Not For Camera View

47 thoughts on “Not For Camera View”

  1. Hi Johnny I come in from time to time and enjoy the pictures. Indeed it is the pictures that make the stories. It’s the old cliche about pictures, right? The funny thing for me is that I find almost all of the pictures pretty grim, even Thousand Oaks, or those pics of multimillion dollar beach houses along Oceanside? San Diego? I can’t recall exactly, from a while back. Wouldn’t want to own ’em. Wouldn’t want to live in them. I guess I am a misanthrope. Give me nature any time.

  2. I like your photos, Johnny. I’m glad you decided to start including the electrical wires and fuse boxes, etc., in your photos (being serious). It seems like your approach to people is respectful.

    However, I can 100% understand why the “woman / man on the street” might object to being captured in a stranger’s photo (applies to that person’s living situation as well – i.e., dilapidated housing). I do take note when people publish photos and I sense that the people of color are part of the “blackground” or “brownground.” It happens to white people as well (becoming part of the unwashed mass in the background). When you work in service or are homeless, you suddenly become fair game to photographers due to the nature of your job / living situation. It’s nice to see average human beings given some dignity in photos (it does happen sometimes).

  3. Ah, you stumbled onto “slum tourism” in your work. It’s a thing and has been for a very long time. While this seems it was not your intention, the visiting of the poorest communities as a perverse form of recreation is a long tradition where the residents’ humanity and full citizenship are reduced. It’s a communications problem: you’re looking for evidence of the real America and they are tired people visiting in order to feel superior and/or capturing images of their world for profit that will never be shared with them and that will ultimately degrade their situations. THAT is the real America, too.

    1. Very good point. Chris Arnade’s book Dignity is a perfect example. I-banker in a midlife crisis travels the country with a camera to take pictures of how people really live. The result is a collection of stereotypes based on short conversations. At one point people sitting vigil at the place of a police shooting ask him to leave because they are tired of being profitted off of and stereotyped by white folks from out of town. He assumes he’s an exception to the rule and keeps coming back, writing a short narrative for his book steeped in racist cliches based on one interview.

      1. Thanks for the reference. I’ll look for it. This post in particular raises some good questions about environmental justice/racism, both for asking whose views are of “postcards” and who gets to see “real” everyday. Some comments also round out this problem when judging an appropriate response to being recorded by a stranger.

    2. Um, did you miss the pictures of the affluent neighborhood in Thousand Oaks? Or the lower middle class neighborhoods that feature aging strip malls? Johnny’s work hardly qualifies as “slum tourism” despite the fact that he occasionally shows us one.

      I think you totally missed the point in order to sell your own narrative.

  4. “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.”

    What’s kind of fascinating to me is the way that growing up in these environments basically blinds you to their ugliness. It literally takes someone focusing your attention on it to see it in sharp enough focus. The situation reminds me of some remarks by David Foster Wallace in his speech at Kenyon: “The point of the [story] is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.”

  5. OMG! I take pictures too. America though beautiful is super paranoid. People willingly show the world their private lives and thoughts in social media, but freak out about the silliest things.

  6. What’s crazy is the downtown area (red jacket guy) is just as ugly as the many of the other pictures. The theatre across from red jacket guy was built in 1937, but there are 4 travel lanes and 2 parking lanes for a total of 6 lanes. What were they thinking? You could barely capture both sides of the street in the shot.

    The freeway shown is 12 lanes (2x as wide), but probably carries 10X the traffic. Easy to see why roadbuilders would think all roads need to be wider if downtown in 1937 needed that much roadway.

    1. The writer at New World Economics traces the super-wide streets in North America to 1780 or so in his discussion of what he calls “19th century hypertrophic” cities.

      Elsewhere – I don’t recall where unfortunately – I have read that this format comes from 1) cheap land in the “New World” 2) plentiful trees allowing wood buildings instead of masonry ones 3) fears of fire due to 2) (especially after huge fires in London and Paris).

