with them and I was super grateful. And sort of as a thank you, I wanted to do some sort of creative project for them that could help benefit them. And what I came up with was to photograph each one of these orphans, each one of these children in black and white, and I bought paint and paper and I presented the paint and paper to them, And I just told them, make whatever they want, any sort of art. And I digitally photographed their paintings and in Photoshop, I blended their own paintings and their own artwork onto their faces. And I’m going to share the screen here in a second and show you some examples of these.
But this was a really big turning point for me because it was really the first time I ever did a conceptual project just because I wanted to, because it means something to me. And let me get this so you can see what I talk about, but yeah, these are some of the portraits. So these are some of the portraits that I did. And I mean, there was just something really enlightening and really special to me that you’re sort of looking into this human’s eyes and you’re simultaneously seeing a part of their creative soul, like something they made. And I hadn’t seen anything like it, I’ve seen other artists painting and photography, but not in this sort of collaborative way. It was something that was really sort of like this turning point in my career. It was so powerful to me I actually left this trip early. I was planning on traveling for seven more months, doing this hotel business. And I stopped about a month after I did this project because I felt like I was wasting my time and wasting my money working on something that I didn’t like that wasn’t purposeful enough for me. So I decided to come back to the US and sort of conceptualize something bigger that I could actually work towards.
That’s sort of the origin of what this next project I’m going to talk about came from. So that was about three years ago that I got back. And at that time I just started figuring it out, I looked at this project and I was like, okay, what do I like about it? What don’t I like about it? And one thing that I was a little hung up on was the fact that it was all purely digital. I felt like the message was about this individuality and this humanity. And I didn’t like the fact that you can print out 5,000 copies of it. It lost something to me. So I started working with paint directly on paper and combining photography on top of that. So there is really just one of a kind. So now when you’re looking at this, this art piece, this artwork, you’re looking at this person and you’re like not only do I see something they created, but they physically touched this piece of paper. You can see the paint, you can see the mark that they left on it. And I think that adds an insane amount of dimension to the concept of this project. So what I decided to do was something crazy, and I’m basically on this mission to photograph one person from every country in the world. I’m using the United Nations list of a sovereign nation, which is 195 nations. And what I’m doing is instead of asking them to paint whatever they want, I’m asking them to paint a line across this paper. The only thing I tell them is it has to start on the left, and has to end on the right and whatever they do in the middle, they have complete creative freedom. I choose the color, it’s one color. And the reason I do this is that when I collect these paintings and I print their black and white portraits on top of their paintings, it’s going to be hung in this installation, that’s essentially going to connect each one of the lines segments together. And essentially it’s going to create one unbroken line that the entire world painted one representative from every country. And that’s what I started working on. I just got back a few weeks ago from Central America, and this was the beginning. I went from Mexico to Panamá and the eight countries in between. And so I don’t know if anybody had a chance to look in the exhibition area yet, but those are the portraits that you see. And I’m going to share the screen here again too. So you guys can, those of you that haven’t had a chance to see it, can take a look.
So I want to start with the color portraits. So these are them all, I’m shooting these all on film. This is a woman I photographed. Her name is Alisha in Panamá. The reason I shot this in this way is basically I wanted to show the juxtaposition of the really contemporary, modern skyline and kind of a city to this all historic building with her Indigenous clothing. Pretty much all of the portraits from Central America were Indigenous except for one, I found them just fascinating. Like the culture is so rich down there and the people are so friendly and so welcoming. And I wasn’t sure, you know, being a white American male coming in to this project, I didn’t know how it was going to be received, but I’m very cognizant in basically doing my due diligence and really making this a collaboration. And that’s why I think that the collaborative element to this painted element is so beautiful because I couldn’t do any of this without their permission because they have to physically be part of the project.
This was Amilcar and this was a portrait in El Salvador and he was just incredible. He’s a dancer. And he took me on this mountain. This is like a sacred mountain. And his culture is very similar and basically cousins to the United States Native Americans. They’re very spiritual. And he was telling me on the top of this mountain that he can tell his ancestors endorsed this project and that it’s gonna raise awareness to what he’s trying to do. He’s an educator. And it was really, really beautiful. I mean, the interactions I had with these people, it’s incredible. It really is incredible.
