March 18, 2022
Art professor explores the idea of ordinary in 'Ordinary People (Like Me)'
What started with Yoko Ono has become an ongoing visual exploration of what “ordinary” means that includes an exhibition at Contemporary Calgary, Ordinary People (Like Me) and a community art project on Instagram. It began when Contemporary Calgary was preparing for its exhibition, The instructions of Yoko Ono, and commissioned Dr. Dona Schwartz, PhD, to produce photographs of ordinary people.
“I wasn’t sure how to approach it,” says Schwartz, a photographic artist and professor in the Department of Art and Art History in the Faculty of Arts. “The idea of ordinariness is often pejorative, and it made me think about what it would mean for me to identify and photograph people and then label them as ordinary. How could I do that and not exercise a privileged judgment that I felt no entitlement to make?”
Schwartz started with the presumption that she herself is “an ordinary person, whatever that might entail.” She set about asking people she met while walking her dog in Confederation Park whether she could photograph them for the project, and whether they would suggest other “ordinary people” she could ask to participate.
“I approached several people and shared the conundrum that I thought the project created and that I was really questioning, exploring the idea.”
A few people said no. Most were intrigued and agreed. Over the summer of 2020, she shot dozens of photographs using her collaborative referral process to find more “ordinary” people to photograph. The more people she met the more she questioned what “ordinary” means.
“Almost every time I met someone, I was surprised about things I discovered that made them seem unique,” she says. “That threw the whole concept into question even more. What's the opposite of ordinary? What is extraordinary? Are there extraordinary ordinary people or ordinary extraordinary people? I think the answer is yes.”
Schwartz enlisted two of her students, Yaiza Lopez and Ryan Lee, to replicate the project to see where it might lead them. Their work is part of the Contemporary Calgary exhibition. Schwartz also started an Instagram page, @ordinarypeopleyyc, inviting people in the community to post a photo and complete the sentence “An ordinary person is …”
“I had an amazing experience meeting the subjects I worked with, and I'm in awe of their generosity,” says Schwartz. “When I look at the photographs, I think in each case I could say why there's something about this person that is really remarkable. And that contradicts the notion of ordinary all together.”