I met Glenn Ruga when I first moved to Boston in 2010. He helmed Boston’s Photographic Resource Center for 4 years, bringing great exhibitions, workshops, and speaker series to the city. He’s also the founder of Social Documentary Network and recently launched ZEKE, a photo-focused print magazine published twice a year. It’s beautifully printed and filled with double-trucks. I got my hands on a copy of ZEKE at the Boston launch party and asked Glenn if he’d be interested in talking about SDN and ZEKE.
We spoke over email over the past couple of weeks. Our conversation is below.
M. Scott Brauer: Who are you? If I remember right, you worked as a photographer in the Balkans a bit in the early 90s. But then you moved into the production side of things? And you were at the Boston’s Photographic Resource Center for a while; you still put on exhibitions in Boston and New York, so you’re still keeping active in that world.
Glenn Ruga: My background has always been a cross between documentary photography and graphic communications. They are similar but very different fields. The overlap is the use of graphic images to convey information. During the 1990s I was the volunteer director of a humanitarian and advocacy organization involved in the Balkans (Center for Balkan Development) and as part of my work with this organization, I photographed and produced two traveling documentary projects; one on Bosnia and one on Kosovo. I also created a website for each of these exhibits, and the experience of creating these sites lead me directly to the concept for Social Documentary Network (SDN). At the time, in 2007, creating websites was still a challenging and costly endeavor. Today there are so many platforms for creating inexpensive websites, that it is no longer unique. But what SDN does provide is an organization, concept, web presence, and advocate for creators and viewers of documentary work.
Of course I keep active in the photo world. Having spent nearly four years at the PRC put me front and center in the Boston community, and with SDN, we have at least one show a year that opens in New York. On May 30, we had an opening for an exhibition of the winners of our last call for entries at the Bronx Documentary Center.
Could talk a little about Social Documentary Network? How long has it been going? What is its mission? What type of work do you feature and who are the photographers (where are they from? are they mostly freelancers? etc.)
SDN started in 2008, first as a web platform for documentary photographers to create online exhibits of their documentary projects. The concept is a hybrid between a website hosting service (such as Livebooks) and a means to present work and issues to a larger audience (such as the NYTimes Lens Blog). Since then SDN has also moved beyond the internet to do physical exhibitions, at least one a year, and recently we started publishing a print magazine called ZEKE.
Since SDN started, we have worked with nearly 1500 photographers and have presented more than 2000 exhibits on the website. The photographers we work with come from all over the world (literally) and are all types and flavors. Many are freelance journalists, editorial, and commercial photographers. For some, their photojournalism work feeds directly into their documentary work. Many earn their living doing other types of commercial photography (weddings, commercial, corporate, portraiture, etc.) but do their own personal documentary projects with limited expectations of financial reward from this work. Some photographers on SDN have professions outside of photography but do serious documentary work. The common thread is that they are all driven to tell stories with photographic images.
Much of the work I’ve seen through SDN comes from names I don’t recognize. You said some just do documentary work on the side because they don’t or can’t earn a living from doing this sort of photography. Do you actively seek out (or increase promotion) of these sorts of photographers (perhaps local photographers in far off places or photographers outside the mainstream documentary photography community)?
I wouldn’t use the term “on the side.” For some, making documentary stories may not be what earns them a living. It may be more accurate to say that their paid work is “on the side” to their important work, which is telling stories with their cameras. Some of the most important work done in this world is not done in the course of earning a living. Look at the civil rights workers in this country. Most did this work because it was important to do. They may have done all sorts of things to earn a living, but they are known in this world for what they did out of conviction.
We don’t seek “these sorts of photographers”. We don’t seek any “sort of photographers.” Rather we seek documentary stories from wherever they may come. But since our process is fairly open, people who may not have access to other venues see SDN as a place open to their work. We have many excellent stories on SDN from photographers in developing countries who use SDN to tell important stories. One such exhibit has always been a favorite of mine titled “Waiting to be Registered” by Sheik Rajibul Islam Rajib from Bangladesh . It was originally posted in 2009. No one in the US has ever heard of this photographer and few people in 2009 ever heard about the subject of this essay, the Rohingya in Myanmar and Bangladesh. Today this tragedy is headline news and was again on the front page of the New York Times this morning. These are the stories that find their way to SDN because there may not be other places for them. Bangladesh, for a variety of reasons, has a small middle class that produces a high percentage of excellent photographers. Some earn their living with their camera, most don’t. But if they do earn their living with their camera, it is not by telling these types of stories.
