The Picture That Changes Everything: the Pleasant Madness of Street-Photography part 5

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/
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The Picture That Changes Everything: the Pleasant Madness of Street-Photography part 2

2: The Lights Just Keep Passing Us and Fading Away

I’m not sure where my awareness began. There is no exact moment, the death of childhood is gradual. It’s a series of instances, experience that drives the mind of a child to the realm of adulthood. Perhaps it began in the backseat of my grandmother’s car.
Both my parents didn’t own a car, nor had the license to drive one, so my grandmother from my father’s side would drive us everywhere. I’m not sure where we were going or how old I was but none of that matters. This memory an amalgamation rather than a specific one. It was a moment that repeated itself plenty. A moment that didn’t feel significant at all. A nighttime drive on the high-way, her tired grandson gazing out the car window. Sometimes the greatest mysteries of life are best pondered in a sleepy haze, as your consciousness drifts through memories, as you interact with old friends and made-up ones, to movie-stars you’ll never meet and Gods that never existed. You don’t want to fight for the answer anymore, it’s too tiresome. You gently ask the Gods that aren’t really there, who are just swimming in your mind, about why you are here. You’ll never get an answer but that’s fine, you’ll make up one. The Gods tell you it’s okay, you can rest. You’ll wake up in a new world tomorrow.
I wasn’t thinking about Gods then, but I made my first childish step toward existentialism. Gazing out the car window, I started watching the cars pass us by. I started watching them disappear into the night. In the distance they would change into car lights, they would ultimately fade away. I began to wonder about the people inside those cars, who where they? Where were they going?
I began to imagine these people living exciting, sometimes tragic lives. We would pass each other and never know each other. If we ever meet, we would never know we passed each other that one time on that particular night. Perhaps a friend or a future love would be in that car. Perhaps even my future killer. We could mean so much to each other but we’ll never find this out. We are connected but we will never find out. Perhaps you are fighting similar demons. The possibilities are endless. You will never know. We should be reaching out but we won’t. The lights just keep passing and fading away.
For some reason this fascinated me. These musings would come back to me, as I passed the myriad of faces in the city streets. All these lives, too many perhaps, that pass us by. Most don’t have a photographic memories. You need pictures to remember the faces of even those you love so dearly. There’s a limited amount of space in our minds. We come to a point where our bodies are just deteriorating. If are lucky we are so deteriorated that people ask us about oblivion, whether or not we fear it, whether or not we really think there is such a thing.
These fading faces should be more precious than that. These moments that pass away should linger somewhere so we can go back to them, to understand what was happening. There is so much humanity that is wasted away. I think this is why I became interested in street-photography…

Picture belongs to Tom Plevnik, https://tomplevnik.wordpress.com/
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Disappearing Act

”I like this country because you can still disappear here. Everybody’s out in the open, everyone wants or needs to be seen. In this country you can still disappear. People won’t bother you. People won’t ask your name. They won’t look you in the eyes. They let you fade away in peace. It’s not something I wanted for myself, I wanted to be seen just like you. But somewhere along the line, I wanted to left alone. I wanted to be left alone for such a long time that it seems to be the only thing I know how to do. Sometimes I deviate from my solitude, I try to make friends and it never goes right. I don’t know what to say or how to act. When I think about my grand social life as a young man, I don’t understand how that could be me. It seems like I’m looking at a stranger….
I hate this country for letting me disappear. I want to leave this place, but I don’t know how. I used to, but it’s been too long. You only get so much time to develop yourself. Once that time is past, you’ll have to live with this man for the rest of your life.”

Picture taken in Katowice, Poland
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The Greater Good

”You don’t understand! People are counting on me! I can’t just quit what I’m doing, I can’t just start over. I have to finish what I’ve started. I love these people. But I’m aware of the risks, I know who they are. I know how it goes. I understand that maybe that maybe they don’t love me as much as I love them. They will say they do but I know better. They might never even show me the appreciation I deserve… I’m okay with this. I’ve accepted this a long time ago. Behind my back, they talk about me. They talk about how weak I am. I become an imagined villain of their hopes and dreams. The person that fucked them up. This isn’t about me. This is about the greater good. And the greater good is all about putting yourself aside. It’s about destroying the self and letting the world around you bloom. That’s what I believe in…
But I like to think that one day, even after I’m long gone, they might see me for who I really am, what’s in my heart. They will learn to love me yet…”


Picture taken in Krakow, Poland. 
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Free of Charge

‘’I’m not like most people and that scares people. Being an outsider is the scariest thing in this country. The streets are full of people who just couldn’t be normal enough. I’m trying my best to be normal, to be accepted like everybody else. That’s why I’m here. I’m a nice person. All I want is to be loved. That’s why I’m giving away free hugs. I think if people would give me a chance, they will understand, they won’t ever want to let me go.’’

Picture taken in Katowice, Poland
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Do You Understand?

‘’I just want her to come back to me. She’s the only person that can save my life. Whenever I say this, people tell me that my life shouldn’t hinge upon another person. That I should have enough confidence on my own, I should life for myself. Easy for them to say. They are with the one they love. They know who they are, they have purpose. They don’t have to be me. Everything is always easy for the other person, but if they knew what I’d lost, if they only knew how much she means to me, then they wouldn’t be saying that. They would understand that there is no way for me to move on.’’

Picture taken in Katowice, Poland
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