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August 14, 2009

Beneath the Las Vegas Strip

NYT homeless Brekken.jpg
by contributor John Lucaites

The recession has been bad for just about everyone, but it has been much worse for some than others.

Among those hurt the hardest have been the homeless who have become both the frequent target of hate crimes as well as the aim of criminalization laws in 273 cities nationwide making it making it illegal to eat, sit, or sleep in public places. It is difficulty to fathom the fear that animates such violent reactions against those we might imagine are forlorn and hopeless—what is about such fellow citizens that evokes such animus? what makes them appear to be so undeserving of our charity?— but since it comes from both vigilantes (the rock) and the state (the hard place) we can only assume that it is driven by deeply seeded anxieties.

A photograph featured by the New York Times in a story on efforts to enact hate crime statutes against those who perpetrate violence against the homeless perhaps offers the hint of an answer. The photograph is of a couple who live in an underground flood channel beneath the Las Vegas strip.

The image is shot at eye level, the vertical angle neither high nor low, and thus nullifying any sense of a power differential between the viewer and the subjects even as it suggests some degree of identification; at the same time, however, the horizontal angle is slightly oblique, detaching the viewer from the scene, perhaps even casting him or her as an outside observer. The image is thus framed formally by a tension between identification and dissociation.

The social tension that simultaneously separates and connects viewers and the viewed is marked in other respects as well. The faces of the people are not recognizable, cast in shadows and blurred by movement, and yet they appear to be a normative heterosexual couple—perhaps even a family—as they share their neatly made bed with one another and their dog. It is clearly not a normal house or apartment. Distinguished by its low ceiling it has something of a cellar-like atmosphere, dark and damp. The unrecognizable graffiti strewn across the wall and ceiling makes even that an unlikely location however, suggesting something of a public space. And yet for all of that it does appear to be organized as a private “room” that  bears many of the artifacts of modern living, including what looks to be a bulletin board that features colorful photographs—a reminder of or perhaps a hope for better times—and something like a desk. And note too the book that sits next to the man’s leg as he apparently has tired of reading in bed. Maybe he is listening to the boom box that sits behind the dog.

The most telling feature of the photograph is surely the clothing neatly hanging on a rod in the background. This sign of orderliness—here, a clear marker of civility—does not fit with our stereotype of the homeless as crazed, drunken or lazy vagabonds. These are not social outcasts who tote their worldly goods bundled together in a trash bag or orphan grocery cart or who mumble to themselves while walking down the street. They clearly know what it means to have a home. Indeed, these people could be us, the viewers, you and me. And therein, no doubt, lies at least part of the answer to the cause of our intense fear and loathing of the homeless, for as much as scenes like this lead us to utter the mantra “there but for the grace of God,” so too do they heighten the need for dissociation. And as history has shown, time and again, there is no more powerful mode of dissociation than casting about for scapegoats. But that, of course, has not been history’s only lesson with respect to the practice of scapegoating.

Perhaps we too as viewers are caught between a rock and a hard place.

(Cross-posted from No Caption Needed)

(image: Isaac Brekken/New York Times)

  • bernini

    Like an apocalyptic Caravaggio. Read your post after reading the NYTimes article on right wing kooks in Dresden, Germany. The mental mash-up of your post and the NYT article serves as a good reminder (to me) that this abstract TV fueled cultural wars can easily trigger real cultural wars and backlashes. Throw in our little recession and we have perfect ingredients for social contract immunoglobulins.

  • http://www.nocaptionneeded.com Lucaites

    I was looking for the right term to discuss the tension between light and dark in the image and your reference to Caravaggio reminded me of
    what that was — this really is a profound usage of chiraoscuro. And yes, it has a strong sense of the Baroque that contributes to the dark side
    of the social contract. Thanks.

  • http://www.doves2day.blogspot.com g

    Before I read any of the text, I was struck by the image, as though it were a kind of edgy decorator-mag shot of some kind of high-end decor.
    The things that strike me the same way you are struck by the order of the hanging clothing are – the white sheets and pillows, the apparent cleanliness of them. They look luxurious. The man’s naked vulnerable torso – the white fur of the dog. The two people look like models, slim and elegant and sensual as if they were in an advertising photo for some kind of lifestyle product. All these elements lend the photo a feeling of a clean, private, safe place – and yes, even a sexy place, where private intimacy might occur.
    To see these images and then read that it is a makeshift home in a flood channel is jarring. A whole different set of impressions come flooding in, and the contrast is discordant. Is it damp concrete, with grafitti? Or is it the latest Ralph Lauren all-organic paint in a trendy faux-concrete color, with a custom mural? Would it be possible to see a decorating magazine photo out of context and get an opposite impression?

  • http://blogs.salon.com/0003935/theRanticore Julia Grey

    What do they do when the rains come?

  • http://www.nocaptionneeded.com Lucaites

    I too was struck by the cleanliness of the sheets and pillows. And note too that the “graffiti” is unrecognizable as any kind of tagging that I know of. And so could it really be some version of high modern art? That, of course, lends to your Ralph Lauren allusion. For me this makes the image all of the more discordant — a site of both identificaiton and dissociation — that all the more accents the problem.

  • http://www.nocaptionneeded.com Lucaites

    That’s the question. Here is how the NYT article ends:
    “Their plight is a revealing commentary on the violence facing street people, said Matt O’Brien, a Las Vegas writer who runs an outreach group for the homeless.
    ‘It’s hard to believe that tunnels that can fill a foot per minute with floodwater could be safer than aboveground Vegas,” Mr. O’Brien said, “but many homeless people think they are. No outsider is going to attack you down there in the dark.’”

  • jtfromBC

    Definitely not for the faint hearted, these tunnels are great places for scorpions and black widow spiders. Avoiding poisonous two legged humanoids is certainly a lesser danger for these folks.

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