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.
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.
I just finished reading “Leaving the West,” by Stephen J. Lyons [February 2000], and I am disgusted by the author’s bitterness and hypocrisy. He says he despises bear hunters, yet, out of fourteen miles of wilderness, he chooses to invade their privacy and camp right next to them. He and his wife’s cousin wander out without preparation and then get offended because the people he despises won’t play mama to a couple of babes in the woods. He asserts that Westerners are not friendly because a woman alone in the wilderness did not invite two strange men into her tent. (Surely, even people from Chicago teach their daughters this much.)
Lastly, Lyons puts down our individualist philosophy, which, he says, “comes from too much isolation and a lack of fresh produce,” yet it is this same isolation that he craves and goes crazy without. It is exactly this kind of “save Rome, but damn the Romans” attitude that makes his kind so unwelcome here.
No, I’m not bitter. My essay represents a heart full of love and gratitude for the almost three decades I’ve lived in and written about the West. But, as with any committed relationship , one must be able to point out unhealthy traits. The isolation many Westerners seek, for instance, is hardly healthy. As Jedediah Purdy writes in For Common Things, “When we retreat from public life, we retreat into exaggerated visions of our own powers and dreams.” It’s no wonder, then, that militias and hate groups are coming to the West in droves.
Karla Miller’s letter unfortunately reflects an all-too-common sentiment in the West: an irrational fear of outsiders and those who offer even a shred of criticism. This “love-it-or-leave-it” defensiveness among Westerners is increasing as we come to the end of an era of damming rivers, clear-cutting old growth trees, grazing cattle on public lands, and other economically inefficient forms of natural resource plundering. These are changing times we live in , but returning to the old West is not an option. (Ask Native Americans if they miss those golden years.) Besides, the West as a land of imagined freedom has always been more myth than reality.
By the way, the bear hunters and their twenty-five horses were camped on federal lands preserved for the good of all Americans, whether they are from Boise, Idaho, or Miami, Florida. And I can’t have much sympathy for hunters who use hounds to tree bears (and cougars) and then saunter up and blast them into trophy-land. If that’s the West Miller loves, well, then, it’s all hers.
I was thankful for the February issue of The Sun. Suicide and mental illness are unpleasant subjects and therefore rarely explored. I was surprised to find my experiences, thoughts, and fears surrounding these taboo topics mirrored in Esther Ehrlich’s essay “Spring” and Alex Mindt’s story “Free Spirits.”
Like Ehrlich, I observed the tenth anniversary of a suicide this past year. Just as Ehrlich hoped to learn something new about what her mother’s death meant to her, I have struggled to understand what my boyfriend’s death meant to me. It was helpful to share that experience with Ehrlich through her writing. I no longer felt so alone.
Alex Mindt’s narrator in “Free Spirits” waits to see if he, too, will develop the mental illness that afflicts his father. Likewise, I waited throughout my twenties to see if I would develop my grandmother’s schizophrenia. Like Mindt’s character, I felt as if a part of me wanted to develop the illness, thinking it would somehow connect me to her, help me understand her.
It was my grandmother I was thinking of when I read Veneta Masson’s poem “Her, Rising.” I have imagined that my grandmother may still surface within me in other ways besides mental illness — perhaps in the way I smile, or enjoy a Heath candy bar, her favorite.
More often than I would like, I experience a nagging melancholy. It says, “You are different. No one could possibly understand you.” It is a feeling of isolation, of being cut off from a community. The Sun assuages that feeling for me and quiets that voice.
Renee Lertzman’s interview with Scott Russell Sanders [“In a Broken World,” February 2000] brought back a childhood memory that still sends a shiver down my spine all these years later.
I was seven years old when I saw an animated TV special about the effects of the atomic bomb. I don’t remember all the details, just the image of a huge black bird that became so large it engulfed the whole world. It was truly frightening and left me with a horror of nuclear war — and, by extension, a horror of the Soviet Union, our enemy. It took me many years to lose that fear.
