"The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera." - Dorothea Lange
Tuesday, July 07, 2015
There's a great conversation taking place over on Roger May's Facebook page. (Roger is the tireless creator, curator and coordinator of the "Looking at Appalachia" photography project.) The lively and intelligent FB dialogue concerns a recent article in Vice Magazine called "Two Days in Appalachia," which is loudly and brashly illustrated by photographer Bruce Gilden - in typical Bruce Gilden style. It has offended many people, particularly those who live in Appalachia - and most especially those who make their own photographs there.
Apparently Vice sent Gilden to the area to do the job. He didn't have much time and chose to spend what time he had in churches and at a festival, making what most of the FB commentaries have called stereotypical and unflattering images. It's not unlike the time Vice sent photographer Alec Soth to Nome, Alaska to do a story. Residents of Nome were up in arms over his insulting and ugly portrayal of the place they hold dear.
Shooting a place as an outsider is a challenging assignment. I know. I've done it many times.
When I go to Uganda this fall, even if it is the ninth time, I will still be making photographs as an outsider. Whenever I travel to my home state of Kentucky to shoot in Appalachia, I am an outsider. When I make pictures for Operation Breakthrough in Kansas City, I am an outsider. Pretty much every self-assigned project I've done as a photographer puts me on the outside looking in: identical twins, Holocaust survivors, the homeless in Portland and Black barber shops to name but a few.
I am a curious person, eager to learn about the people around me - especially those whose life experiences are vastly different from my own. Toting a camera has often given me access, and I've appreciated and savored that over the years. I am acutely aware that it's a privilege when doors are opened to me, and in return, I try to treat my subjects with respect.
Robert Frank was one of the ultimate outside shooters when he made "The Americans." Some felt the pictures were made with empathy and a healthy sense of curiosity; others were offended. When Arbus ventured from her upper middle class NY upbringing into the seedy apartments of those living on the fringes of society, some were appreciative of the look inside while others were appalled that she "exploited" her subjects.
As a photographer, I try not to judge. But, of course, I can't help but show my own interpretation of what's in front of me. Put ten photographers in front of a subject or setting, and, of course, you'll get ten different points of view. Many photographers believe their images are nothing more than "self portraits" because they bring their own baggage to each picture, and if they are any good, those life experiences will show up in the pictures they make. I tend to agree with that line of thinking.
So are Gilden's pictures of church and festival going people in Appalachia self portraits? Were Arbus' pictures simply riffs on who she thought she was? Are mine? Are yours?
Last night I landed in Portland, my second home, for a two-month stay. I guess you could say I'm an outsider here, since I wasn't born and raised here and don't live here full time, but I love photographing here. Within an hour of trudging my suitcase to our small apartment, I made the photograph at the top of this post. Her name is Maria, and she sat alone, thoughtfully slicing away at her small piece of cheese pizza at the place Eddie and I went for dinner. She was so lovely, and the air of sadness around her kept pulling me in her direction. I finally went over to her table and introduced myself. Turns out she speaks no English (and my Spanish is very, very limited), but we managed to make this picture. She pointed to her place, and it is right across the street from where my place is. Her building is low-income housing in a fancy-schmancy part of town. Mine is not. I am intrigued by her and want to know her story. Maybe I'll end up wanting to know the stories of the rest of the residents in her building. Perhaps meeting her on my first night back in Portland was the photo-goddess' way of plopping an idea for a summer project squarely onto my plate.
And yes, I'd be an outsider. Even though I live right across the street.
For my money, it'd be a chance to expand my knowledge of the world and its inhabitants and to touch upon the humanity that connects us all.
I heart photography. Even photography that makes me mad or offends me. Because it's that sense of shared humanity - and thoughtful conversations about it - that make me feel really alive. And make me eager to lift the viewfinder to my eye over and over and over again.