Saturday evening I went to the University Settlement for a slide presentation, which I thought was going to deal in part with the Lower East Side. It did begin with historic photographs of the neighborhood by important photographers like Jacob Riis and Berenice Abbott, but the contemporary work shown was from other places–four dyspeptic views of the dark side of American society–post Katrina New Orleans, foreclosure misery in Florida and Cleveland, Indian poverty at Pine Ridge, and a fashion show for women in prison. The program included Alan Chin, Brenda Ann Kenneally, Andrew Lichtenstein, and Anthony Suau.
One of the photographs shown by Anthony Suau depicts a Cleveland sheriff carrying out an eviction. It was the winner of the World Press Photo of the Year in 2008. One website compares this image to the famous Eddie Adams street execution photograph from Vietnam. The assumption is that warfare has come to the streets and homes of America. To me, the photograph is more ambiguous–a police officer stepping through a house strewn with trash, fearful that danger lies beyond the next door. We know it is an eviction, but we know little else of the circumstances. There are different possible scenarios. The larger issue of what led to foreclosures across the United States is the back story, not the immediate one of a fearful step forward by an officer with his gun drawn.
All of the subjects presented by the five photographers are serious, non trivial areas of inquiry, and I was impressed with the skill and commitment of the photographers, but ultimately I have grown so weary of this kind of you-are-there photojournalism that I can barely look at it any more. Surely this is the opposite of the reaction desired. The idea is to expose injustice and shock viewers into action. I am afraid that most people, like myself, tend to look away. The historical Lower East Side pictures were shown as inspiration and motivation for the slides to follow. The biggest difference between the older work and theirs is the difference between showing and telling. Modern photojournalism tends to more openly interpose the photographer between the story and the viewer.
That said, however, I don’t have a new paradigm of photojournalism to offer, and I am aware of the limitations of what I do, which is also a kind of photography that seeks to address social issues, if in a more round about manner. All I can say is that I am, and have been, searching for a way that is more inclusive and acknowledges the complexity of issues and the inherent difficulties in conveying visual meaning.
In the photograph above–taken yesterday–there is a person just barely visible in the midst of the shopping carts and bags. What is the meaning or value of this kind of photograph? The sharp sun and shadows, the colorful plastic bags, the crazy incongruity. I do not expect every picture to answer the questions raised, but over the course of my work, I do hope that some threads of meaning become recognizable, some justification emerges, for what is inherently an exploitative enterprise.
Just before going to the University Settlement event I was pleased to meet Kristin Ellington of the multi-media firm Funny Garbage. We talked about the Lower East Side, my photographs, and her interest in creating a website dealing with the neighborhood, history and the present. I am looking forward to seeing her project take shape.