Sunday, May 13, 2007

Anything You Say or Do May Be Used against You--in a Photograph

At first, I thought it a mere aberration, a case of localized paranoia come off its hinges.

In the process of gleaning images of local independent Mon-and-Dad groceries, Liz Kuball, her Canon 5D mounted firmly on a tripod, lined up a shot. But before she could make an exposure, an employee came out of the market, arms waving, demanding to know what Liz had in mind, why she was taking a photo of this particular market, and what Liz intended to do with the photo once it was executed. While Liz was trying to answer the questions, the employee whipped out cell phone and began giving her thumbs a workout on the keyboard, actually calling the owner of the market.

Liz did not get the hoped for shot.

Not long ago, several hundred miles to the north east, camera paranoia struck again in suburban Fairbanks, Alaska, photographer Ben Huff's sense of purpose and decorum shivering through the account he wrote of being accosted by a housewife.

In the notes to his book, Niagra, photographer Alec Soth wrote of coming under suspicion more than once while asking people to pose for him.

After the Ben Huff posting, I was driving through a funky section of Santa Barbara on Montecito Street that borders the tourist-commercial motel area along the waterfront and connects to the railroad station and a portion of Santa Barbara referred to by locals and Map-Quest as The Mesa. On the very block where Elizabeth Short once lived before taking off for Los Angeles, where she found a morbid kind of fame and fortune as star of The Black Dahlia murder case, is a series of cottages set off from the street. There is a Bauhaus feel to the cottages , which I had been passing for years without noticing. I made a mental note to call the scene to Liz Kuball's attention in connection with her long-term interest in funky, well-weathered buildings.

A week or so later, I drove Liz past the buildings and, without fanfare, asked her what she thought.

Stop the car, she thought.

Moments later, her 5D was bracketing shots. Sooner than either of us realized, a car that had been pulling out of the driveway of said cluster of cottages backed its way into the drive, whereupon the driver emerged, asking Liz if she could help her, which turned out to be stage one of warning Liz off the shoot.

I can better understand the paranoia when Liz entered a laundromat on the outskirts of Carpinteria, wanting to get shots for a series tentatively called Waiting: people and animals waiting for things, other people, other animals, destiny. Almost any laundromat in the Santa Barbara area has some percentage of a Latino clientele, a clientele that has some knowledge of or direct involvement with issues related to Immigration. I can understand why some customers were nervous, even suspicious of a Gringa with a camera.

I have neither enough case histories or details from which to build a hypothesis, even though I recall one sympathetic posting to Ben Huff's account, mentioning his own misadventures, but by now the anthropology/political science sides of my university specialization have had their curiosity piqued.

My experience has been that writers get the opposite response; if people get the motion that you're a writer, their first itch is to enlist you in a partnership where they tell you this marvelous story they've invented and after you "write it up," you're ready to split the profits fifty-fifty. The second itch is for them to simply tell you one story after another, hopeful, I've come to suspect, that you, writer that you are, will tell them, "Why, you should get those stories published." If they don't want you as a partner or for peer recognition and encouragement, they want to convince you that they are, depending on their gender, the intellectual superior to Natalie Angier or Christopher Hitchens. If they think they are funny, they will want you to recognize that they are the peer to Chris Buckley.

If you are a writer, they will follow you around and bare as much of themselves to you as the traffic will allow. If you are a photographer, they pose so outrageously as to render themselves useless to your intent, or they conversely become guarded, hostile, suspicious. If you are a writer, they want you to recommend them to your literary agent; if you are a photographer--well; you get the picture.

No. I guess you don't.

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