The Truth About Us
My sister came to Los Angeles this past summer to visit us for the first time. It was really wonderful to have her here after all these years. But not long after her arrival she would inevitably see her first homeless person. Literally, her first. Yes, at 60+ years old, my small town Pennsylvania sister had never seen, in her life, an actual homeless person in the flesh.
It affected her deeply. At one point almost to tears. I don’t want to overplay this but it was obvious she was having a hard time getting past her sudden exposure to this ubiquitous part of the urban LA landscape for the first time. We had to work through it a bit and I’ll leave it at that.
After my sister left LA her reaction to seeing homeless people for the first time, and she saw a lot of them in the few days she was here, stuck with me. It called to mind how our mother reacted to the homeless problem in LA decades earlier.
My mom came of age in the Great Depression and had to quit school after the first grade to help support her family by picking cotton for 50 cents a day. Mom went on to be a business woman and active in politics, a heath inspector for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania… but whatever she did in life she did on the back of that one year of schooling and with ‘The Depression’ always on the tip of her tongue.
So I can’t recall that we ever drove past a homeless person with mom in the car without her calling attention to the situation verbally. It would be something like, “Look at that poor soul. We’re so lucky.”
I would love to be able to tell you that after a few years of this (or even weeks) my reaction to my mom’s unrelenting response to the sight of the homeless was limited to mere eye-rolls. I’m ashamed to say it was not. I pleaded with her to stop. Please, Mom. Just stop.
Thanks to my parents’ hard work and devotion to us, my sister and I grew up thinking we were rich. But growing up in the shadow of one of the largest steel mills in the world, and knowing I would most likely end up working there, which I did, began the process of disabusing me of the idea that I might be rich.
But it would be at music school in Boston, in my early 20s, when I more fully began to learn the score. The actual score. No pun intended.
Not only was I not rich, going to school in Boston showed me that I hadn’t even grown up in the American middle class. The ‘rich’ people in my hometown? They were middle class. At best.
So the point of this digression is this. We’re here in Southern California. That was no small accomplishment in and of itself. And we weren’t out in the valleys or outer counties. We were on the tony Westside. And we’re trying to ‘make it’ and anchor ourselves here and, little did we realize at the time, we would be doing so for the rest of our lives. That’s an entirely different story for another time. But the point, again, is this. We didn’t need to have our gaze constantly focused on human desperation.
We didn’t come from that and no, mom, we had never seen it at this level before either. But we needed to adapt. We needed to learn to react to the urban landscape in the way that the people who don’t have to worry about making it or anchoring themselves in Los Angeles do. Those are the people who were here before us. The people who will be here after we’re gone.
Without fully explaining Los Angeles or the coastal areas of California or even Manhattan to people who have never been here or there… there are a lot of those people. This is an affluent state and it is the most populous state in the country. And unlike the vertical cities back east the affluent of California live largely in single family homes. So the affluence is spread out. Far and wide. This is their state. It belongs to the affluent.
A long long time ago, in a place far far away, someone saw their first homeless person. But I’m not talking about someone like my sweet sister, or me, or my mom. I’m talking about the first affluent person who had the wealth and power to do something about that homeless person’s circumstances and didn’t. The first wealthy and powerful person to walk or ride by a homeless person and ignore their presence and their plight.
What culture and what economic system created that person? The person who thought it was acceptable? As I said, to be sure, it was a long time ago.
Homelessness was not, it turns out, acceptable to my sister. Literally, she could not accept it. And I guarantee you that she’s not alone and would not be unique in her visceral physical response to seeing people, for the first time, covered in rags and living on the street.
So my greater point is this. There is a difference in cultures in this country. We know that to be true in so many instances. Regional differences, economic and class differences, racial differences, political differences. But we should make no mistake (to borrow a phrase from my mother) in believing that there isn’t a very old culture of wealth and privilege in this world that decided centuries ago that homeless people sleeping somewhere on their streets was an acceptable or maybe just unavoidable aspect of life on this planet.
