In conversation with Glenn Ruga about ZEKE Magazine and Social Documentary Network

ZEKE magazine - Vol. 1, No. 1
ZEKE magazine – Vol. 1, No. 1

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. - homepage – homepage

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.

Spread from ZEKE Vol. 1 No. 1 - April 2015 - photos by Dario de Domenici and Tiana Markova-Gold
Spread from ZEKE Vol. 1 No. 1 – April 2015 – photos by Dario de Domenici and Tiana Markova-Gold

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.

Current installation at Bronx Documentary Center -  Social Documentary Network - Visual Stories Exploring Global Themes
Current installation at Bronx Documentary Center – Social Documentary Network – Visual Stories Exploring Global Themes

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.

Simon Høgsberg’s Grocery Store Project uses facial recognition to tie strangers’ lives together

I’ve been a fan of Simon Høgsberg‘s work since first running across We Are All Gonna Die back in 2009. I was especially happy to receive an email from him a few weeks back announcing his newest ambitious photo-internet installation, The Grocery Store Project. The photographer took ~97,000 photos of people outside a grocery store in Copenhagen and then used facial recognition in the free Picasa photo software to identify common passersby in the photos. He then created an interactive website of these photos showing these people at different times and how their trips past the grocery store interact with other people seen in other photos. That sounds convoluted, but if you spend some time with the project website, you’ll see it’s a simple and fascinating idea.

I asked Simon if he’d be interested to discuss the project a bit over email. Our conversation is below. I’ve cleaned up the grammar a little. The smiley-faces were in Simon’s original responses.

M. Scott Brauer: In the “About the Project” text you describe how you made the work, but not the why. Could you explain your motivations behind the project a bit?

Simon Høgsberg: If we can accept the theory that the universe came out of nothing, it may make sense to think that a project can arise from nothing. I like the idea that something can pop out of nothing, that material can appear from a source full of nothingness. In the case of The Grocery Store Project, though, I doubt that was the case. The first photograph that was taken in front of the supermarket on Vesterbrogade in Copenhagen appeared to be taken as a reaction to a sense of confusion I felt in relation to a tendency among the citizens in the capital of Denmark. Why do we look so worried when we move through the city alone?

One day in April 2010, I had a camera in my hand. I was outside the supermarket, a zoom-lens on the camera, and I thought, now I want to prove to my fellow citizens that we look sad, not happy. I thought I had a great case…a good point. The point was that perhaps it was time for us to wake up and realize how fortunate we are, us Danes, if we begin to compare our standards of living with those of citizens in most of the countries in the world. Spending a day gathering photo after photo of worried-looking faces I felt discouraged. Because it was no fun at all spending my time trying to prove a point that was in no way uplifting.

But I kept returning to the bike rail outside the supermarket with my camera. And of course this was because something else, something bigger, something fresher was motivating me to return and zoom in on humanity. I didn’t know exactly why I kept returning to the supermarket taking thousands of images of a crowd in flux. A sense of love for the likeness I felt in the presence of the many people coming towards me. Freezing face after face with a click felt a bit like an obsession, and like every obsession it seemed to have no end. Shooting away outside the supermarket I promised myself to follow this obsession to the end whatever the end looked like or turned out to be. In this way the project grew organically.

Privacy seems to be a much bigger issue in Europe than in the US, though it’s growing here. European laws, for instance, have proven difficult for facebook, google, and other tech companies. There are also laws in some European countries regarding a person’s right to their own likeness. Do you intend your work to say anything about these political issues?

What matters to me is to try to somehow contain or grasp or take in what I find beautiful and substantial, and to spend my time sharing this with the world. Like every other human being I want to give, to let my ability for generosity bloom. If anything, this includes the law, prohibits me from being generous this will be a cause for frustration. Because if you prevent a living organism from giving what it finds natural to give, such prevention will eventually lead to destruction.

I have heard and read that street photography in Germany is a difficult business because in the country there are strict legal rules in regards to photographing people and showing the photographs on the web. I’m not entirely sure that I would’ve been able to do a project like this had I done it in Germany. I’m not very knowledgeable in relation to the specifics of the German rules on street photography but from what I’ve read, a photographer cannot take close-ups of people in public spaces and show these photos on the web, even though such photos could be categorized as art. If this is true I’m happy that there are still many countries in the world, Denmark included, where you are free to do that as long as your motives for taking the photos are pure, and fueled by curiosity.

It would be unwise to prevent the human organism from studying and capturing by means of the camera, say, the behavior and appearances of other human organisms in public. Unwise, because the data and information about humanity that projects such as The Grocery Store Project reveals, holds great value. Is that a political statement? :-) You can’t stop love with legal action. If you do, as a state, you shoot yourself in the foot. That’s one of the beautiful things about life, that it can’t be contained, controlled in the long term.

Could you speak a little more about the location you chose? Many of our readers won’t be familiar with Copenhagen or the demographics of this area. But a grocery store strikes me as being a particularly good location for a project like this: people from all different social and economic backgrounds come together in a grocery store. In the pictures, I see everything from hipsters to business people to people wearing religious clothing. Does this work accurately portray the demographics of the city/area? Did you intend it to or did that emerge as you took the pictures?

