Darryl Cowherd, Stop White Police from Killing Us - St. Louis, MO, c. 1966-67 Credit: courtesy the artist

When Raquel Monroe thinks of democracy, she envisions a certain freedom.

“I just want to see Black women—Black trans women, Black cisgender women, Black nonbinary, gender non-conforming, femme people—being able to occupy public space without fear of violence or retribution,” she says.

Monroe, an associate professor in dance at Columbia College Chicago, holds a PHD in culture and performance. This expertise in movement is what she pulled into her curated photography collection, called Black Femme Joy in Motion.

Monroe’s gallery is whimsical in its interpretation of democracy, intergenerational, and filled with black and white images with splashes of color. Images show the “quotidian in the everyday motion”: girls playing double Dutch, kids dancing, people walking through the street, smiling, looking rested. The photos center a type of movement that is not for a stage, she said, but for themselves. Even the still portraitures she included show a muscular tension that hints at that movement.

“I was interested in pictures . . . the way that the bodies are seated or the way that the bodies are still, they feel as if they are about to step up out of the camera,” she says. “They’re about to move.”

With the presidential election approaching, the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College Chicago wanted to do something different for its fall exhibition.

“What became kind of really interesting to us was to tap into a group of thinkers who all work and teach at Columbia College Chicago, who come from really varying disciplines, and to ask them a very open ended question,” says Karen Irvine, the museum’s chief curator and deputy director. “In this case, it’s the title of the exhibition: ‘What does democracy look like?’ And not to give them too much guidance, but to kind of set them loose into our collection of over 16,000 images and let them answer that question however they see fit.”

Each of the seven faculty members created their own collections, which vary in theme and structure.

“What I love about the show as a whole is that it really gets into many different ways of approaching the idea of democracy—some are literal and data driven, and others are more poetic and hopeful,” Irvine says. “So it makes a really great mix.”

Sharon Bloyd-Peshkin, an associate professor of journalism, curated a collection about photojournalism and the role of free press in democracy, both in history and today. Her gallery features photographs that show stories of protest and struggle, but also those that show joy and dignity.

“I realized that a lot of people . . . aren’t familiar with the role photojournalists and documentary photographers have played in our understanding of our communities and our culture and our country and the world,” Bloyd-Peshkin says. “And I thought this was an opportunity to bring that to light a bit, and to talk about the role of photography in documenting not only what’s wrong and needs to be changed, but also what’s good and needs to be protected.”

Bloyd-Peshkin initially thought to focus on traditional photojournalism, but she expanded her focus to include how the role of journalism has evolved to include the voices and perspectives of those who are on the ground right as events occur.

“I thought about not only photojournalists and documenting photographers, but the fact that everybody’s got a camera in their pocket now, how that’s changed things, and how that’s allowed journalists to really crowdsource information they couldn’t otherwise get and be even more complete and accurate and full in our depiction,” she said.

In addition to Monroe and Bloyd-Peshkin, other guest curators include professors Melanie Chambliss, Joshua A. Fisher, Joan Giroux, Ames Hawkins, and Onur Öztürk.

“There is a lot of optimism, but there’s also a lot of skepticism and critical thinking here, too,” Irvine said. “I think that that’s the strength of the show. You’re allowed to think about democracy in very complicated ways and from very different angles.”   v