I believe the time is long overdue for the perspective of someone like my sister to come front and center into the conversation about homelessness in America. A perspective that doesn’t simply offer rhetorically that homelessness is not acceptable, but one that is literally not capable of accepting this failure of our own humanity.
I will not hold back from offering that I believe the further up you go in the economic ladder in society, the more acceptance there is of the societal failure represented by the presence of homeless people living on the streets. But the blame doesn’t belong solely to any one group or social class or culture.
The truth is, we accept the homeless and their suffering. We are inured to it. Someone maybe led us down the road to acceptance a long time ago but the truth is now that it is too many of us who find homelessness to be an acceptable aspect of modern life in America. It is not acceptable and never will be.
A note on photographing the homeless and my images. I shoot a lot of pictures as anyone who follows this blog knows. I therefore end up with a lot of images of homeless people. I don’t post most of those images. There is a notion that has been expressed by other photographers that it is questionable to make images of people at their worst and then publish those images to the world. The many reasons have been eloquently expressed by other street photographers. I don’t subscribe to their thinking, however, and I don’t agree with the basic arguments that are made.
But I also don’t frivolously publish pictures of homeless people for many reasons of my own.
I do think, however, that it is very important for street photographers at this time to photograph the realities of people living on the streets. I don’t think there is any one or even a few simple formulas for accomplishing this important photography. We all must bring our own creative aesthetic as well as our own motivations to the task of producing images that reveal this human disaster that is happening all around us. I will in the coming months expound on what I think matters about my images of the homeless. What matters about them in a photographic sense. Why I think and hope the images I choose to show do the job that surreptitiously taken candid photographs of the homeless should do.
Anyway. Today we inaugurate a new president. Seems this is a good day to make a change in the focus of this blog to more serious issues.
This is a repost of the very first real blog entry (after Hello World!) on this website back in 2012. I was in a very bad place at that time. My best friend was dying. I was not good with that. I was in one of those places where a person has no patience for the simpering superficial bullshit people tell each other mostly to make themselves feel better about themselves.
And although I feel strongly (always) about the message of this post, I didn’t repost it last Memorial Day. I was probably in a better mood. This year, with Memorial Day coming so closely on the heels of yet another gut wrenching domestic gun tragedy, happening this time here in my own back yard, and given everything else I see on the streets and read in the newspaper, I’m once again in a dark and unforgiving mood about my country. So fuck it.
Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’ exposed much of the truth about America. We might have looked at that work and been properly shamed and sought to make a course correction. But we didn’t do that. Anyway. Enjoy this holiday. Don’t thank our troops. Remember instead the dead ones, and their wives, and their children, and their mothers, and their fathers. And forgive me for encroaching into sanctimonious behavior with a self-righteous attitude. I have no room to talk. It’s taken me over half a century to finally wake up.
Memorial Day 2012
Cookouts! Barbecue. Hot dogs and hamburgers. Beer. Friends and family. Unofficial start of summer. Hell yeah! That’s what Memorial Day is all about. Oh and, of course, the Memorial Day sale at Macy’s. Right?
Then there’s those people who try to remind you of the more sober aspects of the holiday. Sanctimoniously thanking ‘our’ soldiers. Does that really stick with you or are they just as annoying as the people at Christmas telling us all to remember the spirit of Christmas and that Christ ‘our’ savior was born on Christmas Day?
So they had this event down at a new memorial in Irvine for service men and women who died in Iraq and Afghanistan. I saw it on the 11 o’clock news. The Northwood Gratitude and Honor Memorial looks really nice and is said to be the first of its kind in the country honoring those who have fallen in the wars on terrorism we’ve been fighting for the last eleven or so years.
But they’ve got this open mic thing going. And the wives and mothers of those who were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan come up to the mic and, if you didn’t see it, I’m telling you these women are just fucking raw. All are emotional but more than a few can barely get their words out; they’re just dying up there.
