The Question Bridge Project
Chris Johnson

"Today the ferment of his striving towards self-realization is to the strife of the white world like a wheel within a wheel....

Few know of these problems, few who know notice them; and yet there they are; awaiting students, artists, and seer- a field for somebody to discover"

W.E.B Du Bois
The Souls of Black Folks

Art is often considered to be one of those things that can be valuable without being useful. Perhaps this is why artists can so easily swing between inflated self-importance and irrelevancy. The challenge is to find something to do that deeply resonates with who you are in a way that points to the mystery of being alive. If what you do can also be helpful in some way, so much the better.

The Question Bridge project emerged when, in 1996 I was commissioned by the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego to produce a video piece dealing in some way with race as part of a multi-media exhibition entitled Re:Public curated by Richard Bolton.

The result was a very rough experimental project that tried to show how different familiar concepts like "race" look from within a racial group when compared to the view from without.

This button will take you to a short excerpt from this original Question Bridge project.

I think of Question Bridge as essentially a process based upon a few basic principles:

- First, consider the significant divisions that exist within a clearly defined demographic;

-Next, create a setting where both sides feel safe to express sincere questions they have for the other, and then, in a similar way, give the other side an opportunity to express relevant answers to those questions.

-Finally, assemble these questions and answers into a form that both can witness, as if it were in some way a "conversation".

One guiding principle is that quite a lot is revealed when you are asked to pose what for you is a meaningful question. Among other things, a question reveals what you don't know, what you are willing to discover and also assumptions that may or may not be self-evident.

The actual process of creating a Question Bridge is deceptively simple: all you do is arrive in some city, encounter people who feel strongly divided in some way from others within their racial or some other cultural group, videotape them asking a question that is deeply personal to them as if they were talking directly to this "other" person. Then you find someone who represents this particular otherness and videotape them answering this question that is presented to them on screen. Finally, you take the accumulated questions and answers and edit them into a faux conversation between these two people.

My first Question Bridge project dealt with the divisions that class, economic opportunity and cultural values have created within the greater community of African-Americans. Black people who live their lives in working-class inner-city neighborhoods, have very different views of the world and themselves, than do those who spend all of their time in white-dominated parts of our culture.

That small project worked very well, but for many reasons it never went any further until it came to the attention of Hank Willis Thomas who thought it might serve as a model for something new and different.

Hank's idea was that black men had now become the symbol of so much that has gone wrong regarding race in American culture; and then there has been the emergence of Barack Obama to radically highlight and redefine this issue.

What comes immediately to mind when you think of a "White Man"? No doubt you have an image of someone you know or know of, period.

Now do the same thing with "Black Man" as a concept and notice that an oddly dual image comes to mind: on the one hand there will be some black man you know who may or may not be a positive symbol in your life. But there will also be the opposite image; perhaps it's Obama or Nelson Mandela, or a Colin Powell-like man, or, it might be the grim stereotype of threatening "Black Man" that has so infused our culture.

Like a Necker Cube, these images are perceptually unstable and cannot co-exist, and yet they do both in fact exist in our worlds.

At the same time that a black man could become President of the United States, black men who make up 6% of our population, make up 62% of those in our prisons; and the crime and health statistics are terrifying to consider. Black women suffer also from the legacy of racism in our society but black men carry a heavy symbolic weight these days.

So, when Hank asked if I would collaborate with him on a new project called Question Bridge: Black Males I immediately agreed and the result, as of this writing, has been a journey that has taken us, first to Birmingham Alabama and then through Mississippi to the Ninth Ward in New Orleans and North Philidelphia and New York, all in three remarkable weeks.

In Birmingham we had the great honor to share a meal with Fred Shuttlesworth who redefined the meaning of courage and pride and who did as much as anyone to bring civil rights to black people in America.

The revelation of this trip and project is that nearly every black man we met enthusiastically offered to participate with questions and/or answers that were close to their lives.

The first man I encountered on this trip was sitting next to me on the plane from Charlotte North Carolina to Birmingham Alabama. His name is Ike and when I explained that the intention of this project is to show that black men have answers to the questions that challenge black men in America he immediately agreed to bring 6 other men to the motel room where we had set up our studio. This got us off to an amazing start and I am very grateful to him.

You will see one of these men in the attached project samples asking the question: At a time when children are killing children in the black community, whose job is it to nurture these children? This is just one example of the important and penetrating questions and answers these first six men gave us. The process of looking inward to find long-held but perhaps unexpressed questions, or to finally voice answers to questions and assumptions that they have lived under for years has made this project possible.

We would welcome your feedback on what you see.

Feel free to write to me here with your comments.

Chris Johnson

Thank you