I think there is tremendous talent around the globe, and SDN does a great job ferreting out some of this work. How do you do it and why?
I think much of this is answered in the prior question, but not the why. I am a visual person and driven by the representation of the world with photographs showing diversity, complexity, texture, and nuances. I am less interested in conceptual work that immediately departs to something else or to an idea. For me, experiencing the description of our physical world in a photographic image is a tactile experience — using one of my senses that bypass my intellect, but then circles back to my intellect. First it is visual experience of form, color, texture, contrast, rhythm–the elements of two dimensions design. But then it becomes an evocation of the meaning of these visual experiences. The Rohingya photographs are a case in point. They are beautiful black and white meditations but then speak to the greatest experience of our collective humanity–migration, exodus, refugee, and persecution. Who among us does not have this experience in our history. Not the Irish, Blacks, Jews, Christians, Mormons, Asians, Muslims, native Americans (and native people the world over), Baha’I, Bedouins, latinos, etc etc etc. As large as the number pi is as large as the collective experience that is today represented by the Rohingya. That is why.
What is ZEKE? Who is producing it? How do you choose the theme of the issue? Who is the audience?
Many questions here. ZEKE is a print and digital magazine produced by SDN featuring work from the SDN website. The difference is that the magazine is highly curated, unlike the website which has less curation. But just as important is that we bring much greater context to the work in the magazine. While it is the photography that drives the selection of the work in the magazine, once we have chosen a theme, we work with a journalist, Paula Sokolksa, who writes in depth articles about the subjects explored by the photographers.
We are a very lean team. I am the executive editor, publisher, and art director. Paula Sokolksa is the writer. And then we work with a few other people who help with editing and proofreading.
How do you support ZEKE? I noticed a few advertisements in the first issue.
ZEKE is supported by sales of the magazine and by advertising. Yes, we did quite well with ads in the first issue and hope to do better in the future.
What can people expect from Zeke in the future?
Our plan right now is to produce two issues a year. The next issue will be out in September or early October. The format will be similar to the first issue; three features, interviews, and other work from SDN.
What does the name mean?
ZEKE is the nickname of my cat, Ezekiel. We wanted to get away from the seriousness of most other things that SDN does and bring something more playful into the mix. ZEKE, the one with fur and whiskers, is very playful.
Why print? Why now?
Excellent question. For one it is my background. While I have learned the digital technology, I spent decades designing print publications. But the photo community still loves print, as the interest in photo books shows. It is difficult to sell, but the product is so much more pleasurable to engage with than the digital version. The unique design of ZEKE allows us to present the photos very large, larger than you see in most other print magazine and most websites. And print lasts. It can sit on your desk, coffee table, or bookshelf for years.
What other sort of events/publications/exhibitions will Zeke and SDN be a part of? How can photographers get involved?
For photographers, everything begins with submitting projects to the website. That is where we source work for the magazine. We also do at least one call for entry per year, and the entry is identical to submitting a project to the website. As mentioned earlier, we had an opening reception at the Bronx Documentary Center of May 30. We had two ZEKE launch parties, in Boston and New York, in April. We usually make an appearance at the PDN PhotoPlus Expo in New York in the fall.
Once a month, we sent out an email Spotlight to 8,500 global contacts featuring new work submitted to the website. We also send out periodic InFocus emails, focusing on topical issues and featuring exhibits on SDN addressing these issues. Recently we sent out emails related to the Rohingya crisis, the migration crisis in the Mediterranean, and water scarcity.
We have a new program called assignmentLINK where we match up NGO assignments with photographers on SDN. We would like to see this become more active, but we have had success matching up a videographer working in Africa with an NGO that needed video of their projects.
If photographers sign up for a free membership, they will be kept informed of upcoming call for entries and other events and programs that we are involved with.
Any success stories regarding work featured first on SDN? That is, have there been books or exhibitions or publication that came as a result of being featured on SDN?
The most recent success is that one of the judges in our last Call for Entries, Jamie Wellford, is a contributing photo editor of Foreign Policy magazine. As part of his judging of this Call for Entries, he was introduced to the work of Jordi Pizarro Torrell and his project, The Believers Project. Wellford featured this work in the current issue of Foreign Policy magazine.
While we have no foolproof way of following successes because in most cases the photographers are contacted directly, we do know of print sales and publishing connections that have been made through the website.