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October 24, 2013

Alex Garcia’s “Inner City” Photos from Austin: The Pictures That Cannot Be Seen

I’ve been thinking about the editorial shots of inner-city residents in Austin on Alex Garcia’s Chicago Trib photoblog that caused such an internet controversy the other day.

I don’t disagree with Stan Banos’s critique of the images as “street photography” or just racially coded and stereotypical. Being familiar with Alex’s work (especially in his photo blog) and his consistent thoughtfulness and sensitivity, however, I think there’s an opportunity here to think about how charged these pictures are beyond the question of whether Alex failed to recognize the chords he was touching or how these images might be perceived. (What seems as instructive as anything else the controversy evokes is how much photo editing is dedicated in a media setting to photo blogging.)

Let’s get to the larger point, however, which has to do with stereotypes – and how a certain kind of picture, in our culture, can be looked at but cannot be seen. The fact of the matter is, these photos so play on racial and cultural stereotypes (thank you, Hollywood; thank you radical right; thank you cable, local and network news) there is little sociological bandwidth to actually approach this editorial content with any kind of objectivity.  Instead, the photos are just as apt to elicit judgment and condemnation on the one hand, and defensiveness and claims of the outsider’s objectification on the other. Even for the person who can bring more zen to the process — the one who, after the prompt, can really avoid thinking of an elephant — it still seems to involve too much perceptual effort in considering the photos for what they’re not.  (You can see Alex, in the post’s comment section,  appealing vigorously for such clear-mindedness — all that effort being the catch.)

More specifically, there is little chance in our culture today of looking at photos like these and seeing past the loading to more freshly consider the effect and/or consequence of environment. How typical the attribution of these backgrounds and elements are – the low rider pants; the bandanas; the short, skin tight skirts; the bare skin; the grates and fences; the vacant lots; the idiosyncratic gestures and gazes — to bad character, dangerousness, the wanton. With even the hint of the primitive in the animation, separation of body from clothes and the seemingly wild call in the image above  – there is little hope of doing what Hussurl, the phenomenologist, described as “bracketing the natural attitude.” In other words, where the “impossibility” lies is in the steep challenge of looking at these photos naïvely enough to consider each individual as distinct from the associations they invariably stimulate. Even more vexing is the aspiration of looking at these scenes (the way Alex offers us so much credit for) without assuming anything at all.

(updated 12/23/13.)

(photo: Alex Garcia/Chicago Tribune)

  • Mike

    These all look like they were shot from the safety of a passing car. The POV is from the middle of the street in every frame. It seems he is merely a tourist, snapping away mindlessly, trying to pass these images off as being insightful, when indeed they are not.

    • Ian

      For the record, they WERE shot from the safety of a passing car. What is not insightful about these images? They allow me (the viewer) to study a frame in time, to see gesture and expression, human interaction, posture, and relationships. I enjoy learning from these images the same way I enjoy learning from any image of a subject caught unaware. (whether that image came from a google streetview, a telephoto into a NYC apartment window, or a rangefinder shot from the hip…).

      As for “snapping away mindlessly,” certainly the editing process was mindful. Mike, maybe you can go out to this neighborhood and make the insightful images that you’re looking for, and show us all how it ought to be done…

  • Scarabus

    I must be missing something, because I like the pictures. My first reaction was that it was refreshing to see urban Black Americans portrayed at just regular people. No stop and frisk; no handcuffs; no guns; no SWAT teams breaking down a door; etc. When I was in grad school at Duke, it was common to see the frat guys sitting on benches just like these guys. When my daughter was in college at Duke, it was fashionable to let your trousers droop and show your boxer shorts. And so on.

    • http://reciprocity-failure.blogspot.com/ Stan B.

      These may be fairly innocuous in your view, but guaranteed they are going to strike different chords in different people, and much of those will be… less than positive. But what is also equally at play here is the surreptitious manner in which these photos were acquired.

    • http://www.futurebird.com Susan Donovan

      I wish someone would take a photo of ME. Where am I in this “Black America”

  • Cactus

    Won’t deal with the ethics of photojournalism here as I suspect
    many of you are far more informed than I. But, as an occasional street
    photographer around Hollywood and environs, I saw it more as an extension of my
    obsession of people watching — sort of the mechanical as opposed to the
    visual. Or active as opposed to passive, if you will.

    As to Alex Garcia’s photos of Austin area of Chicago, it appears to
    my reading that it was an assignment occasioned by the protest by ministers in
    the area about the lack of development spending in their area and the closing of
    public facilities. This informs the reason and context for the photos. Thus I
    don’t see how they can be considered racist or classist since, in a way, the
    community was asking for more attention be paid to their plight.

    That said, I find these pictures particularly good for street
    photography. They are precise in their composition and there is a richness to
    the framing, much for the eye to take in to make the whole. Another thing I
    noticed is that all the people in the photos are interacting with each other or
    the camera. They are all doing something. That makes them interesting. These
    are portraits of a community. They may be poor and wanting, but they are a
    community.

  • hardlyfast

    ’slumming it’ has long been entertianment, this is just another example.

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  • Scarabus

    Yes, you’re right, Stan. Mike said it, and it’s implicit in the comments. I just wanted to share my honest response. I felt, not a sense of “otherness,” but a sense of recognition.

