No recap of this year's TED conference is complete without a mention of the Gift Cave, an unassuming room in the Vancouver Convention Center where hordes of attendees waited on long lines for a choose-your-own-adventure conference swag experience. Broadway tickets, shoes, headphones, books—all were available for the taking at numbered stations throughout the Cave. And then there were the postcards, sandwiched somewhere between scratch-and-sniff wine books and Radio Flyer scooters.
Some of them are strangely beautiful, though the photos were clearly taken in a disaster zone. Turn them over, and the context becomes clear. "Tear Gas, W. Florissant Ave., Ferguson, Mo," reads one. Another: "Life Under Siege, W. Florissant Ave., Ferguson, Mo."
The postcards were created by photographer and TED Fellow Jon Lowenstein from photos he shot while on assignment covering the aftermath of Michael Brown's shooting in Ferguson, Missouri. They're as stomach-turning as you might expect, and they're all ready to be stamped and sent to anyone who needs a reminder that racism, inequality, and police brutality are still endemic in the U.S.
Among the eight Postcards from Ferguson images: a woman being doused with water after getting pepper-sprayed by the police, small children walking by a line of cops in the street, and a police car completely shrouded in tear gas. The postcards, says Lowenstein, showcase the strength and courage of the protestors, as well as the theatrical nature of protesting.
"What does it mean to have to write a postcard? It's simple, straightforward. I wanted to get these to a different audience that doesn't have to engage in issues if they don't want to," says Lowenstein of his decision to give out the postcards at TED, where tickets cost $8,500 and up. "In America, communities are disenfranchised and forgotten. Part of the process of bringing society together is getting stories out."
When I met with Lowenstein at TED, he had already received plenty of encouragement from attendees. One TED Fellow said that just seeing the postcards—the reminders of Ferguson—made her feel more comfortable at the often techno-utopian conference. Another attendee told him his group planned to send the postcards to their local police department.
"It would be interesting to receive this in the mail, versus seeing it on social media. It's disjunctive in a good way," says Lowenstein.
Postcards from Ferguson is part of a peace-themed collection of art commissioned by Fine Acts, a new arts organization that unites artists and activists. The organization, started by TED Fellows Yana Buhrer Tavanier and Julie Freeman, so far has commissioned six pieces of art, all from other Fellows. They include a recording of a woman doing the Islamic call to prayer (which is generally performed by men), a series of hashtagged collages examining the ongoing turmoil in the Middle East, and an installation that spells out the word Future in lightbulbs, which are turned on and off to represent countries at peace or embroiled in conflict.
Fine Acts projects are self-funded for now, but the organization plans to launch a Kickstarter campaign to help fund future themed-art collections. "The idea is not only to exhibit art but also to work with human-rights NGOs," says Tavanier.
Lowenstein has printed just 1,500 postcards so far, but if he can get the funding, he hopes to scale up to 100,000. "I want to send a bunch from Ferguson," he says. Want to be involved in the next iteration of Postcards from Ferguson? Get in touch with Lowenstein at firstname.lastname@example.org.