After more than two decades and with nearly a dozen participating countries, it may be one of the most large-scale photography projects in the world. Or, at the very least, the Valley.
Through Each Others Eyes, an artistic offshoot of the Phoenix Sister Cities Commission, celebrates its 25th exchange this month at the Shemer Art Center. "25 Years of Through Each Others Eyes: A Cultural Retrospective" features more than 77 photographic prints from all over the world -- from the far east to our neighbors north and south.
Phoenix joined the Sister Cities program, an international student exchange, in 1972 as part of a national outreach established by former President Dwight D. Eisenhower. More than 2,000 cities in the United States are linked with nearly 1,800 foreign "sister" cities as part of the cultural partnership.
The photographic lens didn't play a role until 16 years later, in the late 1980s. It was then that two burgeoning photographers, Errol Zimmerman and Peter Ensenberger, were the first to embark on such an exchange, which took them to Japan in January 1988. Neither was considering the long-term effects a project like this might have, Zimmerman writes in an e-mail to New Times. No one knew it would blossom into an important conversation about cross-country and cross-continent relationships. Transcending what it means to learn about another culture, to capture it in an accessible way.
"We had a free trip, free film and a Sister Cities-sponsored exhibit of our Japan images, so we were excited about our good luck," Zimmerman writes. "When the exhibit was held in February, we realized that we had a chance to provide other photographers with this same opportunity, and that's when we began to consider this to be a 'project.'"
The two learned an immeasurable amount from their colleagues in Japan, which Zimmerman, co-founder and current Through Each Others Eyes board member, says was crucial in making the photographic partnership the experience it is today.
"It was from them that we learned what 'hosting' should be," he adds.
The art-centric exchange eventually severed ties from Phoenix Sister Cities, becoming its own non-profit organization in 1996, though the two organizations still work together to establish host cities. Today the photo project has partnerships in 11 countries, extending to Canada, Mexico, Cuba, China, the Philippines, Italy, Scotland, Ireland and the Czech Republic.
Two photographers from each country are selected to travel to Phoenix, a sister city hub, where they stay with host families who provide everything from transportation to artistic advice. The exchange lasts for a week or two, during which time numerous photographs are made, a number that will eventually be whittled to 20 printed pieces for exhibition.
"When we select new photographers, we look for both their skill with the camera and their commitment to helping people understand and appreciate cultures different from their own," Zimmerman writes. "We also want members to stay with us for 'life,' and many do."
In the program's 25 years, more than 100 photographers have produced and participated in 150 exhibitions worldwide.
This year's exhibition features work contributed by many Arizona-based photographers, including Zimmerman, Bob Rink, and Jason Grubb, who have been featured in the past. Images captured by Scottish photographer Caroline Parkinson, Riccardo Lombardo of Sicily, and Ivana Matejkova from the Czech Republic will be displayed. The collection includes other international work by two Chinese photographers, four photographers from Mexico, and 14 Japanese photographers.
The installment will be at the Shemer Art Center through Thursday, June 19, and is available to the public Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. with additional showings Thursday evenings from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. The traveling show spent the early part of the year with residencies at the Phoenix City Hall Atrium and Art Intersection in Gilbert.
"This is their big 25th retrospective, so it includes work by photographers who are no longer even involved and photographers who are brand new to the organization," says Jocelyn Hanson, executive director for the Shemer Art Center. "When [TEOE President] Bob Rink was the City of Phoenix photographer, he really got behind the Center and helped get it off the ground. I think they chose us [to host the show] because we're positioned so beautifully and centrally located."
"Through Each Others Eyes has had a long association with [the] Shemer, dating back to an exhibit we had in 1998 when the gallery was connected to the city of Phoenix," Rink writes in a separate e-mail to New Times. "Now the gallery is a non-profit, and as a non-profit ourselves, we are eager to support other not-for-profit organizations."
Since Through Each Others Eyes is a 501(c)3 nonprofit, much of its funding is received through donations from local businesses like Tempe Camera and Foto Forum. In addition to hosting its own variety of education and community action projects, Through Each Others Eyes has an annual gallery show and fundraiser, "Exposure," which will be held at the Heard Museum on Saturday, October 25.
This kind of artistic and cultural exchange is more crucial now than ever, Zimmerman writes. He calls our current national climate one of "inflexible political and religious beliefs" and notes that projects like this one not only breed understanding -- or, at the bare minimum, tolerance -- but "recognize the basic humanity in all of us all over the world."
"Our one exchange with photographers from Cuba really stands out for me, since I was fortunate enough to travel to Havana for the exhibit and experience the love and warmth of the Cuban people," Zimmerman writes. "A family treated us to a dinner and party one night on their tobacco farm in Pinar del Río that was one of the most emotional events that I have ever experienced."
"As photographers, we can break down barriers and show people sharing love and enjoying life. You can't look at our Cuba exhibit without questioning our national policy of economically isolating the Cuban people. You can't look at our exchanges with photographers in China without gaining a love for and an understanding of the historic Chinese culture apart from the political issues which often divide our two countries."
The organization's sixth exchange, with photographers from Hermosillo, Sonora, in Mexico, debuted in the Valley around the time the state Legislature passed Senate Bill 1070 -- the "show your papers" law that made it legal for one's immigration status to be questioned during routine traffic stops and the like. The impact of showcasing so many private moments was not lost on Zimmerman or those in attendance.
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"More than one person told me at the opening night reception that this exhibit was exactly what Arizona needed at that time in our history," he writes. "We were even complimented for our courage, and what we are doing is courageous!"
"25 Years of Through Each Others Eyes: A Cultural Retrospective" is on view at the Shemer Art Center, 5050 East Camelback Road, through Thursday, June 19. Open Tuesdays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. with extended hours Thursdays from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Admission is free, donations suggested. Visit www.shemerartcenter.org or www.teoe.org for more.
Editor's note: This post has been modified from its original version.