The International Center of Photography recently opened two new exhibits that explore not only our perception of ourselves, but our commitment to others and American citizenship in 2019.  Running from February 8th to April 28th, the two exhibits are distinctly different in terms of medium and content, yet work well together by comparing the human narrative throughout history to modern attempts at changing it.

“Your Mirror”, curated by Erin Barnett and assistant Claartje van Dijk, explores the way we portray ourselves, taking into account both the way people wish to be perceived through portraits as well as by whom they are photographed. Ranging from 1800s photo projects to modern day selfies, the exhibit also shows how much mediums and approaches to portrait photography have changed throughout history. Taken from the museum’s collection, the exhibit is not only diverse in its range of subjects, but also in the materials used. Modern prints are accompanied by newspaper clippings and journals relating to images from centuries past.

What is most striking about the exhibit is the strategic placement of photos, and what the intention behind these placement choices is. An image of Lee Harvey Oswald is framed next to an image of JFK Jr. saluting his father’s casket; a US General who passionately supported Japanese internment camps hangs next to an image of a female French Resistance fighter. The contrasts between these images are no doubt intentional and successfully thought-provoking, forcing museum-goers to contemplate the meanings behind adjacent photographs.

Juxtaposition in placement; an image of KKK members adjacent to South African gold miners

In contrast, “For Freedoms”, curated by Ava Hess, engages with society at large by showcasing the For Freedoms nationwide project to promote equality and social justice. Founded in 2016 by Hank Willis Thomas and Eric Gottesman, For Freedoms is a collective of artists whose aim is to raise political awareness and encourage political discourse in the United States through art. In wake of the 2018 midterm elections, the pair began a nationwide initiative, partnering with over 150 artists and community organizations to create the largest nationwide creative collaboration ever seen in the United States. From exhibitions, community events, and public art commissions, the 50 States Initiative tries to connect with Americans in order to spread the concept that citizenship is about active participation rather than ideology.

The exhibit itself showcases the work For Freedoms is doing throughout the country, including a host of recorded panels that shed light on the people behind the art. It focuses particularly on a series of modernized versions of Norman Rockwell’s “Four Freedoms” images, inspired by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union Address. Standing alongside the original posters, the new pictures are diverse and inclusive, a powerful reminder of the discussions around representation in present-day America.

The original Norman Rockwell images

The revised Norman Rockwell images, focusing on representation and inclusivity

The exhibit also plays an active role in continuing For Freedoms’ mission, serving as a collaborative space for For Freedoms members, nonprofits and the public alike. Free postcards and posters of the revised Norman Rockwell images are available for those exploring the exhibit, and there are suggestion cards asking what For Freedoms should aim to do next in making the United States a more politically conscious nation.

Both the “Your Mirror” and “For Freedoms” exhibitions examine ideas of ourselves in the context of humanity, but with very different methods. “Your Mirror” is a must-see for those wishing to track our perception of ourselves through portraits ranging across history, whereas “For Freedoms” addresses taking an active role in the future and how we choose to continue this narrative of the self. Both are extremely moving exhibitions that shine a light on individuals and society in the United States, themes of particular relevance as the 2020 Presidential Election draws nearer.

Next, check out the Jackie Robinson Exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York and the Historical Treasures Exhibit coming to the NYPL