About three years ago I started thinking about doing a conceptual shoot with a Rococo vibe (I love the colors, the motifs, the sheer over-the-topness of it), but like most of my ideas it didn't see the light of day. Then, 2016 happened. The idea resurfaced and seemed to be a good fit to visually explore the the widening chasm between the have and have-nots, and the perception of “The Other”.
In this case, I'm particularly interested in the interplay between what we idolize and how that informs our choices and viewpoint. What we see, and what we are blind to because of it, and what fears and self perceptions those idols speak to. I am curious about the deeper fears that "the other" brings up for us, and how even when suffering and devastation is right in front of us, we are able to remain indifferent. I decided to “frame” the tableaux - a bit of a nod to the idea that history will remember (and judge us for) our current actions.
For example, Americans love and idolize stories of "pulling yourself up by your bootstraps", "I worked for everything I have - nothing was given to me", "you can achieve anything if you just work hard enough" etc etc. We love these narratives. They make us feel empowered - and often self righteous. But what does it look like when you really unpack those ideas? First, we tend to become defensive - as if we are being accused of something we didn't do, or were not directly a part of (and often this is where the conversation ends). But it isn't about that. It isn't about assigning blame. It's about deeply considering where we have been, where we are going, and who we really want to be in the world (and most importantly, why).
I mean, were you really not handed anything? If, for example, you were born at this point in history, in this country, white, anywhere remotely in the middle class, were provided with a basic education, then you have already been handed a tremendous amount... most of which we take for granted, and are generally not even conscious of the vast extent to which we benefit from it on a daily basis. I work hard and come from a middle class family of hard workers... but I am under no delusions that I have achieved my modest gains solely by my own efforts.
Bear with me here.
Let's do a little exercise. For all of us who are fortunate enough to have a roof over our head, to enjoy things like art on our walls, fresh produce on our tables, music to dance to on Friday night, and all the fabulous gadgets that make our daily life more enjoyable, let's just for a moment close our eyes and remove all of those things from our sphere. I'm serious. Take a moment and visualize it. Take those fresh local berries off the table. Take the art down from your walls. Silence the music. Remove the gadgets. Live in that space for a little while.
Here's my point. Those who pick your berries can work 12 hour days in the fields - it isn't that they aren't working hard enough. It's that there are so many jobs and endeavors that inherently have an income cap that is crushingly low - no matter how many hours you work. The vast majority of artists do not make enough income off their work to live off of. All those people who make your clothes, and all those gadgets - many of those jobs also have very low income caps. Now, I'm not saying that any one of those individuals couldn't decide that they want to do something else - to follow some dream, and make it happen. I do believe that - in rare cases we see it it happen. But regardless of the simplistic nature of that argument, don't we still need people to make clothes, pick produce, and make art and gadgets?
At some point, our hyper-individualistic religious-patriotic fervor is faced with the question: Do we, as a society, value these things - and by extension, the people who produce them? Do we, as a society, value individuals simply by nature of the fact that they are human beings? Do we believe that every human is entitled to a certain level of dignity (that includes things like access to basic health care and education). Or do we only value those who look like us? Who act the way we think they should act? Have the kind of job we think they should have? Do we only value money and income as the litmus test of a person's value (both inherently and to society)? If we were stripped of all the aforementioned things, I think we would quickly see the scope of their value - both physically and psychologically.
Peter Wohlleben states, in The Hidden Life of Trees, "A tree is not a forest. On its own, a tree cannot establish a consistent local climate. It is at the mercy of wind and weather. But together, many trees create an ecosystem that moderates extremes of heat and cold, stores a great deal of water, and generates a great deal of humidity. And in this protected environment, trees can live to be very old. To get to this point, the community must remain intact no matter what.If every tree were looking out only for itself, then quite a few of them would never reach old age. Regular fatalities would result in many large gaps in the tree canopy, which would make it easier for storms to get inside the forest and uproot more trees. The heat of summer would reach the forest floor and dry it out. Every tree would suffer. Every tree, therefore, is valuable to the community and worth keeping around as long as possible. And that is why even sick individuals are supported and nourished until they recover. Next time, perhaps it will be the other way round, and the supporting tree might be the one in need of assistance."
I realize that this is a huge paradigm shift for a country who has bought into the cult of self to such a degree that any form of communal responsibility rings the fear-bell of "socialism" - a kind of Pavlov response imbedded by those who benefit most from the current structures. But maybe let’s step out of the cacophony of voices telling us what patriotism is, what makes a country "great", and what gives us our value in the eyes of society. Let's step back, close our eyes for a moment, shut off all of those voices and think about the things that really give value to our life....and then think about what the minimum standard of that should be for every human - just because they are human.