I find it interesting that in an environment in which practically everyone has an image-making device at the whim of their fingertips and in which anyone can claim – and many too often do – to be a photographer (define that term any which way you can) and citizens call for body cams and car cams and nanny cams (but no stoplight cams because that’s a violation of personal rights), that even now the sight of someone with a camera in his hand raises suspicion and anxiety to pervy flasher levels. Encountering such resistance and fear (at the risk of boiling it dry with hyperbole), reminds me of the glaring/sheepish look on my dog’s face when he sees me watching him while he takes a shit in the backyard.
We are apparently living in an environment in which everyone is entitled to their own private privacy (pick your definition, you drone haters) as well their own private publicity. I identify this rather schizophrenic conundrum only because I encountered it firsthand while preparing to photograph this large mural in North St. Louis dedicated to the Michael Brown situation.
I call it the situation because it has bled well beyond the actual and terribly unfortunate loss of a young man’s life. Situation, but this is not about that. I’m not poking that particular bear. Rather it is about me, standing in the middle of a side street on a Sunday morning in a not-so-good part of town, wearing a knee-high orthotic boot, my Smart car idling a few feet behind me, and holding a 50-year-old piece of plastic known as a Diana camera while positioning myself to take a photograph. It’s about this. It’s about that.
I was in my photographer’s zone, looking at everything while focusing on just one thing. I had been planning on photographing this mural for two weeks, after I had noticed it driving home on a new route (for me, anyway). Photographing signage, in my opinion, is too easy. I resist all the time the urge to capture other people’s need to force a message upon the world. It is, for all intents and purposes, akin to photographing bumper stickers – writ large.
And yet I succumb to this baser of my photographic instincts time and time again.
To reach the mural, I had to pass the one-way street on which it is located and turn on the next street, then drive back along an alley so I could park facing the correct direction. While parking and fumbling in my camera bag, I looked around to ensure I was alone in this we’re-not-in-the-suburbs-anymore-Toto area of the city, but especially as a middle-aged, orthotically booted white dude with only a plastic camera for protection. I noticed a grey sedan down the street being spasmodically jockeyed into a tight parking space between two battered trucks, but thought nothing of it.
In my zone, I stood in the street, peering through the plastic viewfinder when I heard a car approaching. I was on the cusp of taking a series of shots and was thusly loathe to pay the car much mind, even though I was smack in the middle of the street.
Let them go around me was my thought and attitude. The car slowed to a stop, the window lowered several inches, the cloudy brightness glinted on the glass, and a nicely dressed and coifed woman (from what little I could discern) started speaking. Again, I admit I was reluctant to pull myself out of the transcendental zone I had been working to achieve for most of the morning. My zone is such that I am hyper-attuned to my surroundings while also being super-embedded in my own head – talk about schizophrenic. After a good shoot, I emerge from the zone post-coitally, basking in an afterglow, in need of a symbolic cigarette, and desiring always just a little more camera cuddling.
The woman started talking. Her words confounded me as I felt myself being pulled out (photo interruptus) like a sun perch at a fishing derby. Whatever she was saying—and she was saying it emphatically—her passenger, also a nicely dressed and coifed woman in an on-the-way-to-Sunday-service sort of way, was agreeing with her by communicating with an energetic head bob. Like a faulty speaker at the drive-thru, I heard words broken by unintelligibility (my own, not hers), as if I were someone for whom English is a third-word language.
These were the staccato words I thought I understood through the speakeasy slot of the car window. I thought I replied in my own Jar Jar Binks pigeon language. In my head, I wanted to respond and defend my presence with the appropriate confidence cum sarcasm that I learned during my journalism training.
Not breaking any
Who the fuck are you
But what came out of my mouth was something along the lines of, “What? I’m just taking a picture of this mural,” while my camera-clutched hand was raised in supplication—instinctively hands-up. I looked around, hoping to see someone who was witnessing—maybe even recording—this encounter, this situation. I don’t know why I did that. I’m not poking that bear, either.
In a different scenario, I would have ignored the intrusion to my photo-taking activities, but this time, she was blocking my view with her car. I was not so frustrated that my process was being interrupted as I was resentful at what seemed like an unnecessary intrusion and distraction.
I was not at that moment interested in either her motives (was she concerned for my safety, was she warning me, was she protecting the mural?) or her mission (play that funky music, white boy). Even if she had some sort of protective ownership of the mural, that ownership was at least partially subsumed by the public nature of it.
This encounter, punctuated by the broken signals of our communication, lasted no more than ten seconds. She must have agreed in part with my explanation because she nodded slowly and turned to look behind her. I heard:
I said thank you and held too long the last syllable in an act of civil passive aggressiveness like waving a cocktail-sized Don’t Tread On Me flag.
She backed away, the reverse gear whining as she weaved and receded to the parking spot between the two trucks. I raised my camera, reaching for the disappearing mirage of my zone in the desert of the moment.
And I took this photo, put my camera down, and drove home.
Not knowing. What I had.