The Power of Self-Representation: Deirdre Visser and Skywatchers

Dickerman Prints is grateful for the opportunity to have collaborated with the Skywatchers project - a multi-disciplinary endeavor that brings to light the complex interaction of social, political and economic forces in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood.

After printing a series of self-portraits for a recent Skywatchers exhibition, we had the pleasure of chatting with Deirdre Visser - Director of Community Engagement for Skywatchers, local Bay Area educator and curator at the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS). Her latest project, "I am a Skywatcher, Too," communicates the stories of different subjects through self portraits.

To make the project as approachable as possible, Deirdre kept her setup simple — a white sheet in the corner of the Luggage Story Gallery and a digital camera on a tripod. 

After helping set the proper exposure, Deirdre would hand off the remote control shutter release and let her subjects become the photographer. Then, once they had created a collection of images, Deirdre would show them the photos and let them choose their favorites for printing.

Deirdre Visser with the self portrait series 

Deirdre Visser with the self portrait series 


What does this project ultimately mean to you personally and how exactly did you get involved? 

"I got involved in the Tenderloin about 5 years ago through Anne Bluethenthal's Skywatchers program, an awesome multidisciplinary performance project in which neighborhood residents — particularly folks who live in Community Housing Partnership sites — work collaboratively with professional artists to create works that draw on the histories and concerns of the residents. Anne is a colleague and a dear friend, and Artistic Director of ABD Productions/Skywatchers. I started coming to Skywatcher events as the official photographer and as I got more involved in the program, I started helping with strategic planning and organizational development, but all of those processes are rooted in the Skywatcher community.

Two years ago I did a portrait project with Skywatcher participants, but in that case — though they chose their favorites, and wrote accompanying text pieces about what it means to be seen, and what passersby don't see — it was me making the photographs. It was always clear that the next step was to create the structure in which they would make self-portraits.

While I feel very much a part of this community in some ways, and love the collaborative work we do and the relationships we build, I don't have to daily confront the very deep challenges of the neighborhood."

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How did you get people to participate?

"Over three weeks before Christmas and Hanukkah, I opened up the space at Ellis and Leavenworth and invited neighbors to come make a portrait. We gave them an 8x10 print, and promised that all would be represented in a late January exhibition. 

I often headed out onto the streets of Ellis and Leavenworth, asking people to come into the gallery and take a photo ... welcoming anyone that wanted to participate. I also set up the same sheet, camera, and tripod scenario for the gallery's holiday party - and that inspired a few group portraits that became apart of the series."

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What kind of post work was done?

"Hardly any, if at all. Most of the time, I would send the images off to Seth Dickerman and let him work his magic with the images. " -Deirdre Visser

"This was a wonderful project to print.  These are very moving self portraits by people who do not normally have the means or wherewithal to have their portraits made at all. I was happy to use my skills to print these portraits with the care and attention which they deserve. I wanted them all to be heroes!" -Seth Dickerman, Photographic Printer 

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Besides Rita, is there anyone else you built a special connection with in particular? Or, did you become close with all your subjects? 

"I have an especially close relationship with Rita because I was in a position to help her navigate the health system at a crucial juncture in her life. It was a very intimate time over many months, as medical advocacy can be. While I love and respect many of the other Skywatcher ensemble members, Rita and I are a special case."


Do you believe that this project brings positive light to a community that is often ignored and associated with negative affiliations? ( ex. the Tenderloin is referred to as one of the roughest areas of SF )

"Folks who hold power in our society are much more able to control their own representation; my desire is to create the framework for everyone to have an opportunity to represent themselves. For this project I stood out on the sidewalk and invited neighbors to make a self-portrait in a very simple studio setting I created. Everyone got an 8x10, and through Seth's generosity, many participants got larger proof prints as well.

The Tenderloin is many things, and sometimes what's lost in the telling by those who don't live there is our shared humanity. I hope that viewers can see that in these images."


Do you have plans to continue this line of work or do you have another community building project in mind for the future?

"I don't yet have the next thing in mind, but I think we've started something that I'd like to build on. I also think there's room to consider a book project with these portraits, perhaps accompanied by their writing.

Next up on my plate with Skywatchers is a leadership training project which I am working with Anne and the Skywatcher team to design and implement. The intention is that participants increasingly take control of the program planning."

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More About Skywatchers: 

"More than five years ago Anne Bluethenthal and ABD Productions (ABD) initiated the Skywatchers project in collaboration with Community Housing Partnership (CHP) in order to engage formerly homeless residents of the Tenderloin in high quality creative experiences that illuminate their lives and stories.

The CHP residents, too often reduced to statistical data, become storytellers, co-creators, performers, and audience members—working in close collaboration with ABD dancers and associated artists.  The connectivity intrinsic to creative collaboration is helping participants build trust in each other, and nurturing the desire for self-efficacy.

The humanizing impact of sharing one’s own story, both to be heard and to see that story in a broader social context, creates the space for participating residents to imagine and manifest change."

Special Thanks to Darryl Smith at The Luggage Store for generously sharing the 509 Ellis space for both the shoot and the exhibition.

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