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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. . . .

December 2nd, 2009

Learning What to See

Posted by Lucaites in economic optics

Homeless at Walmart

A few weeks ago I stumbled upon the movie At First Sight, a story about a man, blind from the age of three, who recovers his sight. Because he had spent most of his life sightless his brain never learned how to translate the chemical and electronic impulses transmitted to it from his eyes in a meaningful fashion.  Like a child initially learning how to read has to figure out how to translate squiggles on a page into meaningful words and then sentences, the movie’s protagonist literally has to learn how to see: colors, shapes, textures, shadows, reflections … all the of the visual aspects of the world that sighted people take for granted, he had to learn, one dimension and one image at a time.  The most pertinent moment in the film occurred for me during a scene in which the now sighted man is walking around the streets of New York City with his girl friend, reveling in the cornucopia of images  available to him.  They come across a homeless person sleeping on a door stoop and he doesn’t quite know what to make out of it; his bewilderment is compounded when his girl friend fails to even see the person laying there.  When he points the homeless person out to her she admonishes him as if he were a child, “you’re not supposed to look at that.”  The scene is a poignant allegory of the the myriad ways in which we must learn to see, including the complex  network of social norms and conventions concerning what can and cannot (or should and should not) be seen.

I was reminded of this moment from the movie when I came across the above photograph in a NYT slideshow on November 27th, the day after Thanksgiving  also known as “Black Friday.”  Cued by a number of symbolic markers, my first thought was that the camera was encouraging me to see seeming that was indecorous to look at: a homeless person—a barely recognizable individual sleeping in a public space, his face obscured and his body wrapped up in what appeared to be a grey and dirty blanket; surrounded by his few worldly goods, including the signature shopping cart, the only other person in the scene dutifully ignores him as if he isn’t there and shouldn’t be seen.  The awkwardness of the moment dissipated upon closer inspection, however, for there were things that didn’t make much sense, not least that we don’t typically see homeless people sleeping on the floor in grocery stores—after all, it’s not good for business.  And then I read the caption:  “Brian Garcia, 17, tried to nap on Friday at a Wal-Mart in Sugar Land, Tex., where he was first in line for a greatly discounted  plasma TV.”

It is possible that this photograph was intended as something of a visual irony, particularly when we consider that it was juxtaposed with other pictures in the same slideshow that implied something like an unrepentant, consumerist version of gluttony.  But there is a different and perhaps more important point to be made.  Stories and photographs about the frenzy of activity that took place in our stores and malls on Black Friday were ubiquitous across local and national media.  And for the most part what we were being invited to see was the world of commerce doing what it does.  Individual shoppers might be portrayed as going overboard in buying too much, or as being unduly cautious as they wait for “deep discounts” before they make their holiday purchases.  But in either case we were being encouraged to seeing consumers and businesses doing what they do.  What we didn’t see were those incapable of being consumer-citizens.  And most of all, we didn’t see the homeless.  To make the point take note of the fact that every year the week before Thanksgiving is National Hunger and Homeless Awareness Week.  This year that would have been November 15-21. If you rely on the major news outlets for your information—print or broadcast—you probably wouldn’t know that since, as far as I can tell, not a single national newspaper or network carried a story about it.  Not a one!  Apparently its not something we are supposed to see … or look at.

Photo Credit:  Michael Stravato/New York Times

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