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Alaska Quarterly Review debuts world-class photography project

Ben Anderson
Indian Border Security Force soldiers patrol the picturesque Dal Lake in Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian-controlled Kashmir. Once a tourist hotspot, the only visitors to this magnificent landscape these days are Indian soldiers.
Ami Vitale photo
Nissrine, an immigrant to the Netherlands from Morocco, reads an application form for a citizenship course in Utrecht in 2007. This portrait is a re-imagining of Dutch painter Jan Vermeer’s “Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window.”
Jan Banning / www.janbanning.com photo
Dana and Elliot, waiting for Dana to go into labor with their second child, in Troy, N.Y, June, 2011.
Brenda Ann Kenneally photo
Memunatu Mansaray imitates the Statue of Liberty, America’s symbol of freedom, during a charity boat tour. She came to the United States with a group of Sierra Leonean war amputees to receive prosthetic limbs in 2000. They had endured rebel brutality, but their vitality and spirit remained intact.
Carol Guzy / Freelance photo
In 2005 Liberia held its first elections since the end of the 14-year civil war. In this image, an excited Liberian woman casts her ballot for president. Women turned out in large numbers and were instrumental in Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s victory, Africa’s first democratically elected female head of state.
Benjamin J. Spatz photo

For the last 30 years, Alaska Quarterly Review has been a quiet giant in the Alaska arts scene -- it has earned praise and accolades not only for itself but for many authors and poets who contribute to it. On Wednesday at the Anchorage Museum, AQR will unveil its latest achievement, a collection of photographs from 68 well-known contributors commemorating the one-year anniversary of the deaths of renowned photojournalists Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros, killed on April 20, 2011, while on assignment during the civil war in Libya that eventually led to the overthrow and death of Muammar Qaddafi.

The special project, titled "Liberty and Justice (For All): A Global Photo Mosaic," is a powerful collection of images, chronicling personal and political conflicts around the world, from the U.S. to Pakistan to the Democratic Republic of Congo and many more. Some of the images are uplifting, some are violent, many are haunting.

The talent includes everyone from Pulitzer Prize winners to Alaskan photographers. Benjamin Spatz -- son of AQR editor Ronald Spatz and who guest-edited the special section -- said that all the contributors reacted with "incredible enthusiasm" when contacted about the project, which he said reflects the values of Hetherington and Hondros.

"One of the things that Tim and Chris did was to really inspire young photographers and everyone to find their own voice," Ben said in an interview with Alaska Dispatch.

The photo mosaic allowed photographers to express that "visual language," he said, accompanied by a brief commentary on each photographs. Contributors were asked to pick a photo that best expressed the show's theme, the concepts of "Liberty and Justice," which vary from country to country and even person to person, leading to a wide range of photographic themes and styles.

The project was partly a personal one for Ben; he met Heatherington and Hondros in 2005 in Liberia, and became friends. While Ben said he's happy that so many organizations are doing retrospective of the two's work, he wanted to do something new.

"They were always looking forward," Ben said. "They were the most engaged guys in the whole world. Tim in particular, he didn't know how to look backward."

And while a series of photographs may seem an odd choice for a literary magazine, editor Ron Spatz said that the commentary that accompanies each photograph lends itself to an overarching theme with many different stories being told.

"If you look at it, the idea here is to make something that's accessible that has many different layers," Ron said. "Individually, (the photos and essays) wouldn't be seen as literary nonfiction, but put it together and it becomes a very complex and, yes, literary work."

Ron added that although the photos themselves aren't necessarily revealing -- one is of an empty parking lot, another just an empty bench -- the essays add context to them, and explain how they represent the theme. That parking lot? A murder scene where a soldier was killed. The empty bench? Normally it would be occupied by female rape victims in the Democratic Republic of Congo waiting to tell their stories to non-governmental organization employees.

And while the photo mosaic represents a unique project of its own -- it will also be shown at a gallery in New York in May and be displayed in October at Alaska Pacific University -- it's also part of a celebration of Alaska Quarterly Review's 30th anniversary.

The journal was founded by Ron Spatz in 1982, and since then it has seen works that originally appeared in its pages go on to appear in "Best American Essays," "Best American Poetry" and win O. Henry prizes for short stories, among others. Spatz said that one of the most rewarding parts of editing AQR is giving authors their start.

"The thing that's most satisfying is that there have been so many people that you have given a venue, so that their vision -- their song, their story -- has been shown," Ron said. "Many of them have gotten their start with us. For some, it was a big launching point and made a big difference in their careers."

AQR is released twice each year, and the spring and summer edition is only the first special edition commemorating the event. Ron said that the fall and winter edition will also feature a special section, this time in the form of 60 poems by 60 different poets, featuring three guest editors.

Before then, though, the photo mosaic in the newest will get its grand unveiling on Wednesday night at 7 p.m. in the Rasmuson Auditorium at the Anchorage Museum. Both the elder and younger Spatzes will be on hand, along with Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Barbara Davidson and fellow contributor David Hartman. The full set of photos will be presented and accompanied by music performed by members of the Anchorage Symphony.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com