Blubbering women. Most of them young enough to be my daughter, if I’d had one. Talking about what they feel on Memorial Day.
While these women are stepping up to the mic, one at a time, to tell you the names of their husbands and sons and what happened to them – as best as they can between the sniveling and gasping and choked-off words – all over this country, millions of Americans are getting drunk, washing down burgers with Bud Lite, laughing the day away talking easily about everything that careless partying Americans talk about on a summer holiday together. Most Americans are having a good time, a welcome day off from work, celebrating the start of summer and vacation time – which is and always has been the real point of Memorial Day in our culture.
A really young woman steps up to the mic in Irvine. Her two hands are in a wrestling match with each other as she speaks.
“My name is Brooke Singer and my husband was killed in January.”
Brooke looks to be about 22. She’s wearing a pretty black dress with nickle-sized white polka dots and spaghetti straps that cut into the soft skin of her shoulders. She seems to have more to say but after that one solitary sentence she puts the back of her right hand to her face and unsuccessfully tries to stifle a sob. That hand has a mind of its own and, almost to conceal the degree to which it is shaking, Brooke drops it momentarily but then quickly raises it back again to cover her mouth, which is contorted in a way she’d obviously rather the entire world doesn’t see.
A girl who looks like she could be Brooke’s younger sister stands helplessly to her left. A woman who must be her mother puts her arm on Brooke’s back and whispers something into her ear.
If you need to be told at this point that Memorial Day isn’t about cookouts and really good shopping then I don’t know what to say to you except that you’re not alone. Not in my America.
But if you still think it’s about thanking ‘our’ soldiers and telling them how much we love them and appreciate what they’re doing for us then you really need to either wake up or grow up or maybe just look up the word ‘memorial’ in a dictionary.
If this country can ever find its soul again it will be on some hopefully not-too-distant Memorial Day. One day when enough Americans are finally able to look squarely and, maybe more than anything else, responsibly, at young women who can barely breathe as they muster the courage to stand in front of a microphone in a public square and choke out the names of their dead husbands.
Film images made with a Leica M7 and 50mm 2.0 Leica Summicron lens.
Art, Documentary, or News: Photography and Racial Politics
That title suggests a lot, I know. These are amazing times online. There are at any point, almost surely simultaneous, multiple battles occurring in larger cultural wars over things like racial and sexual politics. The recent Stephen Colbert – Suey Park skirmish was fascinating, the back and forth analysis provided me, at least, with an education in the current taxonomy of racial and gender politics at least framed by a small subset of the larger culture.
Anyway, so it now falls on photography to fire our interest and further the fine-tuning of all of our racial and political sensibilities. Here specifically, in the article I’m linking to, the analysis turns towards two different presentations of the same photographs taken (obviously) by the same photographer and how those presentations differ and cross many lines. Some that are probably okay to cross and some that are, increasingly, not.
None of us really want to offend with our photographs or our presentation of them, or to have our work frowned upon by those who are more in-tuned, sometimes by way of professional experience and sometimes by way of their own personal experiences, to the myriad and shifting protocols surrounding photography that involves the lives of people who are not us. Whoever we may be.
Okay that was tricky. I have included a bunch of MY recent images that I do (or do NOT) think work well with this subject matter. (I refuse to say. ;-)) But I repeat, these are NOT the images referred to in the articles. These are my own images, taken yesterday in downtown Los Angeles. By me.
I would love to hear what others here have to say about all of this. Please feel free to jump in. I think one place to start, maybe most obviously, is what is the responsibility of photographers to click the shutter, or not, when seeing realities that also represent stereotypes in his or her viewfinder. That would be a starting point for one discussion, actually. The blurred line betweens art and documentary photography, presentation and commentary, etc., all are other fascinating angles as well. Anyway.
Here is a quote that describes what the writer of this piece does in the linked article. It’s a great idea. The result itself might elicit a more mixed response from readers.
