An Extended Selection:
“Self-Portraits in Exploitation”
There is no greater reflection of human nature than the American city. With painstaking detail, we construct colossal monuments whose arms stretch out to God, and yet are worshipped as gods themselves. Slumped at the feet of the Father are the material realities of this grandeur, hands too, outstretched, begging for a dollar. With a learned resilience, we do as the city has taught us and ignore this Hell below because even Darwin had to acknowledge the paradox of altruism. It is brutal, but it is also honest. Such a level of self-awareness typically comes with a $200/hour price tag. However, there is no couch on which the city can find its salvation. Only through the expressions of its occupants do we find grace. Beyond every landmark of indifference, around the corner lies the rhythmic touch of sticks to buckets or feet to cardboard or voice to open air. And for just a moment, we stop and we stare, together, reflecting on the beauty of us. These microcosms of life are what compel me to go out into the city and capture it to the best of my ability. Immersed in the orchestral arrangements of police sirens and shuffling feet, I take that first step, silently reciting the effervescent flows of Georgia O’Keefe:
“Most people in the city rush around so, they have no time to look at a flower. I want them to see it whether they want to or not.”
This brazen proclamation derives from the perfectly imperfect imagery that cannot be captured by words. I can write about the weathered concrete that speaks life to each step, but to truly feel it, sometimes you just have to see it.
In my limited experience tackling these spaces, I’ve hoped to capture life both honestly and impartially. There is, of course, no greater indicator of life than the people living in it and as such they’ve proven to be my most important subject. The problem with people is just that — they are people. Within their humanity exists something so powerful that even the sharpness of a camera’s lens feels inadequate.
Opia; n. the ambiguous intensity of looking someone in the eye, which can feel simultaneously invasive and vulnerable — their pupils glittering, bottomless and opaque — as if you were peering through a hole in the door of a house, able to tell that there’s someone standing there, but unable to tell if you’re looking in or looking out. — The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, 2013
There is a certain intrusiveness involved in capturing someone directly — the portrait. In those rare instances in which my critical eye has caught the glare of another, I realize their nakedness. And yet, in this peculiar Creation story, I am the one ashamed, frightened at what I see. As much as I want to be the fearless artist, tackling my medium with an unadulterated filter, I, too, am indebted to the psyche in which I was birthed:
I am a black man in America.
Exploitation stands as a nomenclature signifying the erasure of origin, the capturing and repurposing of a soul. It is as much a historical marker of our lineage as improvisation and protest. And just like the former, I do not take exploitation lightly.
“Exploitation lies at the root of every great portrait, and all of us know it. Even the simplest picture of another person is ethically complex, and the ambitious photographer, no matter how sincere, is compromised right from the git-go.” — Sally Mann, 2015
In 2000, Jamaican-born photographer Ruddy (Radcliffe) Roye walked along the train line, from Montego Bay to Kingston, photographing squatters that had found refuge in the abandoned stations. The unpublished series tapped into the idea of imagery as a tool — in the way Frederick Douglass had understood it. Almost two centuries prior to Roye, Douglass had theorized around the camera’s ability to reconstruct America’s understanding of Blackness. He became the most photographed man of the 19th century because he saw the potential of photography to display variance in form. By sitting for personal portraits, over time, society would, quite literally, see the complexities of his black body — his humanity validated.
The idea is one that I’ve sat with for quite some time. For Douglass, he was attempting to construct his own existence and in turn the existence of the greater Negro population of his time. However, what does it mean to tell the story of another? How does the artist respectfully present a subject, while being foreign to it himself. That is where art meets exploitation.
“Man is the only picture-making animal in the world. He alone of all the inhabitants of the earth has the capacity and passion for pictures…Poets, prophets, and reformers are all picture-makers, and this ability is the secret of their power and achievements: they see what ought to be by the reflection of what is, and endeavor to remove the contradiction.” — Frederick Douglass, 1860s
Once upon a time, I considered approaching a similar project in my own microcosm, engaging the growing population of homeless folks in San Francisco. The idea was to first capture each individual aesthetically before further contextualizing their story through a brief interview. I saw it as an opportunity to open the aperture on the city’s opaque external image. But while I sympathized with the homeless, I could not ignore the fact that I benefitted from the gentrification mandating their circumstance. The very system that had displaced them also afforded me the financial freedom to undertake such an artistic endeavor in the first place. Reflecting on this contradiction, I asked myself rather selfishly, “Where does that leave me in all of this?
Colored in several shades of guilt, I eventually resolved my consternation with the simplistic school of thought that comes along with my particular brand of privilege:
“I‘ll just pay them.”
Because money solves everything. It’s not a matter of “if,” but “how much.” So, that’s what I asked myself:
“25 seems fair, right?”
The simple answer wasn’t so simple, after all. In hindsight, there probably never as a right answer. Because how much is a portrait worth, really? How much does it cost to see someone’s truest self? Where is the line between exploitation and expression? Like Sway, I do not have all of the answers, but what I do know is that there is an undeniable power in the portrait.
I still struggle with my examinations of life. I’ve found myself capturing the back, the side, and even the backsides of my subjects, but never the front, not quite bold enough to address their absolute self. I like to tell myself it’s a voyeuristic homage to the work of Lyle Ashton Harris, but in reality, these efforts are only derivative of my own fears. I will continue to move within this city, deeply conflicted. However, the difference is that I choose to embrace it now. The uneasiness, the uncomfortable feeling of intrusion — that is what connects me to my subject. It reminds me that they, too, exist as I do and should be treated as such. There’s still humanity left in the city.
You can find my full portfolio of work here.