I Surrender!

Have you noticed that the more difficult, dangerous or inconvenient a practice, the more likely people will hanker for it? Photographers are no exception. When it was cause for prayers in the local church if a person contemplated traveling to the next village, peripatetic photographers lugged half a ton of camera gear and glass plates all over Africa, the Far East, and every conceivable location where there was a good chance of being devoured by predators, impaled or pot-boiled. When plates had to be coated by hand, risking to lose a limb through exposure to chemicals, photographers made more good pictures than in any other period in the medium’s history. Conversely, it is no coincidence that as soon as the completely self contained, monkey-proof digital system was introduced, photographers began to rediscover film, mainly because: 1) It takes a long time; 2) It cost more money; 3) It is hard to work satisfactorily. So, we have come full circle. Now that airlines are practically paying customers to fly to exotic places, photographers prefer to stay indoors and build cute little arrangements with plastic soldiers, Barbie dolls and spacemen, which then they portray and show in exhibitions with arty titles like: “Fabrication 004”. This practice is called Table-Top Photography and it is rightfully earning the disgust of all respectable artists. However, there will always be a few photographers who have outgrown playing with dolls and those who need to get out of the house in order to preserve domestic harmony. But what do they take pictures of, and where? The brave ones walk around the block, at risk of being arrested as perverts or terrorists gathering intelligence; Others drive to the city limits, making it obvious why photographers in the North-East photograph all things made of concrete, while those in the South-West photograph deserts and mountains: Because that is what they see outside the car window. So, allow me to add a few illuminating anecdotes, all of which contain a little of truth, about our fascination with the land and abhorrence of people. Take my sister, for example. She lives in a characteristic little town in Southern Italy, always dresses in designer clothes, and still regularly ponders the genetic defect in the family which led me to abandon the homestead so many years ago. Her typical day is to walk her kids to school (one mile each way), walk to the store and carry home heavy shopping bags of groceries (another mile), and then walk again to the school at teatime to collect the kids (two more miles). No sweat, as we Canadians would so graphically put it. A couple of summers ago, she visited me in Toronto (probably to conduct a personal research on the above genetic problem) and quaintly assumed that a brisk two mile walk before dinner would be constitutional, in both senses of the word. Within 20 minutes she was back at the door, red-faced, in the company of a police officer who had picked her up for acting suspiciously in public: Walking. Apparently, only retards (she doesn’t speak English…) and hookers (she was wearing a quite succinct Gucci dress…) acted in such a deviant manner! Of course, this unpleasant episode confirmed her worst fears about Canada in general, and my aberration in particular, which only goes to prove my earlier contention about the prejudicial effects of foreign, or any other, travel. It also shows why you cannot do street-life stuff in the West, as you can in the East. This was the experience of another visitor friend of mine who, back home, is renowned for his gentle, witty photographs of ordinary people doing ordinary things in public. He came to meet me last winter and, one day, he asked to borrow my car in order to “get out and about,” looking at life as Canadians lived it. He was gone six hours, had driven 250 miles, and had not seen a single person outside a car. But he did see endless vistas of land covered in snow and ice. Thereafter he had no trouble whatsoever in understanding why this area of the world produces an “ad nauseam” output of landscape photographs. I believe that portraits resulting from outdoor encounters are becoming as obsolete as telephones with dials because, as I said before, popular wisdom dictates that anyone photographing in public is likely to be taken for a pervert, or at least for someone up to no good. So, chances are that you will get arrested or a lawsuit will arrive at the door even before the incriminating street-shoot is out of the printer. And this is discouraging. I recently photographed a typical deviant and showed the print to a photographer friend, who, if pressed, will admit he earns his living as a lawyer. He took one look at the picture and said: “Publish it and he’ll sue”. “Why”? I asked. “Because you made him look like a wimp”. “But he is a wimp. Everyone would agree” … “It doesn’t matter. If he thinks he is Rambo, you have offended his sense of self. It’s called outrage, in the legal dictionary”. So I tore up the print, and decided to concentrate on rocks and toy soldiers. There’s no defence against a lawsuit because, even if you win, the lawyer takes all your equipment as a down payment on his fees, especially if you hire my friend. But don’t you think I jest about litigation mania, last year a respectable young couple from Toronto photographed their boy in his bath, and sent the disposable camera for processing. The lab blew the whistle to the Children’s Aid Society and the couple was investigated. This seems unbelievable until you examine our faultless logic behind this type of persecution: If everyone has done it, or is doing it, then chances are it is beautiful and enjoyable… Suffice to say that the concept of photography, like the one of pornography, is subject to community standards. So, the golden rule out there is this: Photograph only what you can see out of the car window, or else your subject is probably immoral or illegal…

And that’s all there is to it!

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About Mauro Metallo

A Writer and Photographer equally at home in Italy and in Canada.

One response to “I Surrender!”

  1. davecandoit says :

    Great photo, Mauro. Interesting post. Your poor sister. But you know, even if one were to walk around downtown with the objective to smile and nod or say hello to passing strangers in the street, I suspect one wouldn’t get far before the cops came along to investigate. Keep your head down, look frustrated and impatient, and you’ll fit right in. Try to be friendly and engaging and get a free tour of the Don Jail. That’s life in the big city. 🙂

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