In regards to the joy that Sanders acknowledges is a necessary antidote to despair, I have only this past year discovered the intense pleasure of living in a truly beautiful spot in northern California, where I hear the frogs croaking at night and the birds singing in the morning. I am learning how to garden and get much delight from growing my own vegetables. There are magnificent redwood trees nearby, and the ocean is a half-hour away. True, destruction is happening on a large scale here, but I am doing what little I can by participating in a local citizens’-action group.
I have been a Theravada Buddhist for some thirteen years, and this gives me a more long-term perspective. All things change. Worlds will come into being and pass away with scant regard to Homo sapiens. In the meantime, though, each of us has a duty to cultivate compassion for all living beings.
It’s not often that I nod and smile my way through an article, so I’d like to express my appreciation for Scott Russell Sanders’s essay “Body Bright” [February 2000]. A worldview such as his is extremely rare. The general population is frighteningly oblivious to and ignorant of the natural world. Our fellow creatures apparently exist for our amusement or, worse, as an outlet for unspeakable cruelty.
I read Sanders’s essay while eating lunch at my desk at work. I was so inspired that I got up, grabbed my coat, and went for a walk on a seventeen-degree New England afternoon; and I enjoyed every minute of it!
Every time I vow to cancel my subscription to The Sun, I am reminded that you are often the conduit for messages that the world has not seen fit to send me by other means. Just when I am frustrated by the depressing darkness that pervades The Sun, some one in the Readers Write on “Strange Places” [February 2000] wings one in to me like a major-league fastball right down the center. Eunice Valentine’s story, about the importance of an open heart to human growth, outshone Scott Russell Sanders’s unsuccessful attempt to find hope.
Why do people like Sanders feel the need to rain on other people’s parades by condemning as “distractions” the paths we find useful? I believe we each come into this world with a task that is our own. This may include driving a fast car, dangling from an elastic rope, shooting a gun, or riding a mechanical bucking bull. Giving lip service to other ideas, as Sanders does when he says, “I am not condemning human works,” does not erase the arrogant implication that his answer is the only one.
I’m glad that Dee Cuthbert-Cope and Judith E. Smith found some glimmers of hope in my interview and essay. I regret that Julia Normand found only irritation. It’s evident from her letter that I’m not alone in offending her. She sees fit to lump me with other “people like Sanders” and to call me arrogant for saying that I find some human activities more promising than others. I don’t think it’s arrogant to make distinctions; I think it’s lazy to avoid making them. I feel more respect for a kindergarten teacher than for a race-car driver; I feel more encouraged by organic farming than by bungee jumping. If an activity is wasteful, selfish, or destructive, calling it your path does not make it any less wasteful, selfish, or destructive.
I was disappointed to read Poe Ballantine’s essay about Mexico [“La Calidad de la Vida,” January 2000]. He made the usual American-visits-Mexico comments about how cheap everything is and how easy it is to get medicine there. The essay was well written, but it was the same old story. Ballantine scratched the tip of the iceberg with the fingernail of his pinkie. And that is just sad.
I am glad Ballantine stayed in Mexico. I hope that he reaches a point where his writing captures more of what Mexico really is. Perhaps his job as an English teacher will help.
In Derrick Jensen’s interview with Joel Dyer [“Armed and Dangerous,” December 1999], Dyer paints a largely accurate picture of the plight of the family farmer in a world of corporate agribusiness, but he leaves us little room for hope.
I don’t delude myself that the current power structure will be easily overhauled, but there is a small revolution happening that I feel deserves mention. “Community-sponsored agriculture” has been spreading nationwide since its introduction in the United States in 1985. In a nutshell, CSA is a beneficial partnership whereby a farmer sells advance shares in an upcoming harvest, and shareholders receive a weekly shipment of fresh, locally grown produce. This guaranteed market relieves much of the risk of small-scale farming, allowing farmers to focus on responsible growing practices that build healthy soils, minimize the use of dangerous chemicals, and save farmland from development.
The advantages to this type of farmer-consumer relationship are outlined at www.justfood.org, the website of one of a handful of organizations that help to create CSAs. I hope that readers who felt disheartened by Dyer’s otherwise useful perspective will take heart and take action.
To Sy Safransky: You’ve got a house, a job, a wife, a successful magazine, and daughters who care enough to come see you. Now get a life and quit your constant pissing and moaning in that Notebook of yours. You must look for reasons to be depressed.