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Andrea Robbins has certainly identified some good examples of what might be construed as racial stereotyping when certain assumptions are made, but she is not seeing what is actually in the photographs. For instance, those “Latino and African American young men hang[ing] out on street corners” are actually young men who are passionate about rollerblading, build their own skate parks with limited resources, and raise money for themselves and neighborhood organizations. These activities give them a sense of pride and accomplishment. The watchdogs at a local tire shop “play with” — not maul — a young man who is only menacing to those who perceive Latino and African American males as menacing. A Latino girl is not “locked” in the arms of her boyfriend, but rather held tenderly as his source of strength. There are also depictions of how we all socialize our young (the girl in the Communion dress), how relationships can have unwanted or unexpected results (the young man and woman embracing while a woman with a baby carriage waits impatiently), and what some young men perceive as machismo (scars and tattoos).
I am an involved resident of the neighborhood I document. My subjects hang the photographs I make of them in their homes, and my work has been exhibited in a neighborhood (Latino) gallery for the community to see. Are my neighbors depressed when they view the photographs? No! The people of the Southside are very proud of their neighborhood, a sometimes rough environment that exists amidst a strong sense of family, religion, cultural pride, and ever-increasing political empowerment. It is a community where human frailties are accepted as much as human strengths. My photographs celebrate, not stereotype, the people who live here.
Finally, the “power” over a subject’s identity is not wielded by the photographer as much as by the cultural prejudices that define the viewer’s perception. None of these kids or young people are depicted as criminals, as Robbins would have one believe. Rather they are people who define their lives on their own terms, not those of the larger culture.
Vincent Cianni’s desire to portray his subjects as they wish to be seen is admirable, but “without any bias on [his] part”? Hardly! His pictures [February 2000] are full of racial stereotypes and clichés: A Latino man gazes directly at the camera displaying a shirtless upper torso with a large scar and tattooed biceps. Latino and African American young men hang out on street corners. A young Latino man and woman embrace while an impatient-looking woman with a baby carriage waits in the background. A young Latino girl in her Communion dress looks like a tiny, sad bride. A teen girl (also Latino) sits locked in a young man’s embrace on a bed in a sparse bedroom. Junkyard pit bulls play with (or maul) an equally menacing Latino man from the back.
What a fresh perspective! Would the editors allow someone to tell a joke in their presence with one of the generalizations contained in these photos? Too many photographers simply take pictures of what people expect. These photos are a case in point. In bad documentary photography, the subjects take on symbolic roles or stereotypes that reinforce long-standing prejudices. Good documentary photography is about challenging assumptions and exposing unfamiliar ground, not just photographing on it.
Cianni is not portraying his subjects as they want to be seen. How could they have known they would be put in this context? And how will they feel five years from now about these pictures? How will their families and communities feel when they see these pictures? Depressed, I’m sure. Cianni states that “identity is, in part, determined by who we want to be.” But, as this kind of photography clearly proves, your identity is more often determined by those with the power to represent you.