What is dialogue?
Our ideas borrow from tales and philosophies of dialogue where theorists emphasize exchange as a process of being and being open to others and explore the question of what constitutes meaningful dialogue.
Since the 1980s, David Bohm, a theoretical physicist, has pioneered the idea of dialogue groups, where 20-40 people come together to talk and listen to each other and have a fluid conversation where assumptions are suspended and opinions are explored. . Feeling that communication was breaking down everywhere on an “incomparable scale” (Bohm 1996), the purpose of Bohm’s method was to address social isolation and fragmentation, building trust and bringing people together. Believing that shared meaning was the basis of culture, he argued that dialogue is a way to develop “coherent meaning” (Bohm 1996).
Bohm’s ideas have been applied in fields ranging from organizational development to peace building. He evokes dialogue as a process, in which participants come together to try to understand their different beliefs and go deeper, to observe how thinking works. For Bohm, there are no hard and fast rules or an open agenda. Dialogue is a development process that is essentially about learning (Bohm et al. 1991).
There is a more explicit transformative agenda in Brazilian education theorist Paulo Freire’s conception of dialogue, which is a key part of his emancipatory approach to educating problems (most famously articulated in his 1970 book Pedagogy of the Oppressed). This brings students and teachers together to learn from each other in an environment characterized by respect and equality. Political action is central to a Freirian notion of dialogue. He proposes it as a means by which people realize a form of political and critical consciousness, through encounters with others in which the world takes a name and existing thought is questioned (Freire 1970). These encounters and conversations create new knowledge and make change possible.
These two conceptions indicate a tension as to whether dialogue is understood as an open process or is motivated by a particular purpose. For Bohm, the purpose of dialogue is exploratory as goals hinder the emergence of shared meanings and communications (Bohm 1996). Its value lies in experiencing the world of and with others and therefore cannot be controlled or excessively managed. Dialogue is unstable and implies multiplicity and contradiction. Bohm and Freire recognize that such processes can be frustrating and lead to disagreements, but that they have the potential to engage with difference and deepen understanding (Freire 1998). In visual terms, it evokes what elsewhere we have called an ever-changing form of “photography of becoming” (Fairey 2015) .1
Dialogue is traditionally understood to be based on speech and language. Since the invention of photography, there have been repeated claims that it is a universal language2 and yet there is no dictionary. The visual world consists of a large number of languages, each with their own history, variations, dialects and accents. Images, with their multiple registers of meaning, defy translation and literal definition, but we share visual codes and cultures. Our own experimentation with visual correspondence led us to reflect on whether such an exchange would be possible if we did not share a visual language (Fairey and Orton 2015). Is a common visual vocabulary essential for photographic dialogue?