November 6, 2019

What does unity and division look like? A photo project sought to find out

A photojournalist, with help from the nonprofit First Amendment Voice, challenged other photographers to answer the questions: What binds us together? What divides us?

This photo, from the infamous "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, has become one of the most unsettling portraits of division in America. Photographer Samuel Corum (@thecorum) submitted it to the Unity / Division photo project hosted by the nonprofit First Amendment Voice. Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The world is divided. Nearly every segment of society is divided by everything but division itself, whether it be culture, gender, education, race, religion, and, especially now, politics.

The 2016 U.S. presidential election created an even wider rift that has left me feeling exhausted and fearful. As a professional photojournalist who sometimes covers politics, my social media accounts have been targeted and trolled. During the 2016 Democratic National Convention, I shared an image on Facebook of my 10-year-old daughter holding a Hillary Clinton sign. She was so excited to attend the event and show her support of “girl power,” as many young girls did. I taught my daughter that she can dream big and achieve great things. She believed in this candidate. The trolls did not! She was lambasted for holding the sign and believing in this female candidate. I was deeply disturbed and disgusted. This was my first-hand account of how society was spiraling.

A fire was ignited when I attended the 2018 First Amendment Voice Symposium in Philadelphia. The theme that year was “E Pluribus Unum or Divided?” Speakers and participants explored what unites us as a country and where social divisions might be widening. I left the symposium feeling an urge to do something.

As a curator for a popular photography hub on Instagram, I had a voice and a platform. By unifying with six other photo hubs, we had a combined following of several million. We have a responsibility as artists to address the important issues that are dividing the world and solve them visually. I felt that the theme of Unity/Division could help begin to heal a deeply divided society, or at the very least, bring awareness to the core roots of division.

I reached out to the internationally published, Lens Magazine, who agreed to interview the finalists and publish our results! The photo hubs and sponsors included: @lens_magazine, @masters_in_bnw, @pr0ject_uno, @bnw_drama, @bnw_workers, @bnw_artstyle, @bnw_mania, Eastman Kodak Company, Booksmart Studio, and BlackieApp.

Through a series of announcements via Instagram, we simply asked, “Unity / Division: What Binds Us Together? What Divides Us?”

We asked participants to tag #unity_wins_challenge, and received several thousand entries from all over the world. The photos displayed here show a sample of the artists who entered.

‘In a wrecked world, my passion saved me.” Photo by Mohamed Bourehil (@mohamed_bourehil)

Photo by Brett Pemelton (@recoveringmusician)

Dilven Tahir, a social worker and psychologist with the German NGO Wadi, holds the hand of a Yazadi woman who had been abducted by the Islamic State and managed to escape. Photo by Reza (@rezaphotography)

Photo by Oscar Arnold (@arnoldart)

What did we learn?

Submissions were mostly focused around division, rather than unity and that was OK. The challenge was like the current pulse of humanity and we don’t necessarily have the answers. It’s what people are feeling right now: divided, alone, and afraid—and it’s a global crisis. The divisions felt here in America are ricocheted all over the world.

We tapped into something; a need that people feel they have to express. That’s what the challenge was about—encouraging people to conquer the fear of expression or the feeling that their voice doesn’t matter. Everyone’s voice matters and together our voices harmonize into a powerful and beautiful song.

Everyone’s voice matters and together our voices harmonize into a powerful and beautiful song.

The challenge revealed our current national struggle to hold on to our humanity in the face of fear, chaos, and suffering. The submissions told stories of longing, loneliness, and loss without needing to pivot toward solutions or answers.

We learned that entire segments of society feel that their voices don’t matter and are not being heard. Society has ignored the suffering and not given platforms for their voices to be heard.

Our goal is to identify these groups and provide a platform through a documentary project that will impact social justice and create positive change. Art is a tool of social justice and we have an opportunity to save our democracy!

First Amendment Voice will be launching a comprehensive initiative that reaffirms and promotes our First Amendment rights and responsibilities and give voice to those who are left behind. We are looking for partnerships on this project.

The Unity and Division Challenge is a work-in-progress. We learned that people are divided and afraid. They feel that their voices are not being heard. But every person has a voice. It’s up to us to figure out how can we hear each other without fear; and how can we listen up, wake up and speak up so that all voices are heard and valued.

Gary Ell Ground Zero

Gary Ell


Gary is an internationally published photojournalist, communications director, Army veteran, Department of Defense contractor, and educator. Gary's background includes working as a marketing communications director for Safran Aerosystems (formerly Zodiac Aerospace), a U.S. Air Force visual information services director, an aircrew certified photojournalist, and an assistant professor of photography. Gary holds a Bachelor of Science degree from Rochester Institute of Technology. Garyʼs career highlights include: covering refugee exodus from war-torn Kosovo, capturing aerial photography of World Trade Center following the 9/11 attacks, and covering U.S. presidential races and other political coverage. His work has been internationally published; featured in books, music videos, and magazines; and permanently held at the National Archives.