5: The Kind of Suffering We Are Interested In
The subject isn’t always human, it could be another animal. If you’re aware of my work, you probably noticed that I use the word ‘human animal’ a lot- a term I borrowed from philosopher John Gray actually. It’s important in my mind to not single out humans being different than animals. It would be hubris, it would be wrong. We are animals too, just because we can create or enjoy art doesn’t make us any less of animal than a pig. But the worst hubris of all is the idea that we are ‘better’ than other animals. Sure it would be reasonable to fight our survival rather than a different animal species, but it still wouldn’t give us any more of a right. This idea of rights, like religion or government, are all man-made. They are not universal truths, they are our truths. We need these truths to make us nicer animals- though more often than not, we use these truths to justify heinous acts. We don’t apply them to other species. We’ve trained our children to dilute our conscience for other animals. They are stupid, we are smart, therefore we deserve more. It’s a lie and a dangerous one to boot. Being more evolved doesn’t make us better, it just makes us more powerful.
So the subject of street-photography could be another species of animal as well: the eager dog on leash who went he notices that people are looking at him endearingly, nearly jumps free from his leash just so can receive some heavy petting; a cat lurking the crevices for a little snack, perhaps to give it as a present to her provider; a couple of pigeons hurling downwards with incredible speed when they notice that some guy is throwing a piece of bread away; a rat carrying a pizza down the subway. Their world is not as complicated as ours, though it’s perhaps more perilous. There’s no human drama, just the search for the next meal so they can survive another day. We were much the same in the past. But we evolved, we lost hair, we grew smarter, we were blinded by the fire. We made up a God that told us he created the world just for us. We created empires on our manipulation of the environment through the burning of fossil fuels and the subjugation of animals for livestock. These things were important to us, even if it involved great evil. We’ve destroyed an ecosystem or two. We’ve watched the occasional spill, a spill that became a natural consequence, we cleaned up the goo from animals we’ve always considered too cute too harm. We’ve made excuses to invade countries so we can conquer their oil refineries. All the animals we subjugated for livestock, the mass-genocide we were fine with so long as their bodies are used for fast-food. All the land we needed so that we can slaughter these beautiful creatures. It’s all part of it. So many died so that we can continue pretending this world belongs to us. It became so bad, we are now actually influencing the climate, created manic weather patterns and the prospect of doom for many who live nearby the sea.
The end belongs to us. We won’t be there for a new beginning. Perhaps we will leave enough behind so that other lifeforms will wonder about our existence.
But now, most of us are comfortable. We suffer in various ways, as our lives today conflict with our genetic code of yesterday. Our savage ancestors never needed to invent existentialism to give meaning to their existence or see a therapist about their marital problems. Simple put: we ponder too much shit. Suddenly our existence is supposed to have a great meaning. Suddenly this short time on earth isn’t enough, we demand eternity for something we call our ‘souls’. And we can have this eternity if we just follow several rules- naturally these rules vary across the religions. Even so, most of us don’t need to kill for food, being an accessory to the fact as we shop in grocery stores, is the closest most of us will get. Most of us don’t need to fear predators, perhaps there’s the spiritual kind, the drug-peddlers, the nefarious gurus, the money-suckers, but most of them don’t have claws scratch open your belly nor the jaw filled with sharp teeth that can bite open your neck. While there are enough photographers fascinated by wildlife, who do amazing work as they hide in the bushes, waiting for the predator to pounce on her prey, us street-photographers are far more interested in the quiet suffering of the human animal. On the other hand, the image of a lone dog scrounging for leftovers in an impoverished city might be the most heartbreaking of all. But that’s because of the dog’s innocence, not because we can really connect with this animal. We can connect to a dog through mutual respect or reciprocal love, but not because we can fully understand how it is being a dog. We only know how to be human. It’s not the same connection we have to our fellow humans who are dealing with their complicated humanity. The instinct that has been tarnished the consciousness and expressed itself through the conscious.
