Dena Porter’s new photo exhibit urges us to take action

This photo, “Be Curious” (2018), was carried by a gun violence protester at a march to the U.S. Capitol. —Dena Porter

While Dena Porter’s new photography show “Come Together: Reflections on the National Political Scene” may be small in number, it’s long on impact. Her seven rich images are about activism, and urge us to take action too. 

Porter’s show reflects just a smattering from the hundreds of photographs she’s taken in recent years at countless marches of all sorts, and they show us what these opportunities of engagement can look like. She fittingly starts each title with an action verb. “Be Curious,” a close-up of a poster with the pronouncement “This is Not Okay,” which immediately conveys Porter’s belief that “at some point we have to come together and say this is not OK. The shots are reminders that we have to do something different to get to a better place.”

In “Express Yourself,” we stare down a vast receding wall inside a New York City subway station around the time of the last presidential election. People have papered it with hundreds of Post-its expressing their opinions about freedom of speech, the candidates, and the campaigns. “What I found fascinating is how many people came to read what was posted,” Porter reflects. “They were continuing to find space on the wall for their own Post-its. Some people drew cartoons, some wrote captions, some wrote words of encouragement or inspiration or shared a story of their own personal experience. I think the beauty of this is that you get thousands and thousands of perspectives about what’s going on, and maybe learn something from taking a few minutes to take in what’s posted to the wall. I really appreciated watching people taking pictures and posting it and forwarding messages — creating dialogue about perspectives.”

Another central theme in Porter’s work is the injunction to listen to multiple points of view. For instance, she hangs two photographs side by side with divergent sentiments on the issue of gun control.

In “Stand for Something” (2018) this person dressed in the likeness of Abraham Lincoln to express his concerns about gun control. —Dena Porter

“Know the Perspectives” is a portrait of a group of pro-gun advocates who had been sequestered from the rest of the rally they were attending, whether to protect them or protect the marchers is unclear. Porter says, “This group was pretty angry, and felt their minority status at this rally. People were occasionally coming up to them and saying stuff. I did hear some taunts toward them. But I also heard people try to have conversations with them,” she adds, 

In “Listen and Learn,” Porter positions herself in front of a stage at an event, photographing the audience looking up at the people on the stage who are sharing stories of loved ones and lives lost. Perhaps most poignantly, she captures a woman, likely a mother, consoling a child who is burying his head against her shoulder, clearly having difficulty dealing with a loss.

In “Vote,” a teenager holds a poster that says, “I’m Mad Now and I’ll Be Mad When I’m 18,” which speaks to the need to encourage the younger generation to take action. “Whatever the issues are, whether it’s gun rights or women’s rights, we have to be thinking about the new generation who are going to be coming of age to vote,” Porter says. “People fight and die for the right to vote in other countries. I think every vote matters, even if the Electoral College is not optimally reflecting the country’s sentiments around a candidate.”

Porter intentionally doesn’t show the faces of the individuals carrying signs in most of her work in order to focus on the universality of the message. And she chose to print in black-and-white because, as she explains, “The issues are difficult to resolve, but the issues are simple in the sense that there is something really wrong that we have got to do something about. And in that way, it feels like black-and-white too.”

In “Come Together for a Cause,” Porter shoots the image of her spin teacher, who she says is a consummate bridge builder. He is an African American man, and the woman he is greeting at a fundraiser event is white, and the contrast of their skin color in their entwined hands is the central focus as they warmly greet each other. “He always gives a hug hello or acknowledges everyone coming into his spin class. And when he sees a guy in the class who approaches him for a handshake, he says, ‘Hello my brother’ and that is regardless of race, background, or experience. I think we have to do a lot more of this, find common threads that we want to rally around and come together for a cause that we believe strongly in. I put it last because I think all of the other pictures are of protests, but at the end of the day you have to find a way to find common threads and to agree more than disagree on whatever the issues are that are facing us.

“I hope the show gives people some ideas if they aren’t already utilizing some strategies to come together. Hopefully the photography, my capturing some of these moments, will motivate them to try new things.”


The opening reception for “Come Together: Reflections on the National Political Scene” is August 2, from 6:30 to 8:30 pm. Show runs through Sept. 1 at the Oak Bluffs library.