Below, I step through the images that Politico ran, juxtaposing the caption of the photo from Raab’s site with the Politico caption with a brief comment on how that copy effects the meaning of the picture.
via Art Photography vs. News Photography: Politico, Race and the “Other Washington” — BagNews.
I promised (or threatened) politics when I started this blog. You had to know the bloody day would eventually come. I want to apologize in advance. There Will Be Cursing.
I just want to wrap up in a neat little ball my feelings about some things I’m seeing of late.
I had a dream once that there was a revolution and I was watching it on TV. It happened in a flash in some place like South or Central America at the meeting of the Organization of American States. lol. Seriously. And the POTUS was there and so there was a big American media contingent. Bob Schieffer was covering it for CBS. The revolutionaries stormed the conference area, security never had a chance, and they cut the TV signal coming out of the country right as the mob was overtaking the conference room where the president was. Last part of the dream was Dan Rather calling out to Bob Schieffer and saying something like, I think we’ve lost Bob. lol.
Man. Did I wake up with the chills. I’m serious. This was like in the early 90s. Tried to write a short story of it but it was and would have been a silly tale without a political perspective.
The real fear of the dream was that something could overtake the world media. Shut down or steal the voice or the truth or whatever, etc.
Although I still have that concern, actually that it might have happened a long time ago, but the feeling, the chill, is long forgotten. Until now.
The coverage of this second phase of what I am thinking of as the ongoing Egyptian revolution by the American media is just flat out chilling. It’s obvious the Obama administration thought they had their boy in place in Egypt in Morsy. If that wasn’t obvious before these past few weeks it’s obvious now. Old school American politics in the middle east at its traditional best. We’ll exchange one dictator for another, for what we like to call stability, and this one was extry special (TV hick colloquialism) because he came to power in a democratic election. So the US government is apoplectic over events in Egypt and that’s been made very clear by their many statements, threats, and the decidedly negative take they’ve expressed so far.
But the American news media? Oh my God. It’s like they’ve all been to a party at Judith Miller’s house and drank something she had mixed up in a punch bowl. It’s like they’re all mouthpieces now for the American government. Noam Chomsky has to be just stroking out right about now.
I’ve been seeing it for days now but what I just witnessed on CNN with Christiane Amanpour and Anderson Vanderbilt Cooper … it just recalls for me on a visceral level the feelings I had when I woke up from that dream. The Egyptian overthrow of Morsy seems to be some sort of nightmare from hell, if these people are to be believed.
Then they interviewed one of the guys behind the movement to ouster Morsy. God he was so real. He was PLEADING the truth. It was nothing I didn’t already know or suspect … ten thousand miles or more away. I knew that the ‘people’ of Egypt were always very uneasy about what kind of government Morsy and the Muslim Brotherhood were going to give them. And their worst fears were realized over the course of the last year as he abolished and dissolved avenues of self-determination by the people of Egypt. Always underreported by the American media… but it was out there.
Even during the initial overthrow of Mubarak the Egyptian people made it very clear that if they didn’t get an actual government that gave them a voice over their own fates the first time out and if they found out, at worst, they’d just traded one dictator for another they would be right back out in Tahir Square. And Allah bless their fucking hearts, there they are.
All of this was baked into the cake and none of it is really news or a surprise. But the American-centric perspective is so dark you’d think the Russian tanks had just rolled through fucking Poland.
I don’t know if I can ever figure out how to digitally capture something from my TV onto a Mac. But I really implore everyone here to be on the lookout on YouTube for Anderson Cooper’s interview with one of the main inspirations for the revolution in Egypt and watch especially his treatment of the Egyptian and the condescending ’emotions are running high’ crack pipe he and Amanpour share at then end of the interview.
I said I wanted to wrap this all up at the top of this page. Here’s what I mean. And I know a lot of people are really anti-Edward Snowden and everything that he did. But forget about Snowden personally for a moment and his actions and really consider the media and their behavior of late.