This was Christopher and I photographed him in Costa Rica and he’s part of the Boruca tribe and they do this basically at the end of the year, I think it’s called the Dança de los Diablos and they wear these masks and then they have other members of the Indigenous tribe dress as bulls and it’s basically a reenactment of them fighting off the Spanish Conquistadores and they’re very proud in the fact that they were one of the only regions of all Latin America that was never conquered by Europe.
So this was Amilcar in El Salvador that I was talking about. And this is Christopher. I just can’t zoom in here right now. So I apologize, but they’ll be on display for you guys to look at it. This is Dalila from Guatemala, she’s Mayan, and I’ll tell you a quick, funny story about this. I went to Guatemala last and I was just exhausted. I was burnt out. I was sort of emotionally, mentally, physically just ready to take a little break. It had been five months on the road. And it was taking a little bit of a toll on me. So I got to Guatemala and I had a woman in mind I wanted to photograph in particular, and that fell through. And there were these Mayan artisans and women on the streets that I just figured I could go up and talk to one.
I don’t speak Spanish, so I would need help. And so I tried coordinating this and it just fell through and I was like, you know what, I’m just going to have to come back to Guatemala. I just told myself, I’m not going to get this done. I booked my flight on a Wednesday. I’m not even making this up. The Tuesday before, there was a volcanic eruption and the airport closed because it was covered in ash. And my flight got delayed one more day. In that delay, I met someone who knew this woman and it was like, oh, I’m sure she’ll be down to the project. I’ll talk to her. And it happened just at the last second, which I thought was crazy. I mean, it was just really, really wild. Like some of the stories from this, it was a really special experience.
This is Jonathan, he’s Garifuna from Honduras. We didn’t get a chance to interact too much. He didn’t speak English. We talked a little bit through his aunt who sort of coordinated everything. They have a cultural center in Honduras that we’re helping sort of promote and, and rebrand.
This is Maria and she’s from Nicaragua. She’s a folkloric dancer. This is Myrna, and she’s from Belize, she’s Creole. And then this is Merida. She was the first one that I’ve photographed from Mexico. So I haven’t printed their portraits on top of their paintings yet, but what I did was like digitally photographed their paintings. And in Photoshop, I did a digital rendition. So you can sort of see the juxtaposition between the two. So for instance, this is the line that she painted and I’ll eventually print this black and white portrait on top to make a hard copy. And again, I tell them they just start on the left and they end on the right and whenever they want to do in the middle of it, it’s completely up to them.
Christopher sort of drew this really intricate and beautiful mask, Dalila made a house with a little plant. It’s really incredible. I love the idea that I’m sort of losing a lot of control over this. You know, the form of this installation in the end is really at their mercy. Like I’m trying to dictate as little as possible. It’s really beautiful. Maria drew this vine and flowers. Merida wrote love. And then the last image I want to show is just sort of what it looks like when it’s all together. I’m not sure how I will be able to zoom, but this is essentially what this is going to look like with 195 when it’s all finished, but what I plan to do, it’s not going to be flat along the wall. It’s actually going to be an installation hanging from the ceiling and it’s going to spiral, and the pages will curve and you’ll start on the outside and walk your way in.
How are we on time? I’ll be really quick. I just want to say a lot of people were asking basically how I found these people, or how I chose these people, and what I did was I started working with local nonprofit organizations in each one of these countries. And I sort of used their knowledge and their expertise to find these people. And so I developed my own nonprofit organization to sort of give back to these organizations along the way. And we have a team of 25 volunteers right now, and we’re working and working on these other mini projects in each country, basically using artists to sort of raise awareness to these cultures, so it’s really this mix of this journey, and this art project and this hopefully one day globally impactful organizations.
Diana Shepherd: That was amazing. We’re all giving you lots of there’s no applause emoji. So yeah we’ll now have a short Q&A section. So if you’d like to come up to the stage and ask any questions. I see we have a couple of people with their hands raised. So you’re more than welcome to come up to the stage or put it into the chat if that’s better for you. And you can come stand on the little blue square right next to me. And that way everyone can hear your question. We’ll give people a second, if they want to type it in the chat. Or you can send it directly to me if you’d rather not say it to everyone.
Sophia Harty-Reiter: Thank you so much for your speech. I thought it was very interesting. And I was wondering if maybe you can tell us a little bit about how you and your nonprofit is collaborating with other nonprofits in the countries that you’ve visited, what is an example of whatever those projects are.
