Eyes Wide Open

Boots ExhibitAmy works for American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization that defends the dignity and worth of every individual. They organized the Eyes Wide Open exhibition that came to town during the Republican National Convention.

Eyes Wide Open showed a pair of boots for each American soldier who died in Iraq or Afghanistan. Most were bought from army surplus, though a few were donated by bereaved families. Pairs were added almost daily as the exhibition travelled around the country in the summer and fall. Each was tagged with a name.

Unfilled shoes are haunting. Think of the pile of dusty shoes in the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, each standing for for a person who was discarded. Naming the dead, too, is a powerful act–so powerful that we set up tribunals to give genocide victims back their names. It took Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial to reclaim real young men from Robert MacNamara’s efficient talk of “bodycounts”. We cannot imagine not having a name. We cannot imagine ourselves in bodybags or in mass graves, but we can imagine putting on a shoe.

In Bryant Park last August, almost a thousand pairs of tagged boots were laid out. Amy helped with security. Feelings were high that week as the town filled up with Republicans and protesters, and talk of September 11th flew again. A mother of a dead soldier walked past the exhibition–she hadn’t known it was on–and burst into tears in an attendant’s arms. She came back the next morning for a private viewing.

One young man, deep in the corridors of shoes, searched and found a name that meant something to him. He sat on the ground with his head in his hands and wept. Amy tried to give him some privacy by shielding the passage, but a small mob threaded around her, drawn by the sound of his grief. Five or six of them stood over him with cameras and clicked away. The young man kept sobbing, head bowed. She didn’t know if he saw the photographers, or their flashes.

They weren’t even professionals, she said–no press passes, just little digicams, clicking away, pleased to have got their Moment and chatting about it afterwards.
   “Photo bloggers,” I told her. Everything was recorded that week.
Amy, who lives mainly in an offline world, was bewildered. Why wouldn’t they respect this guy’s grief? Had we become so incapabable of experiencing anything directly that we must suck on other people’s feelings just to get a Moment?

Oh yes.

Ruskin taught people to draw, not so that they would become artists but so they would learn to see. The new snapparazzi hasn’t learned that yet, focused as they are on toys and speed. I doubt they would get in a grieving man’s face without a gadget that miniaturized him. If a tenth of the people with shiny new megapixel cameras took the time to see and feel without their digital extensions, we would start to see art beyond people taking pictures of their own reflections. Emotional vampires, trying to see if they exist.

8 thoughts on “Eyes Wide Open”

  1. Gary, I used to enjoy watching Tim take pictures. He owned fancy SLRs, but by the time I met him he had swapped them for a little pocket Olympus because they intruded too much between him and the world.

    I think he was good at photography because he was unafraid to take pictures of strangers, and he took those pictures on an equal footing with his subjects. He saw beauty where other people didn’t. And he spent so much time just looking at the world–composing and discarding, with and without a lens. His gift was in all the pictures he didn’t take.

    I love taking pictures, though I’m shyer about it, and I tend to think in words not images.

    Maybe in bitching about callous photo bloggers I’m the equivalent of the print journalist who whines about amateur bloggers. I’m not sure I really said what I wanted to say in this piece. It just struck me as so weird that at this exhibition that was about reclaiming humanity from tragedy, cameras were giving them these weirdly depersonalized reactions.

    What beat did you cover as a photographer?

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  2. This is a song which I think has been sung too often yet not listened to enough. It could be written about any war, but was written about the first world war – the most poignant line I think is ” Did you really believe them —
    that this war would end war? ”

    THE GREEN FIELDS OF FRANCE
    Well how do you do, Private William McBride
    Do you mind if I sit here down by your grave side?
    A rest for awhile in the warm summer sun,
    I’ve been walking all day and I’m nearly done.
    And I see by your gravestone that you were only 19
    when you joined the glorious fallen in 1916.
    And I hope you died quick and I hope you died clean
    Or, William McBride, was it slow and obscene?

