White Noise, part two
When I took the picture to the left, a few months ago, I was shooting from the hip, literally. I was trying to get the foggy night on camera, and was I tried to introduce an element of randomness into the pictures by shooting haphazardly, half aiming at moving targets, trying to complement the spooky, grisly fog by artificially introduced askewities (like aiming the camera at arm’s length). As you can see, photographic brilliance did not exactly ensue.
What instead happened, as I walked up the street, was that I was accosted by the driver of that bus. Picture it from her perspective: you’re driving along, and some guy (dressed in black, as it happened) snaps some pictures of you in a shifty way, and then starts walking hurriedly away into a fog of practically Jack-the-Ripper quality. Most people, I would imagine, would simply drive on. She did not; she stopped the bus, followed me half a block up the street, and demanded to know why I’d been taking pictures of her, and insisted that I erase them. She was firm; I was surprised and incoherent. But after a moment of confusion, I managed to show her that I had not, as it happened, managed to catch her on film, showing her most of my pictures in the process. At first she was hostile, an avenging angel, but she relaxed as we went through my digital roll, huddling over the tiny light of my view-finder on a dark empty street. Here are a few highlights from that evening, some of the better pictures we viewed that evening:
Once I reassured her that I had taken no photographs of her own person, she returned to the bus, and drove off. I went home, somewhat shaken, but not before getting the shot on the bottom right, which was the closest thing to a success I had. And I mulled. She hadn’t been all that impressed with my photography, but she recognized what I was doing once I explained. And while I’m not sure what she had initially thought I was up to — or precisely why she felt threatened enough to leave her passengers idling behind while she accosted me — her complaint was legible in turn: a camera is no toy, and taking people’s picture is an act of, if not aggression, at least a trespass of some sort. The necessary quotation from Susan Sontag would be this one:
“To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge—and, therefore, like power.”
Useful less as a broad sweeping claim than simply as a possibility and a question, that kind of idea is a way into thinking about the power that photography has, or claims to have, or is taken to have. To what extent was photographing this woman on the bus an appropriation? Did it put me into a relation with the world that felt like power? Not exactly, but we also won’t get very far if we don’t think about nuances like power relationships and how photography thinks about and relates to power hierarchies. Let’s add another tidbit to the story: I’m a white guy, and the bus driver was a black woman. Is that relevant? Hard for it not to be, though it still only tells a small part of it, and — again — it would be more usefully put thusly: to what extent was race or gender a part of this story? Narrative is illegible without setting, but setting is not a determining factor for plot. So it remains, for me, a question without an answer.
When I was in Tanzania, I took almost no photographs of people I didn’t know. I was too aware of the bad tourist stereotypes, too self-conscious of a history of colonialism I was trying to write about rather than live, and — in any case — far too shy to go out far out on a limb. I should have been more brave. The pictures I did take were either taken from a distance or overly performed, giving my subjects the opportunity to compose themselves.
On the left, those Maasai guys are walking along a beach in Zanzibar, kicking a soccer ball. Those Maasai guys never saw me, I imagine, and it’s a fair composition because of it; framed by tree branches, the figures float on an unearthly tableau, tropical beach and icy tundra at once. There’s something great about Maasai on a beach in Zanzibar kicking a soccer ball; the Maasai famously do not eat fish because they think it’s a kind of snake, they walk everywhere. Zanzibar is an island with bad ass seafood. Freddy Mercury was born there too, but that’s probably not relevant.
These kids in my classroom below, on the other hand, make the picture by their expressions and by their performance for me, but you’d have to know them to see their personalities shining through. Salimu sits in front because he’s a mischief maker, if canny enough to knows when to take cover behind a book and smart enough for it to do some good. Betty plays on her youthful adorableness, while her sister Mary has no time for nonsense; Saidi never seems to understand, but always smiles, and the ridiculous hood he’s wearing is to keep the nasty gash in his head from getting dirty. Gladson and Wisdom sit in the back because I let them (and they let me let them) and Gladson’s trumpet player expression is only one of his faces that are burned into my brain. These are all students who I taught twice, who were three years older when I came back three years later and did a second stint at Shinda. But it’s not a great photograph is it? Or maybe that was what’s nice about the picture: in that classroom, I was a tourist, but one who came back, and the pictures I took of them are pictures taken of friends, or something close enough.
I still have that backpack, though now I take it into a very different classroom. At some point in this post, I need to toss out some Nietzsche, so I’ll do it at the end: “To experience a thing as beautiful necessarily means to experience it wrongly.” Totally, dude.