There is debate among whether or not the hunters in their prime, lived superior lives than ours. The farmers that came after certainly weren’t happier but it did start the process for our continuing survival. Even if we want to, even if it would be better for us, we can never become this primitive. It’s too late now. We have to be the modern human with all the pain that it entails.
One could state that those who don’t live in affluent countries, live in their own urban jungle. These animals don’t snarl like the animals of your lush jungle, but they do curse and point guns at each other. There the occasional bout of violent machismo, the male that needs to prove that he’s the ALFA and therefore deserves the better woman. Bruce Gilden has made wonderful pictures of these Yakuza gangsters, men who collect their money with stoic expressions. There is no time for mercy, they will hurt you if you don’t pay up. The Alfa-males has organized themselves, they honor their ALFA, the ALFA is protected by lesser ALFA’s. If a lesser ALFA screws up, he might have to chop of a digit. There are rules in their streets but as history has proven, these rules are easily broken. There’s always an asshole among them that inspires others to be even greater assholes. The savagery of the jungle pales in comparison to the savagery of the human animal.
So you make pictures of the youth, the ones who if they don’t receive intervention, they will become just as savage as their fathers. They hang out in abandoned buildings, they play games with each other, they beat down scaredy-cats. The streets are full of them, you can spot them in the way they walk. Some of them are wannabee’s naturally, but some have prospects for greater and more nefarious futures. I don’t often make pictures of them because I don’t want to get in a fight with them. I prefer to make pictures of scaredy-cats like me. People who are trying to make sense of their lives. You see them trapped in their thoughts, they often forget that more often than not: their thoughts are not them, it’s just events in the mind, filled with clutter they should ignore. They confuse it with the murmurs of the soul. But they don’t have a soul, nobody has but we are accustomed to belief and feel that we do. Even if we don’t believe it, we do act like we have one. We cultivate this made-up soul, probably for the better. The things that don’t exist can be imperative for our existence.
The stories we capture in our flash, no matter how poignant they seem, are often imagined. They are part of the illusion or ourselves or based on a shattered dream. They are real because we live them- we are who we pretend to be, so be careful who we pretend to be- but we should have been taught to dilute the ego and seek clarity, make ourselves nothing instead of everything. Instead we have filled our children with this notion that we have all this identity. We didn’t tell them how fragile this mind and its feelings are. We didn’t tell them how easy it is to get lost in the streets. We didn’t tell them that nobody has an answer, and that it’s hard to find your way back if you stray long enough.
Even this philosophical diatribe might be an illusion. There might be several or just one answer to everything. We can’t deny physical reality but the reality in our minds, the fantasy-lands inside us, are hard to ignore. These memetic forces has made us more powerful, has given the greatest chances of survival. Yet even in the most affluent cities we can spot them, we can see it if we look close enough, the people trapped in fantasy-land. The fantasy-land which is empowered by the constant adds and bright lights and their Facebook feeds. There might be freedom for this suffering, but this suffering is what keeps the economy booming.
But through all this suffering, the right photograph can give it meaning. The suffering of others can move us, make us feel less alone. The whole point of art is make our suffering meaningful. The difference with street-photography is that we never ask for permission. So people get angry, they ask you to delete it. The trouble is, if we asked them, we wouldn’t be able to capture the truth. We have to be bold, we have to be rude. We suffer as well, we just want a glimpse of your suffering so we can feel better about yourself. Somehow, perhaps there is no great reason, we must express ourselves through the lens of this camera.
Bruce Gilden often makes pictures of these street creatures, you will have intimate close-ups of junkies with no teeth or old men with shrunken faces, a life that has given them some form of facial deformity. They accuse Bruce of making fun of them, but it’s not like that at all. He finds them as beautiful, if not more than all the models on these adds. And I have to agree with him- models are just too fucking boring.
And we apologize for your suffering, but we’re just trying to make it beautiful. It would be a shame to waste all that suffering.
Picture belongs to Tom Plevnik, https://tomplevnik.wordpress.com/