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ICONIC PHOTOGRAPHS, PUBLIC CULTURE, AND LIBERAL DEMOCRACY

No Caption Needed is a book and a blog, each dedicated to discussion of the role that photojournalism and other visual practices play in a vital democratic society. No caption needed, but many are provided. . . .

November 23rd, 2009

Giving Thanks or Giving Up?

Posted by Hariman in economic optics

As the Thanksgiving holiday in the US approaches, preachers, public officials, teachers, counselors, and even advertisers will be encouraging everyone to give thanks for what we might otherwise take for granted.  Because this was not likely to have been a bountiful year for most people, the ordinary, unsung features of daily life are being elevated to the status of blessings (which they are).  One might consider what would happen if similar advice were given regarding the way we look at things.  The sentiment need not even be one of gratitude so much as simple curiosity, if we would but look at what we otherwise take for granted.

wild turkey Buffalo-New-York

This photograph provides one example of what I have in mind.  It is basically a novelty shot: a wild turkey on the street in Buffalo, New York.  Even at Thanksgiving, one doesn’t see many wild turkeys, and they are not expected to appear in an urban, industrial setting, and what could it be doing there but–I can’t resist–crossing the road to get to the other side.  No more serious response seems called for: the turkey is a small, awkward figure, yet it can dominate a scene that is both dismal and distant.  This is not the time of year for a turkey to be walking into the city, but it seems safe enough, somewhat like an ordinary commuter trudging through urban isolation.  The image might as well be comic, if it is to be noticed at all.

What strikes me about the image, however, is everything other than the turkey.  Almost every part of the photo is focused on some part of what we ordinarily overlook: the electrical poles, lines, guy wires, and signage; the cracks in the pavement, crumbling curbs, and weeds breaking them down; the rusted rail line, the road bed, and rail cars; the industrial back lot of utility buildings, ventilation ducts, smoke stacks, and air conditioners and other rooftop machines; and, increasingly, the emptiness haunting industrial sites that have been abandoned or neglected or put to too little use for too long.

Seeing the world is something that everyone in the US now does through a camera, whether they know it or not, but not the camera that shows all.  Instead, most of the time we see the beautiful vistas and happy people of what might be called the retail side of life.  We habitually edit out the power lines in the tourist photo of a busy street or the weeds lurking in the news coverage, and few stop to consider how they rarely are shown the gritty reality of de-industrialization or the sad dispersions of people, possessions, and opportunities that accompany a declining standard of living.

Were people to really look at what is around them, they would still see much to be thankful for.  But they might see reasons to become alarmed as well.  To be truly thankful involves not only a feeling of gratitude, but also a resolution to preserve the good thing and pass it along to others.  If one looks closely, it may appear that Americans are overlooking a great deal, and that their inattention and lack of care for their cities, factories, and other infrastructure is a sign not of gratitude but rather of giving up.

Photograph by Brian Snyder/Reuters.

One Response to ' Giving Thanks or Giving Up? '

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  1. Pete said,

    on November 23rd, 2009 at 3:14 pm

    Coincidentally, Buffalo is one of only two places (Des Moines is the other) that I’ve ever seen a wild turkey – standing in the weeds right next to I-94, with traffic whipping past at 75 mph.

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