  7. I’ve always wondered how you got away with taking many of these photos. Now I find that in some cases you didn’t!

    From my European perspective I find the vast majority of your “documentary” images desperately bleak. Enthralling bleak is probably more accurate because the extent of the sprawling world you depict seemingly has no limits; and the variations of cost effective and soulless solutions to any given problem are apparently infinite.

    It’s strange to me then that when I think of this blog I visualise the roof of your building with your neat and considered solar panel setup with cables down the light-well; a human-scale creative and personal action sitting and thriving on top of the world and it’s structures as we find it. That’s the opposite of bleak.

  8. Our society is more and more under surveillance of one kind or another. And the information is often used to bludgeon or abuse others in a controlling or shaming (for control) manner. I think it’s not too surprising that you get this type of reaction and I would expect it to increase over time.

  9. Stay safe out there, friend. It’s also horrifying that people collect rent on some of the places you’re showing us.

  10. I imagine the phenomenon you describe is going to get worse before it gets better, given the number of people who have been excoriated online (sometimes deserved, sometimes not) by a photograph or video taken in a public place.

  11. In this vein, there is the famous case of Hugh O’Connor, a Canadian filmmaker gunned down in Kentucky in 1967 while interviewing tenants of a shotgun shack for a travelogue documentary commissioned by the Department of Commerce. The shooter was the landlord of said shacks. Years of Appalachian poverty porn following the publication of “Night Comes to the Cumberlands” had put local people in a defensive frame of mind toward outsiders with cameras.

  12. One of the things that I really like about your blog Johnny, is the photographs. You do an excellent job of capturing what you see, and the photos are as important as the text. I’ve often wondered how you are able to get some of the photos you take without confrontation, and now I know.

  13. I’ve had similar confrontations walking around Chicago. I’d walk around and explore all over Chicago, simply as a curious exploratory person. I’d photograph lots of places and settings.

    Though this was typically on Sunday mornings and the one substantive comment was from an african-american elderly woman leaving her beautiful late 19th century church somewhere in the southside Douglas/North Kenwood/Kenwood neighborhoods. She basically told me ‘it’s not for sale’ as I was admiring the church’s architecture. I replied “Understood…I just think it’s beautiful.”

    I’m sympathetic because I fully understand/understood where she was coming from as I was/am a young well groomed adult white male and surely a stereotype for ‘the government’ or ‘real estate developer’. I just like to explore, but I was physically and behaviorally an outlier at the time in that neighborhood.

    During the same time, I had zero issues doing the same throughout the typically gentrified northside lakefront neighborhoods (ie Lincoln Park, Lakeview, etc) where my wife and I lived at the time.

    And now as a management level representative of my local government (and resident), I occasionally get the same sideways looks and/or questioning if I’m in a neighborhood taking photos, especially when I roll up in the City vehicle. 😉

  14. There is an interview somewhere with a designer of one of the SimCity games, noting that they wanted to make the game as realistic as possible – until they realized the vast acreage that surface parking lots (“parking craters” in Strong Towns’ memorable phrase) take up in this country. Instead they handwaved parking away. There are other ugly features of our cities that they also probably omitted, but surface parking has to be one of the biggest blights, visually and in terms of how it disrupts urban space, especially for those of us on foot.

    There would be ugliness without cars, but not nearly so much of it.

    1. “There would be ugliness without cars, but not nearly so much of it.”

      A utopian no-car society with thousands of miles of tracks for trains, subways, and buses would still have plenty of ugliness, minus some efficiency. Unless we all just beamed ourselves everywhere.

      But that’s the thing with utopia- practicality never needs to enter the picture. Cue the guitar and the opening chords of “Imagine”..,

      1. Yes, 100-120 years ago American cities were so ugly that people were building “streetcar suburbs” to get away from the grit, grime, and ugliness of urban factories, warehouses, rail viaducts and streets full of manure from animal-drawn wagons. Before cars were in widespread use. And the urban shotgun shacks of that day looked just as bad as what Johnny shows us today.

