The Salem Photo League (SPL) is a new kid in town among Salem’s art organizations.  It’s a small and feisty group.  Ten folks at a monthly meeting is a solid turnout.   It’s not a camera club to share equipment tips. Rather, it’s a space for photographers who want to create images and tell stories that serve our community.

Our roots date to collaboration on a 2011 photo exhibit with the Salem Multicultural Institute, “Faces of Salem”, which portrayed the growing diversity in Salem.  Photographers involved in “Faces of Salem” continued to meet and a shared vision emerged:  to shed light on local issues and to support each other in ourdocumentary photography projects.

Although the tradition of “Documentary Photography” has a history spanning more than 100 years, it still seems novice to Salem. Documentary Photography is not decorative art.  Documentary Photography is about integrating images into a context that raises awareness and impacts social change.  A great example would be the powerful photographs of Lewis Hine, who worked with the National Child Labor Committee in the early 1900s to lobby for an end to child labor.

Actually, the name “Salem Photo League” was chosen to honor a group that nurtured documentary photographers between the 1930s-1950s:  the New York Photo League (NYPL).   Their membership included a virtual “Who’s Who”:  Lewis Hine, Paul Strand, Rebecca Lepkoff, Weegee, Lisette Model, Eugene Smith, Dorothea Lange, Margaret Bourke White, Ansel Adams.  The NYPL created a Harlem Document to expose conditions there.  From the NYPL ranks came several photographers involved in the Farm Security Administration’s landmark document on Dust Bowl migrants. The SPL is not quite at the NYPL level …  yet.  Our focus is local and smaller scale.  Yet we still make a difference, as we plug away on photography projects.

This approach to photography, as a means to an end, is what attracted new member Gil Nicholson-Nelson who joined to “hone my skills at putting together a story and to see my work have an impact on a real issue out there.”   The documentary approach resonated with Leah Moe Jones as well:  “I really appreciate SPL’s involvement in and around Salem.  I like that we focus locally on the people and activities that might otherwise go unnoticed.”

Our first endeavor after “Faces of Salem” was “Focus on Salem”, wherebymembers exhibited photo essays during First Wednesdays in 2012, on windows of abandoned storefronts along Liberty Street.  We drew attention to the downtown’s economic plight, and we shared images on local themes, such as homelessness, cultural events, health care, urban landscapes.  We’re pleased that all the storefronts are now leased, but we don’t take all the credit!

During the winter months of 2013, SPL sponsored the “Photography Talk” lecture series at IKE Box, to highlight the work of gifted photographers.  The lectures were well attended (80+), and thus “Photography Talk” will be back next year by popular demand.  There’s enough local talent to continue this lecture series for years to come.

We currently have two new projects in the works.   During First Wednesdays this spring and summer, we will launch “The Photo Diner” at the JK Gil Building (formerly home to Pete’s Place), downtown on State Street, thanks to the generosity of buildingowner Diane Gainsforth.    The dynamic space will include exhibits, slide shows, andediting demonstrations.  We will also offer portfolio reviews (just bring prints or a jumpdrive).   Furthermore, SPL members are working on creating an exhibit of photo essays to honor “Everyday Heroes” in our community.

New members at all experience levels are always welcome to join the Salem Photo League.   Membership is reasonable; it’s currently free!  All you need is a camera and a desire to serve our community, much like new member Emily Thienes-Dunay who joined SPL “to sharpen my photography skills, to get involved, and to network with prolific local artists.”

You can learn about the SPL via our Facebook page.  Meetings are held on thesecond Saturday of each month at IKE Box, at 10 am, upstairs in the Big Idea Room.  The next meeting is May 11.

About the Author:
Phil Decker is a documentary photographer who studied at the International Center of Photography in New York City.  He is a facilitator of the Salem Photo League.  Phil also serves as an elementary school principal in Salem.  You can see more of his photo essays at

This story is part of a series in partnership between Salem Art Association and Salem Weekly.  Its purpose is to address a need for more critical and analytical discussions about the arts in and around Salem, and to provide a much needed resource for artists about local opportunities and events.


 Documentary Photography
Highlighted at
“Creating Abundance”

A great venue to explore documentary photography is the exhibit “Creating Abundance: Exploring Oregon’s Harvest”, coming to the Salem Art Associations’s Bush Barn Gallery, from May 10 to June 22.  You can view images from Oregon Crop Festivals by Phil Decker, and of the Oregon Food Bank by Steve Scardina.  In addition, the exhibit includes historical photos by Dorothea Lange of farm laborers in Oregon during the Dust Bowl.  Plus there will be a display of photos of Braceros in Oregon, Mexican farmworkers contracted to harvest crops during WWII.

The opening is May 10, with an artist lecture by photographers Phil Decker and Steve Scardina from 5:30-6:30, and then a reception from 6:30-7:30.   For more information visit the SAA website at