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Meet Toronto’s Photo Laureate

Michèle Pearson Clarke is Toronto’s Photo Laureate for 2019-2022; find out how she’s using her platform to promote visual arts and inspire change in the city.

Michele Pearson Clarke

Michèle Pearson Clarke. Image by Giulia Ciampini

As Toronto’s Photo Laureate, Michèle Pearson Clarke is using her platform to spark important contemporary conversations while uplifting the voices of artists across the city. Nearing the halfway mark of her three-year term, we chatted with this incredible visual artist, teacher and activist to find out what she’s been up to, and where she’s headed in the years to come.    

AGO: Toronto’s Photo Laureate is asked to champion photography and spark conversations about important issues in the city. In the first half of your tenure, how have you achieved this mission? 

Clarke: The wonderful thing about being Photo Laureate is that the appointment allows you to make the role what you want it to be. For me, I have tried to focus on engaging Torontonians in thinking about the work that photographs do, and the ways in which they influence our relationships to others in the city. We all look at photographs, we all take photographs, so whether we know it or not, we all already have a relationship to photography, and I’m interested in encouraging us to take a social justice approach to that relationship. I’ve also been trying to advocate for all photographers, but especially queers, BIPOC folks and women who may not have had the same opportunities as others. 

AGO: The relationship between power and images seems to be a common theme for you, what role does photography play in speaking truth to power?

Clarke: Since its invention, photography has been seen as a way of providing visual evidence, a form of truth, and this “truth” has been used by powerful systems to maintain and entrench that power. But at the same time, people with less power have also long used photography to speak out against the negative representations and distortions that have circulated throughout mainstream media for decades. To do this, we employ two main strategies: Some photographers seek to fill gaps in our visual culture, like Alia Youssef, who photographs Muslim women because she doesn’t see her culture represented or those stores told. Others create images that speak back against a distorted image or stereotype, like Zun Lee, who created a well-known series called Father Figure that fights negative stereotypes of Black men by showing them loving and caring for their children. Both of these strategies create other forms of truth. 

AGO: What projects are you currently working on and what are you most excited about? 

Clarke: Most of my exhibitions have been postponed, but I’m really excited and grateful to have just been selected to be the inaugural Artist-in-Residence at The Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies at the University of Toronto for a new pilot program. Everything will be online, but the residency will allow me to meet with students, have office hours, guest lecture in sexual diversity classes and contribute to the intellectual life of students and faculty in the program. The residency also invites artists to spend the year working on a project to be shared with the public. 

In conjunction with my role as Toronto’s Photo Laureate, I want to use this residency to extend my practice into curation. With help from colleagues in the Bonham Centre, and mentorship from curators at the AGO and elsewhere, I am going to spend the year researching Queer and Feminist curatorial strategies that will culminate in and exhibition, curated by me, examining Queer and Trans photography in Canada. I want to take this chance to queer the curatorial process while showcasing the works of Queer and Trans photographers from across the country.   

AGO: Speaking of curation, you spoke with the AGO’s Associate Curator of Photography, Julie Crooks about the Montgomery Collection of Caribbean Photographs last week. Why are you excited to see this collection here, in Toronto? 

Clarke: The Montgomery Collection is such an exciting acquisition and the response to the talk has been incredible. People who grew up in the Caribbean haven’t really had access to a broad visual representation of our history. These photos feel almost personal, because they show what people wore, what people ate and what people were doing during this time period across the Caribbean. In Toronto we have a strong connection to these cultures, and we have a long history of a Caribbean presence in Canada. Having this collection available to inform and inspire our communities is incredibly important. 

AGO: As the Photo Laureate, what other activities are you up to these days? 

Clarke: As part of my Photo Laureate work, I write a monthly column for the Toronto Star discussing a specific photograph and its relevance to us. I’ve also set up an Instagram account (@TOphotolaureate) to feature the work of other Toronto Photographers alongside my reflections on photography issues and my experiences out and about in the city. In my role, I’m also happy to support photographers and photography programming however I can. If anyone is interested, reach out through my website and I would be more than happy to connect about any upcoming projects.   

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