Benjamin Wightman: So I’ll tell you the one that we’re actively working on right now is the project that we’re doing in Nicaragua. And basically what we do is we sit down with a member of this organization and ask them what is something you need help with? Do you have a project, an existing project we can help with? Do you need help with marketing or fundraising? What’s a real issue for you that we can sort of help conceptualize an answer for, through the arts. And they came up with this idea that they wanted to basically have this folkloric dance workshop and have the teacher come in, who awesomely happens to be the woman that I photographed for the project. She is the dance instructor for this project. And she’s basically teaching these techniques about the makeup and the postures and the dance moves, and she’s doing a three-day workshop. And what we’re doing is we’re coordinating a videographer to come in and record this, and it is sort of like a master class, so that the intent is it sort of encapsulates this cultural element. And it’s a way to educate. It doesn’t only educate about the culture, but it’s also a way to preserve the culture in video form. And most importantly, it’s going to be shared with children from Nicaraguan parents who live in the US that have never been to Nicaragua themselves. So they’re really learning about their own heritage. So that’s what we do. We sort of find a creative way to solve a problem, but we ask the organization what they need. It’s very dependent on the culture itself. And it’s a case by case basis. Does that answer your question?
Diana Shepherd: Yeah. I can see her nodding.
Malinka Monroy: Everything sounds amazing. And I was wondering in Mexico, with what organization are you working with?
Benjamin Wightman: Oh yeah. In Mexico, the organization is called Khadi Oaxaca and have you heard of it? They’re incredible. They gave me a tour of their facility out in the mountains. It was really beautiful. They’re working on, I think, building a store in Oaxaca city right now as well. They were incredible. Again, that was the first experience out of all this. So Mexico is definitely going to be close to my heart.
I think Diana mentioned too. If you guys don’t want to ask your questions in front of everyone, I’m going to hang out in the exhibition room where my artwork is for a while. So you can come up and talk to me. I’ll be there.
Elizabeth Schmidt: Can you hear me? I wonder, with Covid, what kind of impact it had on your work?
Benjamin Wightman: Excellent question. So I actually started this project at the beginning of last year. And I went to Mexico and I went to Belize and I went to Guatemala before all the borders shut down. And it had an insane impact on the project. When I went to those three countries, I didn’t work with any nonprofit organizations. I didn’t have this social element. It was really just going to be the art, even the process. I was carrying this, I don’t know how familiar everyone is with analog photography and printing in a dark room, but I was carrying this light sensitive photo paper around the world with me without exposing it, which was just a nightmare. And when I came back to the US and quarantined, I basically found a new way to do the project. So that wasn’t the case and that made it much easier.
And COVID, it was many months of sitting and fine tuning, I guess. So I would say it had a really big impact. And as far as traveling itself through Central America, I had to take a COVID test before going into each new country. There were a lot of precautions. They take it pretty seriously down there, but life also sort of just went on down there. It was different country to country, there were different things open and different regulations like everywhere else, but it was hard in the back of my mind cause it’s like, I’m working with these very vulnerable Indigenous communities. So I took my own health and safety very seriously. I wasn’t going on packed tours or going out to busy bars or anything. I was kind of isolating for the most part.
Diana Shepherd: We have a question in the chat and we might try to wrap it up after that. “What’s the most memorable encounter that you’ve ever had during the process?”
Benjamin Wightman: I would have to say in Belize the woman that I photographed, her name is Myrna and she is hilarious. She’s one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met. She’s like 75 or something. This really strong Creole woman. And she calls me to this day, like she called me just a week ago. She was like, ‘Hey, just calling to see if you’re staying out of trouble. Like, what are you up to’, and it’s really cool to have that sort of experience. And when I met with her, she lived in Belize city and she really wanted to take the photographs in her home village. And it’s this village where it’s like a dirt road and there’s just houses on either side and people are walking around barefoot and she was showing me where she grew up and where her family lived and all of these things. And basically I had to rent a car to go there. So we’re riding this really nice brand new Jeep and everybody’s running up to see us. And she’s sitting in the back, with the window down, she acted like she was a celebrity, calling to everyone, telling me ‘oh, back up, back up’. And that was just really incredible. I mean, we went on a two hour road trip to her hometown and, experiences like that, that’s what I want to take from this. And that was really special.
Diana Shepherd: There we go. That’s amazing. That was a wonderful sentiment to end on. And I think that maybe a good place to wrap up the Q&A on. So thank you Benjamin again, a big round of applause from everyone.
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