Some years ago I found myself in Denver, Colorado, USA, with a group of friends. Stomachs were empty, and food needed to be bought. A cab took us to a grocery store/supermarket, and it was obvious that no-one in the community went to this supermarket on foot, if you wanted to shop where we bought food that night you had to go there by car. Everyone did. Sidewalks are a lovely invention, I think. Because it allows you to brush shoulders with other human beings with whom you share the community. Copenhagen is full of sidewalks. The supermarket outside of which the many thousands of images of people were taken does have a parking lot but it’s tiny. Most of the shoppers file into the supermarket, their legs carrying them there, not tires. A lot of shoulders are being brushed. Just like on busy streets and avenues in New York. And in terms of the people sharing the sidewalk outside of the supermarket you get people of all kinds, in this respect that particular spot outside the grocery store in Copenhagen is a good place to collect photos of people from all areas/groups of society. When you collect data that you want to reflect the reality that you see… no, perhaps it just makes sense to say that the many images that were shot outside the supermarket seem to sort of accurately portray the demographics of Copenhagen as a whole.

Of your projects, I’m most familiar with “We are all gonna die.” Both of these projects have some similar themes: an endless stream of people, anonymity in the city, a single location. What draws you to these sorts of projects?

In the film ‘Smoke‘ written by an American author–who perhaps on a subconscious level is an inspiration to me; his name is Paul Auster–one of the main characters owns a tobacco corner shop in Brooklyn. Every morning a little before eight he takes his camera and tripod and positions it on the exact same spot, the camera always pointing in the same direction. At exactly eight o’clock he takes one picture then carries the camera back into the shop again, and that’s it. One day his friend, played by William Hurt, is invited to have a look at the many photos taken from outside the shop. William Hurt browses through the many photos, disinterestedly, these are just photos of people, nothing is going on. Harvey Keitel, playing the tobacco shop owner, encourages him to dwell on each photo, and then suddenly turning a page William Hurt freezes by the sight of a photograph showing, as far as I remember, his own wife who is now dead. And he starts to cry.

In my attempt to understand the world and how life functions my attention is often occupied in the attempt to find patterns in chaos. Patterns emerge when you stop moving and sit down and take in the full picture. Then you start to notice differences and similarities in the information that is there to be detected. If you sit down in a place where hundreds of people are passing you, and you open yourself to what is happening, at least two things happen. 1: At some point you get the feeling of becoming one with the crowd. And a sense of love for humanity or life may well fill your heart, perhaps because you recognize yourself in what enters your being through your senses. And 2: You begin to notice patterns. A lot of white trousers, for instance, women carrying sunglasses, the smell of the same deodorant used by different individuals. Patterns. And why is detecting patterns interesting? Because, I think, realizing the existence of a pattern gives you a sense of being familiar with the overwhelming amount of information available in the complex environment you’re facing. Brushing shoulders with one another, getting to know each other, becoming more familiar with your environment is something we’re drawn to deep down, I think, all of us. Be patient. I will. Something interesting often happens when you practice patience.

The website for the Grocery Store Project seems like it was a complicated work of programming and data analysis. Could you talk about the process of building this presentation? Do you have plans for presenting the work in a physical space? How might you do that?

All 97,000 images were loaded into Google’s Picasa. Picasa has a face recognition feature that allows the user to give the people who appear in an image a name. When the cursor is on top of a face, a frame around the face of the person appears, and underneath the frame is a box where you can write the name of the person. I began to give the people in the images unique names, starting with A1, A2, A3 and on. It turned out that in the course of the many months of shooting I had been photographing the same individuals more than once. One man (given the name ‘E46’) had been caught by the camera 276 times. The images of him were laid out in chronological order in a long line in a Photoshop document. In image number 3 from left this man is walking toward another man, ‘R51’, who has also been shot a number of times in the course of the 159 days of shooting. The images of him were then laid out on the Y-axis in the document, crossing the line of images showing Mr. E46. Like this, the tree of life developed organically.

The program Zoomify was bought and customized by the help of a very skillful programmer, Jon Bertelsen. This program allows you to zoom in and out of large data sets. We worked closely together for a year. And one day we realized that the site was ready to be launched. I would’ve been lost without his help.

In terms of where and how to exhibit the 2067 images that make up The Grocery Store Project (apart from showing the images online) I’m open as a book to ideas from everyone. The future will tell :-). I’d be happy to consider suggestions from anyone who would want to share… well, if anyone knows of a big wall I’d be happy to hear about it :-)

Worth a watch: Lynsey Addario on the Daily Show


It’s great to see Lynsey Addario getting so much press for her book, It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War. Hot on the heels of her appearance on Fresh Air, last night Addario was interviewed on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. You can watch the video embedded above or at Comedy Central’s website.

It’s a short interview, interspersed with Stewart’s usual acerbic wit, but it touches on many important topics including the value of frontline photojournalism, the dangers faced by conflict reporters, and Addario’s efforts to balance normal life with her work.

Not many photographers make it to the Daily Show interview chair, so it’s especially exciting to see this interview. The only other photojournalist to have been invited on to the show, that I’m aware of, is Benjamin Lowy back in 2011.