Thinking back to the Cuban refugees, I have also been pondering our own situation these days and past. Sure, Marie and I have been living our lives for years like Formula One drivers on the Monaco race track, through an urban tangle of chicanes and tight turns, high-speed stretches, blind corners and narrow roads, heel-and-toe shifting, split-second decisions, and much unadulating fate. For better and worse, we have been focused more introspectively than outwards. But can we simply ignore what unfolds around us?
Living in Harlem these days, and in New York City as a whole, requires many basic survival skills. One of these, pillar of its infamous category, is the art of ignoring the chaos and screaming unfairness that dominate one’s environment.
On a single commute to work or back, I am bound to run into the most amazing displays of both utter poverty and indescribable wealth. They cohabit, existing together in a single plane of reality for which the only boundary between extremes fleetingly resides in our minds and hearts.
Confusion often creeps in, and shamefully one wonders if the rich are really rich, and the poor truly so. Many an act has been staged and there are skilled actors in both clans.
So in order to survive the daily challenges life throws at me, I wear a mental armor, an expressionless mask and a soundproofing helmet. I call the kit my Urban Survival Shell, or USS Evincenot. It helps me cauterize the world. I manage to fence off the abject, in-your-face power play of Porsche-driven overachievers as much as the pitiful surrender of the dispossessed giving up on their dignity in order to secure a meal, or a dose. In New York City, one ignores or is eaten. The armor is psychological but the attitude is very real. No eye contact. Pretend to be reading, thinking, talking on your phone, sleeping. Do not engage. Do not acknowledge. Do not show emotion. Might as well not be there.
Many photographers find behind their lens the courage to confront what they don’t understand, or cannot do anything about. Others use their camera as a simple excuse for voyeurism. A few capture images that are powerful enough that they might make a difference. I don’t belong to any of the above categories. I am not instinctively driven to photograph people. I am programmed to avoid them.
Sometimes I feel embarrassed because the shiny car was a Saab or a mighty Landcruiser I would have given anything to be driving in the searing heat of a Namibian desert, other times I am bitterly ashamed for ignoring a plea or not stopping to give a dollar or return a look. But then soon enough I witness a scam or fence off yet another drunk and silently thank the USS Evincenot for being self-regulating and battle-hardened.
As the Salvation Army is once more un-marching on corners, its bells a nagging reminder of the silent need all around, Macy’s Christmas displays are ephemerally coming to life in their giant windows and I struggle with primal instincts that try to shame me into caring and acquired ones driving me to live and ignore, listening to French singer Zazie’s song J’étais là and I wondering if I was.
J’ai bien vu le sort que le Nord réserve au Sud
Bien compris le mépris,
J’étais là pour compter les morts.
J’étais là et je n’ai rien fait.
I did see how the North treats the South
Understood the contempt,
I was there counting casualties
I was there and I did nothing
Zazie – J’étais là