In my youth back in the days of 35 millimeter chemical film I traveled across America with a Swedish friend who made an observation. Whenever I stopped to take photos from the Grand Canyon to Niagara Falls or any particularly impressive bit of architecture in between I took pains to frame the images just so.
I was determined to screen out the overhead electrical wires, trash dumpsters, and road construction that detracted from the postcard images I was trying to achieve. He said those pictures were clichés. Everyone already knows what they look like because they’re on a million kitchen calendars and Hallmark cards. Why not capture what the landscape really looks like? America is mostly parking lots, squat concrete strip malls, storm water retention ponds, refineries, chain link fences, and tract homes made of plastic siding. Photographing the authentic American landscape is both more challenging and ultimately more rewarding if you can do it well.
I was in Missoula, Montana a while back attempting to capture the look and feel of the place when the director of a senior center walked up to me and demanded to know what I was doing. I said I was a tourist taking pictures. She didn’t believe me. These aren’t tourist scenes. She insisted I stop or she was going to call the police. I offered a vague apology, showed her my identification, and said I’d stay put until the authorities arrived.
I was walking around a nondescript neighborhood in Chicago a few years ago when five squad cars surrounded me at an intersection. I was asked for my identification, they were keen to see what was on my camera, and there were all sorts of questions about who I was and what I was up to. The police wouldn’t say exactly why they descended on me in such an overwhelming fashion, but it was pretty clear there had been a report of unsavory activity of the terrorist variety.
Last year I was in Atlanta wandering around as I tend to do. So much of this particular neighborhood had devolved into a state of disrepair that the buildings were uninhabitable. But to my surprise people were still living in some of the units. More shocking still, as I later learned, landlords continued collecting rent from tenants.
As I explored the area and gathered photos a woman called out to me from across the street. Not for camera view! She kept repeating the phrase over and over. Not for camera view! I approached her, introduced myself, and asked her why she objected to my activities. She shook her head and waved her hands adamantly. Not for camera view! That’s all she ever said to me. I suspect a middle aged white guy with an expensive camera was an indication that there were forces at work that threatened her housing situation – as precarious and substandard as it was. I tried to imagine where she might be forced to live if these buildings and her situation were ever disturbed.
Some time later I was in Thousand Oaks, a prosperous suburban enclave in Southern California, doing the same thing. A man came out of his home and marched across his lawn toward me full of piss and vinegar. He demanded to know who I was, but before I could answer he let me know exactly who he thought I was. I was a thief casing the neighborhood! I’m a lot of things, but threatening isn’t one of them. I handed him my drivers license and told him the truth. Documenting the American landscape is a peculiar hobby of mine.
He scoffed, but decided I wasn’t a thief. He realized at that moment that I was a real estate developer looking to destroy his community! Nope. Not even close. I said I was curious about how people live in different places, et cetera. He became squinty eyed. I was a news reporter looking to stir up trouble! Well, I have a blog, but so does everyone and their dog. It’s not like I’m with the New York Times or anything. Aha! You’re from the government! (Read: a dirty communist.) And so it went.
I was in Detroit doing my usual thing when a man across the street began yelling at me. You have no right to photograph me without express written permission! He came at me with righteous indignation. I handed him my card, told him I was visiting from San Francisco, and said I was curious about what Detroit was really like. I will sue you if you publish any photos of me in them! How dare you violate my rights! I scrolled though the images on my camera screen and showed him I wasn’t actually photographing him at all. His expression flickered for a split second before he redirected his tirade. You have no right to invade our community. You think this place is yours to do with as you please, but it’s not. The conversation went on like this for a while. I wanted to know who he thought I was and what he thought I was doing. I wanted to know about the specifics of his grievances. Anything I tell you will only be used against me and my people.
So this is what America is actually like. The good, the bad, and the ugly. Look out your window. Take a drive down to your local big box store. Walk around your neighborhood. This is reality. Just sayin’.