Designing Awareness of Darfur

How an architect decided to use her skills to highlight an ongoing tragedy

Leslie Thomas, partner with the Chicago-based firms Larc Inc. and Larc Studio, wasn’t one to jump on causes and preach about them. However, when the architect, mother, and Emmy-winning art director (for art direction of the 1999 HBO movie Introducing Dorothy Dandridge) saw a photo of a victimized child in a March 2006 New York Times article about the genocide in Darfur, she was changed. “I was holding my child, and I just thought, ‘I have to do something about this.’ ” she says. After investigating the crisis in Darfur, where more than 300,000 people have been killed or injured by Sudanese government forces and militia groups since 2003, she sent an e-mail to everyone she knew. “I actually got some nice replies, and it made me think people might be interested in learning more about what was happening and what could be done about it,” she says. Because Thomas had been so grabbed by a photograph, she thought other people would too. She spoke with a documentary filmmaker friend about the possibility of creating some sort of photographic installation, and after receiving positive feedback from the photographer who had taken the photo that initially spurred her call to action, Darfur/Darfur began to take shape. “The crisis was really only being presented on university campuses and in Times articles by Nicholas Kristof. I thought about how a strong message could go out to people using beautiful imagery in a museum setting.” As an architect, Thomas knew the value of creating powerful environments. By getting museums involved, she knew she could work with their own architecture to present the photos in such a way that viewers would be both intrigued and enraged.

Despite discouragement from outsiders, and because of the encouragement of coworkers and friends (“It’s people like Greg Doench, my partner in Larc Inc. and Larc Studio, who really picked up my slack,” says Thomas), she kept on. Completely supported by donations and the pro bono work of everyone involved, the traveling exhibition uses high-quality projectors to show the work of eight photojournalists—three loops of 170 images over 61⁄2 minutes—on the venues’ walls, accompanied by traditional Sudanese music. The changing, digitally projected images provide visual education about the richly multicultural region while exposing the horrors of the ongoing crisis.

The installation has been shown at more than 10 venues so far, including the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, and the Jewish Museum in Berlin. Speakers such as Mia Farrow and former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan have spoken at related events, which in the future will feature such luminaries as cellist Yo-Yo Ma. “I think people want to do good things,” says Thomas, who has never been to Africa, “and when something stirs them, they will act. The images are beautiful, from a design perspective, and that may make people stop and look, and think, and write a letter or donate to a cause. Look at Guernica. Art can be about war, and can transcend distance and language to make a powerful statement.” Thomas is currently working with Melcher Media to create a book about the project, to be published in September 2007.

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