      2. Yep. Utopian dreams and plans are never in line with reality. I’ve always said that all utopian plans are undone by human nature.

      3. I can only encourage you to visit, say, Cologne, or Barcelona, or Paris, or Bruges, etc. Fewer cars, more density, much lovelier and very functional. With greater density, much of a town can be accessible by walking, and streetcars can fill in for longer in-town trips; trains work well between cities. I am not claiming utopia, just pointing out that things can be better – and in many places outside the US, they are.

        1. I’ve visited several Mediterranean cities. Barcelona and Marseilles have lots of cars. And walking in Barcelona is like walking in Manhattan.

          Rome and Naples are no different from any large US metropolis: a dense core surrounded by miles and miles of sprawl. (And autostrada. And used car lots. And suburban office parks.)

  15. “So this is what America is actually like. The good, the bad, and the ugly.”

    I think I missed the first one. Just a whole lot of bad and ugly.

    I would think things would go a little better in Brooklyn, but perhaps not.

  16. My partner does similar documentation work, albeit from a more artistic perspective than a documentary view. No one thinks they are a real estate speculator *spit*, but their not being white adds an extra level of fear and consequences to what is described here. : (

  17. It’s worth noting that you’ve probably been in hundreds of locales and these interactions are more likely the exception rather than the rule. To me it sounds more like insecurity of their situation – and sometimes well warranted. It reminds me of the NY Times article about a sunflower farm that people found out about and came there is droves. There is a need to know and be known, but the balance is more of a dance rather than a pat formula. It’s hard to know where that fine line is sometimes.

  18. You’re better than most at capturing reality on the ground, but photography is always highly subjective. For example, I used to walk around LA, taking pictures of the “real” city – the grimy strip malls and such. LA also has beautiful buildings and streets, but they didn’t fit my narrative, so I rarely photographed them. This wasn’t a concious decision. At the time, I thought I was taking random snapshots.

    To get something closer to reality, it’d be interesting to marry a data set like this ( with corresponding photos representing the typology. I suspect that both the Bay Area and LA metros have roughly equivalent strip malls per capita.

  19. Switch to an iPhone or Android. Or a discreet Fuji XE3. Your 10 lb. DSLR with the six inch long zoom lens is provocative and threatening to people who don’t know. Maybe that’s the point you are aiming for.

    1. I have to respectfully disagree. None of the described reactions are rationale or acceptable behavior.

      A man with a camera in a public space is not a threat, and no other person has any business or right to aggressively confront them. Curiosity is one thing, these experiences are not that.

      Our culture is angry and aggressive. Lets not normalize that by excusing this sort of behavior because someone is carrying a large camera.

      1. I was thinking the same. Public spaces are – public. No reasonable expectation of privacy legally or otherwise. Thank of Google street view. As noted elsewhere, 50 years or so ago, wandering around taking pictures was not considered odd or threatening. The culture has indeed become more paranoid. Albeit with some justification, in my estimation.

    2. I’ve received this advise many times before. But I don’t want to sneak around snatching photos. I prefer open confrontation so I can gage the vibe of the place I’m exploring.

  20. Its possible that those angry residents were concerned you might see something they havent noticed . Nice to capture these temporary and somewhat intermediate jumps in the progression of society. Most of the scenes and structures will not last the lifetime of those who constructed it.These situations are examples of designed or planned obsolescence to support the economy and provide temporary occupation . At times the lack of excess funds may be the best community preservation tool. Those impoverished Third World countries did have one advantage, they never had to look at utility lines and abandoned big box stores blighting there wilderness views.They can sit on the porch of there humble abode , smartphone in hand , cheap portable solar panel on roof and patiently enjoy life while other ¨advanced ¨ societies experience peer pressure based consumerism.

  21. Is there not a legal right to photograph what is viewable from a public space with a reasonable expectation of privacy (e.g. no image capture of individuals through a window left uncovered inadvertently)?

