Threat Level Zero: An Artistic Dilemma

“That picture is not for publication and you need to remove it from your web site or else you HAVE just comitted your suicide !!!! Ever hear of the Diablos !!!!!! Remove that picture and I suggest you discard any negatives NOW”

I received this email the other day from one of the people I photographed at the Holyoke St Patrick’s Day parade, from what I remember they agreed to have their picture taken, it was a pleasant exchange and ended in me giving them my business card. This begs several questions. What went wrong? Who are the Diablos? What the hell should I do?

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I forwarded this email to a bunch of people, first as a lark, then more seriously as the fears set in. As usually happens, my initial anger was softened when I started to piece everything together.

It was a picture in conjunction with some pretty terrible writing that made this person angry, I realized that the picture on its own might come off weird, but it was my over enthusiastic hyperbolic caption that brought the Diablos (a biker gang out of Westfield whose members have been arrested for drug trafficking) into the discussion. Let me quote the most offensive line of my prose

“Her disaffected stare repeating the dead plastic smile of her stuffed animal, the decapitated parents reinforcing her alienation from the nuclear family”

I talked to a couple parents who were sympathetic to my cause, but they all said that the idea of you’re child being taken from you (metaphorically through photography) and then injured (ditto) through words could make anybody murderously angry. When I reread my comment through their eyes I realized I sounded like a raving lunatic, some one who just might deserves a visit from the Diablos. So I took down the comment. Looking at it with fresh eyes changes the whole meaning of the photograph.

What was I trying to say with my super pompous, dark reading of the picture, was that a photograph shares only a tangential connection with the reality ‘recorded’ in front of the camera. I was showing off how I could take something as wholesome as a family on a Sunday stroll and make it weird and dark. I then took this somewhat unsettling image and jumped off the deep end with my words, in a way that frightened my once willing subject into anger. I want to say for the record that I apologize for that, it was bone headed and wrong of me, and my sister/editor wants to point out that I didn’t run it past her and that she would have nipped it in the bud (so really it should be her you’re angry with)

Now I’m a guy who sees the humor in everything, and whats really funny is both my accuser and I are guilty of the same thing, being too hyperbolic, bursting through the line between legitimate discourse and outright nastiness. I stand by the picture 100%, but I actually have to thank this person for opening my eyes to an important conundrum.Image

The material for my art is living breathing human beings with feelings. I believe that as an artist I have the right to use them for whatever purpose I’m after. The sculptor doesn’t care what the clay thinks when he is transforming it into an expression of his psyche. Unfortunately my material has turned around to bite me in the ass. So what should I do? If I try and censure myself into only finding positive things to say with my art, I worry it might lose whatever power it has and die. However I can never lose sight of the fact that these are people so decent and trusting that they let a fat sweaty bald stranger into their lives, if only for a moment, to make his art that they will never profit from. Maybe I’ve gotten so comfortable in the street that I forgot that the little image in my camera is a person just like me.

The only reason any of this happened is that I’m trying to promote myself, for years the images lived on a semi private photo stream, where I could be sure that the subjects would never find themselves and only other photographers, who would understand the stupid jokes, would see them. Of course as I discussed in the previous post (You Down with OPC) this was never really the case, but once I started handing out business cards that linked to this blog, I was opening up a can of worms that I am still struggling with.

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I took part in the first ever All Visual Boston slide show event, which was headlined by the Great (if underrated) Bill Burke. I finally worked up the nerve to talk to him right before he went on, and I asked him a bunch of dorky pointless questions about how awesome it must have been to be shooting free Polaroid neg/pos film. What I really should have asked, in retrospect, is what are his feelings about portrait ethics. The big E word makes me uncomfortable, I feel that real photographers just go for the picture, while smart aleck pusses sit around on the sidelines clucking amongst themselves. Bill Burke’s portraits can be brutal, and he doesn’t shy away from a little editorializing in the captions either.

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Intellectual property stolen from Bill Burke

What would make his opinion on ‘ethics’ so interesting is that he was using Pos/Neg instant film, so his subject knew exactly how they were being portrayed (admittedly after the deed was done) how did this change his interaction with his subjects and his photography. Hopefully I’ll run into him someday and be able to get some answers. In the meantime I’ll have to figure it out on my own.

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This blog is for you (you being friends, strangers, and my subjects) but more importantly its a place for me to try and solidify my ideas about art making by writing down all the dumb ideas I have running through my brain, so I’ll make a deal with you. I’ll agree to look both ways before crossing the street from now on, if you agree to think twice before getting the Diablos involved. Deal?

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2 thoughts on “Threat Level Zero: An Artistic Dilemma

  1. Right after I moved to a new town, I went out photographing… random people things in skyways and malls. Was feeling pretty good, laying claim to “my” territory and all. Then, after a particular snap of a crowd walking toward me, this sour little man comes up under my nose. “Did you take my picture?” He hissed. I tried to explain that it was a wide angle shot, I wasn’t sure if he was in it, but he demanded my name and wanted to know why I was taking pictures. He repeated my name a few times, like he was trying to remember it. He was small but seemed murderous, like he’d figure out where I lived and stab me in my sleep. He said “Go home. Go home. Get outta here.” I was pissed and scared, but I continued to shoot pictures over his head. Eventually he walked on. He sucked all the life out of that day, though.

    • Yeah, that’s happens to me pretty regularly. I realized there is no use arguing with people like that, just walk away. He was probably a decent guy who was just having a terrible day. Have you ever worked a cash register or bagged groceries in a supermarket? People flip out over the smallest things that aren’t even your fault and they get off on publicly shaming you when you put their super ‘heavy’ people magazine on top of their ‘fragile’ eggs… Its a bullshit way to act towards another human being but I’m sure you’ve over reacted to something similar… That’s why I try and do the opposite as often as possible, when I’m having a good day I try as compliment as many strangers as possible, people give me weird looks sometimes but its better than getting out aggression behind the wheel or over your check book at the register.

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