    CHORUS:
    Did they beat the drum slowly?
    did they sound the pipes lowly?
    Did the rifles fire o’er ye as they lowered you down?
    Did the bugle sing ‘The Last Post’ in chorus?
    Did the pipes play ‘The Flowers o’ the Forest’?

    And did you leave a wife or a sweetheart behind?
    In some loyal heart is your memory enshrined
    And though you died back in 1916
    To that faithful heart are you always 19.
    Or are you just a stranger without even a name
    Forever enclosed behind some glass-pane
    In an old photograph torn and tattered and stained
    And fading to yellow in a brown leather frame?

    Well the sun it shines down on these green fields of France,
    The warm wind blows gently and the red poppies dance.
    The trenches are vanished now under the plough
    No gas, no barbed wire, no guns firing now.
    But here in this graveyard it is still No Man’s Land
    And the countless white crosses in mute witness stand.
    To man’s blind indifference to his fellow man
    And a whole generation that was butchered and downed.

    And I can’t help but wonder now Willie McBride
    Do all those who lie here know why they died?
    Did you really believe them when they told you the cause?
    Did you really believe them that this war would end war?
    But the suffering, the sorrow, some the glory, the shame –
    The killing and dying – it was all done in vain.
    For Willie McBride, it’s all happened again
    And again, and again, and again, and again.

    Did they beat the drum slowly?
    did they sound the pipe lowly?
    Did the rifles fire o’er ye as they lowered you down?
    Did the bugle sing ‘The Last Post’ in chorus?
    Did the pipes play ‘The Flowers o’ the Forest’?

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  3. How uncaring and unthinking to intrude on the young man’s grief. As a weblog writer with a big-ass digital camera I couldn’t help but feel some of that guilt rubbing off on me.

    On the other hand, the big camera is a mediating device. It says “Get ready to have yer pitcher took.” As for the mirror project, it was there I found an image of Jonathon when I didn’t know where else to look. Good image – emotional vampires – and I’m glad I didn’t play the mirror project game or there’d be one more sliver of insecurity adding to the karmic burden I feel for not yet bringing my Dervala project to a successful conclusion.

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  4. Ko-“In Bryant Park last August, almost a thousand pairs of tagged boots were laid out. Amy helped with security. Feelings were high that week as the town filled up with Republicans and protesters, and talk of September 11th flew again. A mother of a dead soldier walked past the exhibition—she hadn’t known it was on—and cried in shock in an attendant’s arms. She came back the next morning for a private viewing.”-dak. There’s a moment in words.

    It’s not sucking on our own feelings but tasting other peoples that tells us how to make a better humanity. Word and pictures are just different coloured straws.

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  5. The point is, Amy didn’t get in that mother’s face with a camera to catch a “moment”; she simply described it to me later. Vampires drain others–the sucking I’m talking about steals from its object.

    It’s not about photography versus words; I love good photography. It’s about respecting people’s dignity. It happens that photography by its nature is more intrusive and makes it easier to dehumanize. But like any art, it can only bring out asshole tendencies that are already there–it doesn’t create them.

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  6. Frank,

    I was being a bit harsh on the Mirror Project game, which really has nothing to do with the complaint I was making here (unless you count it as further upfront evidence of self-absorption–and surely no one would accuse bloggers of being self-absorbed.)

    😉

    In fact, Tim has a good mirror project picture in there somewhere, back around 1999.

    I think I’m a bit over-sensitive on the photography-as-power issue after a year watching tourists photograph people like livestock in places like Laos and Bolivia. It’s hard. Photos from that trip are much more evocative than any words I ever wrote–but they affect imbalanced relationships much more than notebooks.

    -D.

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  7. D,

    Where I worked (Sarasota, FL) photographers didn’t have beats, you shot everything the editors sent you after and what you found along the way…often the best stuff, but hardest for the editors to find captions for…

    I worked as a reporter too, police, city, county beats. Very much defined by the offices you reportted from. More interesting after I became an editor, because they sent me out as a reporter when something unexpected happened. That’s always hte best experience, go somewhere and find out what’s going on, on the fly, as it happens.

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