Being and Seeing
I’m struggling right now, with an ethical, conceptual dilemma.
A few weeks ago, I had an idea for a photo exhibition. I wanted to showcase community, as it occurs, within the walls of my studio, but also within the boundaries of my neighbourhood, my community.
I learned that there was a photographer that lives a couple of doors down, who has been documenting the space outside of his window for the last couple of years. I went to see his work.
It’s beautiful. And awful. Voyeuristic and expository. It’s dark, and it’s light. And it offers a glimpse into my every day experience of being, and working, on the DTES – which in itself is problematic. I don’t work with the vulnerable population here, I work beside it. Inside of it. Alongside it.
The images captured by the photographer, I didn’t see as disturbing at first consideration. I saw them as verite – experiential. Observational.
When I showed them to others, the critiques flooded in. Hierarchical. Non consensual. Opportunistic.
And I can say in all honesty, this is not how I encountered these images at first glance. It took the filter of other people to make me take pause, to consider how I should represent this profoundly vulnerable population, that I care so much about, to the outside world.
Should I show it at all? How should it be contextualized? How can I make people see it with the lens that I see it through – people, like you and me, living their lives, with a different set of rules?
The reality is, I can’t. I can’t make you see them, and their every day, the way I do. Because it’s not your every day. And it’s only my every day in the sense that I am a witness.
I asked my next door neighbour, who has had an artist studio next door for 32 years, what he thought of the series tonight. It’s his last night in his studio. He has been gentrified. Our landlord is renovating and repurposing his building, and it’s hard to fault it, outside of the emotional read. He’s a business man, and my neighbour has been paying a fraction of market value for years. It’s awful to see him leave – but also cathartic. And I think on the whole, not the worst for his personal evolution. That’s a digression.
So I asked my neighbour, as I’ve been asking many of my artistic and socially attuned friends, if he thought it was ok to show this perspective – if it could hurt anyone. If it was valid.
He responded, as all the others did, that it is work that needs to be shown – that should be shown, in context. That it authentically portrays the experience of what it is to share this space with the disenfranchised (I choke on that word). He added that it’s been incredible to see our community make use of this space, and to have the alley community still feel comfortable to live Alongside it, respectfully together – the first time since he’s been here.
The judgment of the content of these photos truly lies with the beholder. They are taken from above – a position we are justifiably uncomfortable acknowledging. We hate to think of ourselves as above. Or even worse, we fail to think of ourselves as above.
We observe these photos from a position of “how would I feel, if it were me?” But how would you feel? Would you hopefully expect the same distant protectionism? Would you hope that someone like you would protect either you or the world from seeing you in this way?
We have become masters of crafting our own image. Curators of the experience of others. This is the questionable right of social media. We have the opportunity to control our self image.
So what am I left with? Do I show it or don’t I? Do I let “the world” in on my perspective, or rather, the perspective of my second floor neighbour? I have rational fears about how it will impact opinions about my business, whether I’m part of a problem or part of a solution.
What is the solution? Should we turn away from the realities of our failed efforts to be socially responsible for all of the people that we share space with? Should we choose to avert our gaze, out of some manufactured, patronizing version of respect that we cultivate because we know, at our core, that it’s wrong to look at people at their worst? Is that what’s truly wrong? To observe it? Or is the real wrong to not observe it, to not bear witness to our social failure?
What’s happening around here is not respect of an alternative way of living. It’s a failure to understand what we need to do to make each and every human being in our lives, however tangentially, be actually, and not just symbolically, protected.
What would you do, given a body of images that profoundly, but problematically, depict your experience? Would you show them?