  22. There’s something oddly invasive about having one’s picture taken. In an age dominated by selfies and other such nonsense, I think people are still generally uncomfortable with having someone take their picture. Add in the other pressures many people face and I can see some worried reactions. But the challenges you received are a bit over-the-top and point to a deeper issue, I think. That is always worrisome: what happened, or is happening, to these people that drove them to that point? How did reality become so full of paranoia?

  23. My father was an electrician and also did appliance repair. As a result, while tagging along with him on jobs, I was able to see the dirty underside of our life. Getting behind someones washing machine or refrigerator can be a more interesting place than you think. Over time I began to see past the part they wanted me to see and started noticing the reality. Our vision of the world, especially as shown in the movies and TV, is wildly out of synch with the truth, as you’ve shown above.

  24. Dear Johnny,

    Indeed, there’s what we think we’re supposed to see (and so we see that), and then, there is what is actually there before our eyes. Such is the role of the artist– to see.

    But I should think that most people would get PTSD from getting so aggressively challenged as in these situations you describe. Obviously you can handle it– and I appreciate that because I learn a lot from your blog. But seriously, how is it that you can handle all this sort of venom and paranoia aimed at you? I’m really curious.

    1. I learn a lot from talking to people as I travel. Without a few confrontations here and there I wouldn’t get to interact with lots of other folks either.

      1. Understood: Until you get folks upset, you may not see what they are really made of and what they really care about.

  25. I suspect that everyone in the world instinctively knows that they live in an uneasy equilibrium, and that they never benefit when somebody upsets that equilibrium. You’re going to come in here and plant trees to make MY neighborhood better? Sure, buddy. You’re coming in here to give a vaccine that will make US healthier? We’ve heard that one before… better get out while you can. Nobody ever comes here to do us a favor. We’re coping, just barely, but things are drifting worse fast enough on their own without your help. Move on. You’re rocking the boat just by looking.

    I’d bet that the more “respectable” you look, the more threatening you appear. They know that they can scare off a thief, but not a real-estate developer.

    1. Johnny, I am a 57 year old Canadian, who has lived near and travelled fairly extensively around the US, for my entire life. I always found most of the people, to be kind and considerate, as well as uniquely, well American (someone you want as a friend when bad things happen). However I’ve always been deeply disturbed by the quality of many of your towns and cities, dirty, noisy, haphazardly built as though planning extended for 12 months and anything after that was kicked into the next year.

      And worse, in the last 15 years I’ve started to come across more and more really angry, nasty people, a small proportion of my experiences to be sure, but I can remember each and every one in detail.

      As a hobby, I’ve watched current affairs around the world, and America being so close, makes your country my most studied. I can’t help but observing the decline and almost celebration of said decline. For a long while I’ve tried to understand what is going on, what is so different, that a formerly wealthy country, could become what it is. And recently I’ve come to the conclusion that the pursuit of money over all else, for personal gain and nothing else is at the core. This has swung society away from what the Civic Generation valued (stability, solid well built infrastructure – both physical and institutional) towards a self centred, narcissistic approach to life.
      From within it may be hard to see, but trust me from 50 miles away, it’s glaring!

      Due to our close trading relationship, and close proximity, I and many Canadians are anxiously watching what is currently unfolding, it is not pretty and we hope that somehow your historic course is changed, dramatically, I am not hopeful.


      1. “In the last 15 years I’ve started to come across more and more really angry, nasty people.”

        This country has been selling off its future, for the benefit of the present of the generations now over age 60, the executive/financial class, and the political/union class for some time now.

        In the past 15 years, the present has become the past, and the future has become the present. This country is much, much poorer, generation by generation.

        There is anger in those on the losing end, in places like the poor neighborhood of Atlanta. But there is more anger among the winners. They want someone else to blame for what their own children will be inheriting, and fear ending up in the situation they now see so many in.

        As time goes on more and more people become aware of the reality. Politics is now a search for someone to blame, and people are becoming obsessed with politics as a way to avoid facing their own role in the situation they are in, or the situation they fear they may be in.

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