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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 18th, 2009

When Poverty Doesn't Catch the Eye

Posted by Hariman in economic optics

This photograph may be one of the more ordinary images in recent photojournalism, and all the more eloquent for that.

homeless labourer

The caption stated that “A labourer rests near his makeshift tent home in a park” in Charlotte, North Carolina.  Attentive readers will have noticed the British spelling (and usage), and the image did come from an online slide show at The Guardian.  My guess is that American papers weren’t so quick to run the photo, but can you blame them?  There is nothing dramatic or otherwise notable anywhere in the frame.  The focus is diffused from the man in the foreground across the darkened, nondescript scene and then up into the spare stand of trees and the vague sky.  The area on the ground is littered with generic consumer items, while the background vista is a mess of random tree trunks, scrawny branches poking every which way, and brown leaves not yet scattered. The scene is utterly without visual interest, while nothing is happening–or likely to happen.

Attentive viewers may have noticed another dimension to the scene, however.  There are several tensions, subtle yet troubling, that can guide reflection.  First, there is more to the man, if you will look for it.  He is brooding it seems, an attitude that resonates with the long shadows from the late afternoon sun.  And that sunlight gilds his face and his hand: the face is taut with interior life, and the gesture and veins of his hand suggest strength and skill.  Together they may signify the dignity of labor, and so this photograph can channel the realism and progressive sentiments of genre painting.  He is not at work, however, or have enough of a job to afford shelter, and so the worker’s capable hands (and strong back) are immobilized.

Note also the contrast between his personal possessions and the unkept woodland.  His clothes are clean while laundry is draped on a clothesline, there is a symmetrical order to the campsite, and it looks as if a calendar and similar items are tacked to the tree trunk on the right.  What should be natural setting has taken on the look of domesticity, and what should be a temporary site–a campground, as if for a weekend getaway–is becoming the place where he may spend the winter.

So it is that the banality of the photograph is the vehicle for its documentary truth.  What we are seeing is a man settling into a “new normal.”  He is homeless, even if he is working he won’t have any job security, and his ability to cope, adapt, keep his shirt clean, and otherwise be ready to move up may do no more than keep him from slipping lower yet.

Photograph by Carlos Barria/Reuters.

3 Responses to ' When Poverty Doesn't Catch the Eye '

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  1. Gregory J. said,

    on November 18th, 2009 at 3:11 pm

    What a heartbreaking and candid picture . At first glance, you might mistake this production for a raw slice of life from a Third World country. It’s timely, in regards to our current economic turmoil. As pointed out in the picture, the subject is brooding, his hands are prominent with strength. These are ‘signifiers’ of masculinity and skill. I’d say this picture also uses punctum to grab our emotions and attention. It triggers emotions of just how bleak and despair it is for someone who is homeless. Studying the man’s surroundings and few belongings, I found myself looking at each minute detail. The forces swirling around him provide most of the picture’s dynamics. The picture could have been more grandiose with hints of mental illness, alcoholism, drug abuse, assault or other things that come to mind when we think of “homeless”. But Barria’s shot has the ability to fully engage our empathy with so little to spare.

  2. Gregory Gershman said,

    on November 19th, 2009 at 4:01 am

    I agree with the previous posting I believe that Punctum is used very effectively in this photo, once paying attention to the background the reality set in that this man used to live in a home and was forced due to hard economic times to move into the woods. This picture I believe this picture shows good representation of the hardship many fellow Americans are experiencing during our economic crisis. Though the man is homeless he has still managed to bring out a good amount of his belongings with him, allowing him to feel more comfortable to have more self-worth. In this photo I also noticed that he is wearing a long sleeve WHITE t-shirt; even though he is homeless it is clean along with the other cloths he has hanging in the background. Truth and realization are also message I believe that are being conveyed by this photograph, this is reality and it is slowly but surely becoming a norm.

  3. LT Murray said,

    on November 19th, 2009 at 8:43 am

    He sure does seem like a homeless guy with a plan though. This man and his setup is somewhat of a spectacle in my opinion as I just cant help but me overwhelmingly captivated by it. It is usually that I do not respect that many homeless considering people tell me that you have to want to be homeless. The irony of this man being homeless is that he has it all set up like a home and seems like he is just an outdoorsmen when he is actually without a real home. This is the perfect setup. A perfect work of art. His habitus does not seem to be like other homeless people as he has a lot of respect for himself and what he’s about.

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