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The images in “Mirror to the World”—the eighth annual documentary photography exhibit curated by District photographer Frank Van Riper at Glen Echo’s Photoworks—are worthy successors to the franchise. But the degree to which the exhibit owes its success to the accompanying captions—rather than just the images—shouldn’t be underestimated.
Consider the sweeping scope of the series by Dorte Verner, a Ph.D. economist. Verner hopscotches the globe, visiting 10 countries in all, tracking the impact of climate change on indigenous peoples, from dried-up lakes in central Asia to mudslide-prone villages in Thailand. It’s such a far-flung trek, in fact, that it’s hard to know what you’re looking at—much less than the connection to climate change—without the explanations.The image that stands out is the one of Iranian nomads and bird in flight (top). As Verner explains, the Qashqai people rely on their careful observations of the birds’ behavior to tell them about environmental and food conditions in their area, but this behavior is becoming more unreliable as the climate changes—a potentially life-and-death problem for the Qashqai.
The other four photographers offer series far narrower in scope. Michele Egan’s images of winemaking in the Alsace are as rustically pleasant as they sound—too much so, perhaps, to be intellectually fulfilling. Similarly limited in scope but more compelling are Brian Flynn’s images of the hard-bitten lives of fishermen on Campobello Island, New Brunswick. Flynn’s photographs—overwhelmingly gray, though with some surprising splotches of skyborne pinks and yellow rainslickers—are elevated by Studs Terkel-like commentary about the seafarers’ lives.The two strongest contributions to this year’s exhibit are those of Ginger Werz-Petricka and Mark Parascandola.
Werz-Petricka photographed the crumbling Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, which was built with low doors so prisoners would have to bow upon entry and was lit by thin skylights known as “slits of God.” The prison, in operation from 1829 to 1970, permitted Al Capone to serve his time in what looks like a rather cozy, book-lined study (middle). But other images tap gainfully into the durable trend of ruin porn, including a grim medical ward and a barbershop inhabited by a rotting barber’s chair. The decay in Parascandola’s images, by contrast, is intentional—a selection of historical movie sets in China, made for films for the Chinese domestic market that will almost certainly never reach America’s shores (bottom). Mostly beige-toned and printed in a large format, Parascandola’s images fit snugly within the definition of “Mirror to the World”—they take you to a place you almost certainly haven’t heard of before, but are glad you have seen.
To May 29 at Photoworks at Glen Echo Park, 7300 MacArthur Blvd., Glen Echo. Free. (301) 634-2274. Sunday–Monday 1 p.m.–8 p.m., Saturday 1 p.m.–4 p.m.