The Snowden situation has become a catalyst for a lot of criticism of the American media, which, hello, I happen to agree with. And here is a really blistering example of that perspective which, hello again, I happen to agree with.
This is from Gawker. The link to the complete article is at the bottom. Everything from here on is not mine.
“The Washington Post Is a Bitter, Jealous Little Newspaper
The Washington Post Has the Worst Opinion Section in America. The Washington Post, the pre-Politico newsletter of choice for The Political Establishment, has the worst opinion section in America. Today, they once again prove why: the paper, which helped to break the NSA Prism spying story, editorializes that the U.S. government must stop Edward Snowden from leaking any more of that awful news.
Presumably so that Washington Post reporters cannot cover it? The editorial board of the Washington Post—a newspaper with some of the best national security reporters in America, a newspaper whose reporter Barton Gellman was approached directly by Edward Snowden, and a newspaper that chose to publish only four of the 41 Powerpoint slides that Snowden gave to Gellman— is practically praying for Edward Snowden to be muzzled, so that no more of those news stories might be leaked to papers like, you know, the Washington Post. “How to Keep Edward Snowden From Leaking More NSA Secrets,” is the editorial’s headline. (“…To Us” is only implied.)
At least we know that the Washington Post’s terrible editorial board is fully independent from its shrinking newsroom!
In fact, the first U.S. priority should be to prevent Mr. Snowden from leaking information that harms efforts to fight terrorism and conduct legitimate intelligence operations. Documents published so far by news organizations have shed useful light on some NSA programs and raised questions that deserve debate, such as whether a government agency should build a database of Americans’ phone records. But Mr. Snowden is reported to have stolen many more documents, encrypted copies of which may have been given to allies such as the WikiLeaks organization… The best solution for both Mr. Snowden and the Obama administration would be his surrender to U.S. authorities, followed by a plea negotiation.
Take note, potential leakers and whistleblowers inside the U.S. government: the official stance of the Washington Post’s editorial board is that you should shut up and go to jail. Would-be Washington Post sources may wish to take that information into consideration when choosing where to leak to.”
The Gilded Age is Back
Los Angeles is one of those places on this Earth where one can observe the extent to which the disparity between the haves and the have-nots has become a gulf of historic proportions.
Just this week there’s the story of how prospective middle class home buyers, teachers, managers, in the Inland Empire of Southern California, are attempting to purchase homes while prices are at historic lows. But the properties are being quickly bought up by cash buyers. Not local individuals, but far-off investment firms ranging from places like Wall St. to beyond including China and the Middle East.
People who live, shop, work and pay taxes in cities like Riverside and San Bernardino, and certainly soon to be Los Angeles and everywhere else in California, can’t take advantage of these never-seen-before prices for homes because people from far far away will capitalize financially at this advantageous time.
The plan, as has been reported in the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere, is to create a super-industry of residential rentals, owned and managed by the wealthy firms on Wall St. and elsewhere who can easily buy up these properties with cash. That’s right. They will then RENT these homes to the very area residents who were willing and able to buy those same properties at the prices they were sold at and, in many cases, even more as these locals have learned that they must often overbid by tens of thousands of dollars to even have a chance of winning the prize of their dream home.
Permanent far off landlords will take the place of the American dream of owning one’s own home. Someone will get rich on those locals instead of them being able to claim homes and property they were more than willing to buy and own.
Meanwhile in places like Beverly Hills and Santa Monica and I’m sure in the better parts of Manhattan and Boston and the northeast one can easily see up close how extremely well some people in this world are doing financially. What it really means to have the stock market hovering near record highs while unemployment and other economic indicators measure what continues to be an ongoing economic ditch for much of the country and the world.
I think we all better start getting used to it. Or get used to the idea that we’re going to have to do something about it at some point. Because the wealthy of this world are pulling together, across national or ethnic lines, their wealth binding them as an unstoppable force, while the proverbial and literal 99% of the rest of the world, maybe more, are relegated to being spectators watching how the top 1-percent live their lives.