    As for the surreptitiousness, that does make me uncomfortable – not as much as Svenson’s shooting through apartment windows, though. At least these subjects were in public and knew others were seeing then.

    You’ve encouraged me to write a post for my own blog. I’ll give you a h/t. :-)

  • http://reciprocity-failure.blogspot.com/ Stan B.

    This not a matter of style, but of ethics, which you have made quite clear is a non-issue with you as long as you “enjoy” the images.

  • Scarabus

    You made me think of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Susan. Haven’t read it for decades, mind you, so I won’t vouch for details. Obviously I remember the narrator’s being invisible to others. But also remember his being manipulated by others who saw him only as pawn in the games they were playing, never as an actual individual person who mattered for his own sake.

    Wait! I don’t mean they literally couldn’t see him. And I’m not being cynical. I’m not talking about deliberate, conscious hypocrisy. I’m talking about “cognitive mapping” and its effect on perception. I’m just saying that they saw him through a filter nature/nurture/culture had imposed.

    If he had been photographed, would his image have failed to appear? You know, like the mythical vampire whose image can’t be seen in a mirror? Or would it have appeared as a sort of blank screen onto which every viewer could project what he/she wanted or needed to see, or couldn’t help seeing, for whatever reason?

    Yeah. “Outlying” extremes. Reality lies within some fuzzy stretch between those extremes. I’m often surprised at the way others perceive me, based solely on in-person appearance, much less photos. To be seen in person is no guarantee that others will see us as (we think) we really are. To be seen in photos? Good luck!

    —wayne

  • Ian

    Stan, I agree that the ethics of acquiring the images is something interesting to discuss. Just to be clear, I mean “enjoy” in the sense of “be possessed of, or benefit from” not in the sense of entertainment.

    And Mike, I didn’t mean to lash out at you. I suppose I had a knee-jerk reaction to what I perceived as a dismissal of the merit of these shots simply because they were taken from a moving car.

    As for the surreptitious shooting… I’d be curious to hear more on the ethics. Street photography has a long history of sideways-pointing viewfinders, concealed cameras, and other clandestine methods. As an American living in a big city today, I just walk around assuming I’m always under surveillance (street-corner cameras, mass-transit cameras, cameras in taxis, cameras on peoples phones…). So what is the ethical distinction among moving-car photos, secret street-photography, and surveillance?

  • http://reciprocity-failure.blogspot.com/ Stan B.

    Many have expressed how much respect they have for Mr. Garcia’s previous
    work, and rightfully so. I think (and this is speculative) he got
    somewhat carried away with the logistics of ’solving’ this difficult
    assignment under the time restraints given, and thus resorted to a
    method of subterfuge which so closely resembles surveillance (even most
    public surveillance cameras are not concealed). His opening statement
    does not involve any mention of the ethics involved in his decision
    planning, but simply outlines how to get the job done in the very
    easiest manner possible. He then goes on to claim how he’s justified by
    the long tradition of clandestine photography, citing how Walker Evans
    secreted his picture taking in the subway.

    There is a difference
    in taking street candids and taking photographs while completely
    hidden- specifically when it targets a very specific population…
    something Walker Evans never did (the subway being a fairly democratic
    environment). The fact is, many of photojournalism’s greatest
    breakthrough achievement’s involve long term involvement where the
    photographer gets to know and interact with their subjects on a daily
    basis. Think Riis, Smith and Davidson- and how Garcia mentions the
    latter as justification is well beyond me.

  • http://www.futurebird.com Susan Donovan

    I live in a place most people call a ghetto (I do not like to use that term without pointing out the baggage that it has first) I live in the South Bronx. It’s a Latino and black neighborhood. You could find some of the above images in our ‘hood. But you can also EASILY (and that is where I take issue) find all kinds of other images too. You could even find them just driving through if you were too scared to get out of your car. (But, that would be really silly since it’s really safe. STILL.)

    Anyone could EASILY images that show the same people you see above in more dignified and glorious ways. And images that show other people not shown in these photos. Though, I think the last photo of the young father is really cute. It’s the only one that shows a human connection. It shows something valuable. It makes you think “there are important things worth preserving in this place.”

    Too often outsiders do not think there is anything worth preserving or of value in our neighborhoods and it’s totally wrong. (Beyond the land itself– which they might grab to gentrify.)

    In many of these photos people have their eyes bugged out or they are waving their hands around … what is up with that? Why select the images where people have those expressions?

    What can’t any of these guys afford shirts?

    What the heck is going on?

    Now, if you took these images and mixed them with images that that people could feel proud of … that showed all of the things that we can create in “ghettos” that matters and that is valuable and beautiful and important well THEN you have a story.

    I’m not an “outlier” I am a middle class black person who lives in a poor neighborhood but there are 300 people in my co-op building who are in the same demographic. Another 2,000 in the residence behind us.

    We’re outnumbered by people who have a lot less money but not all poor people are shirtless and or wearing terrible too tight tube dresses.

    Really most of the poor people I know are like me they just don’t have enough goddamed money at the moment.
    :)

  • pandechion

    “Really most of the poor people I know are like me they just don’t have enough goddamed money at the moment.” Right on.

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