(Clockwise from top left) Ellis Johnson, Dev Thompson, Kearston Hawkins-Johnson, Sam Drake, Micheal Sweeny, and Kyle Mace. Photos: Dev Thompson and Ellis Johnson by Michael Sweeny, Kearston Hawkins-Johnson by Sam Drake, Kyle Mace and Michael Sweeny by Dev Thompson, Sam Drake by Kearston Hawkins-Johnson.

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Pass It On — FotoFocus Launches Insights: Call // Response

Posted on August 10, 2021


Insights: Call // Response is an emerging artists’ game of tag.


Insights is a FotoFocus educational initiative that supports the unique voices and perspectives of emerging regional artists through mentorship. Six artists developed a new body of work in collaboration with one another to bring their thoughts, feelings, and insights to life through a web-based presentation of still and moving images. 


Insights: Call // Response is the story of a moment. Or an encounter. Or a series of moments, encounters, and even conversations flowing between a group of artists. It’s difficult to describe because it’s so unique: A project of remote artistic collaboration, prompted only through still photographs, video, and poetry, one item inspiring the next, and together telling a communal story. 

Six artists, under the direction of Film Curator C. Jacqueline Wood, worked together from January through June of this year to complete Insights: Call // Response, which was as much a program of mentorship and collaborative curation as it was of creative image-making. Each artist started one of the six sets of images, and then they responded to each other with an image or video of their own. The interaction between the artists was through video meetings, and of course through the images themselves. The result was a kind of long-distance game of visual “tag,” where the messages carried different meanings for different artists—and the larger artistic story took twists and turns accordingly.

Left: Devin Thompson, Mill Creek Dreams – South Cumminsville, Ohio (Mon, May 24, 2021, 3:21 AM), from Insights: Call // Response exhibition website, 2021. Right: Ellis Johnson, Looking for Doorways – A Way Out – Cincinnati, Ohio (Thu, May 27, 2021, 2:04 PM), from Insights: Call // Response exhibition website, 2021

“Beyond all of the formal aspects of color and light, there’s the feeling of an image,” says Insights artist Michael Sweeny. “Although two images might not seem to be connected in any literal way, there is some association between them, an emotional mood that ties them together.” Sweeny and the other artists used this shared mood to drive their collective response. “The thing I’m excited about,” he says, “is what we made as a group. It’s less about my individual voice. One of the interesting things about this project to me was how it challenged or broke down authorship; every image that I made felt like a collaboration with the person that I was responding to.”

Insights artist Ellis Johnson had a similar instinct to lean into the sense of interdependence shared among the artists: “I think what really drove me in this project was the connection and vulnerability. I have usually worked alone on a lot of my work, and I think that the weight of leaning on others to see an image, and then having someone expectant of an image that you produce, was very important. I wanted to see everyone’s work and see how they responded to mine. So, the connections of our work and the vulnerability of lying in wait for the next image I would receive was very exciting.”

Left: Kearston Hawkins-Johnson, (Mon, May 17, 2021, 4:06 PM), from Insights: Call // Response exhibition website, 2021. Right: Kyle Mace, Cincinnati, Ohio (Thu, May 20, 2021, 12:39 AM), from Insights: Call // Response exhibition website, 2021

For Insights artist Sam Drake, the interconnectivity was linked up with our current reality of physical distance. “My portion of the project was shot primarily in Los Angeles and southern California where I was living during the duration of our work together,” Drake says. “So most of the images I was responding to were made thousands of miles away [back home]. For me this meant a connection to a broader world, when travel was impossible. My co-creators were making photographs in places that I was familiar with, but which were rendered entirely new through their lenses.”

One driving force for some artists was the idea of storytelling through imagery. Artist Dev Thompson picked up any narrative threads that he could find in his “assignment” image. “You had just three days to respond,” Thomspon says, “so I tried to continue the story. If the image was of a subway train, for example, I might focus on setting or sound.” Artist Kearston Hawkins-Johnson, whose formal education is in theater performance, also found that identifying a narrative was her way into Insights: Call // Response. “I’m very story-driven because of my background in acting,” Hawkins-Johnson says. “I tend to find the story and I try to respond to that.” 

Left: Michael Sweeny, (Sun, May 16, 2021, 6:06 PM), from Insights: Call // Response exhibition website, 2021. Right: Sam Drake, Vermont Avenue, Los Angeles, California (Thu, May 20, 2021, 2:21 AM), from Insights: Call // Response exhibition website, 2021

At times, Insights: Call // Response seemed to model a social experiment designed to examine artistic inspiration: Working in the prescribed creative environment of the program, artists were invited—compelled, even—to revise their own established approaches to making images. Says Insights artist Kyle Mace: “I was forced to be a bit more instinctive. When responding, I found that it was a really good space for me to be creative.” 

The benefits of the program also allowed the young, emerging artists to level up their personal artistry: Through the accompanying FotoFocus grant, they were able to upgrade supplies and tools. “I was making pictures that I don’t think I would have made before,” Mace says. “Before, my work was of-the-moment, documentary-style street photography, mainly using my phone. Using a new camera has opened up new questions. I’ve started to discover what interests me, what I want to research through photography. I want to continue whatever trajectory this is.” Like Mace, Hawkins-Johnson has used the experience of participating in Insights to reimagine and expand her personal artistic ambitions: “I feel like I’m more open to [photography] now,” she says. “I don’t think I could ever just be an actor anymore.” 

The choose-your-own-adventure element of Insights: Call // Response makes it fun for the artist and viewer alike. But perhaps the most interesting thing about the program is the imprint it left on its own artists. During a historic moment of shutdown, closure, and isolation, Insights was an opening of space, connection, and possibility.


Insights: Call // Response is a collaborative, photographic, and film-based project created during the Covid-19 pandemic featuring the work of six young, multidisciplinary makers: Sam Drake, Kearston Hawkins-Johnson, Ellis Johnson, Kyle Mace, Michael Sweeny, and Dev Thompson. Using the structures of digital communication, the artists in this exhibition have created works that exist as links in chains of correspondence, or conversations, with each work created in response to its immediate predecessor. 

As you scroll through the virtual exhibition you will notice “+” and “//” next to several images in each series. Both the “+” and “//” indicate the opportunity to move horizontally through the conversation to explore additional responses to the image.

Insights is a FotoFocus educational endeavor developed to encourage young, emerging students and artists in the region.


FotoFocus collaborates—locally, nationally, and internationally—to present and support photography and lens-based projects that are accessible, enriching, and engaging to a diverse public. FotoFocus inspires conversations about the world through the art of photography and film, via its partnerships and signature programming including the FotoFocus Biennial, FotoFocus Symposium, FotoFocus Film Program, and FotoFocus Lecture and Visiting Artist Series.

The Lens is the FotoFocus editorial platform, highlighting our programming and featuring in-depth conversations on photography and the moving image drawn from perspectives and insights in our community, throughout our region, and around the globe.