Amy 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?
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.