A few years ago, I would have had to wonder whether these images did in fact represent happy Couchsurfers; now, of course, we have Google Image Search. It only took me a few seconds’ clicking around to confirm what I had suspected — or actually, something even more troubling.
It’s not merely that are these not at all images of actual Couchsurfers; in itself, that might readily enough be forgiven. It’s that the images appear to have been downloaded, altered and used in a commercial context without their creators’ knowledge or consent — in one case, in fact, in direct contravention of the (very generous) terms of the license under which they were offered. Here, let’s take a look:
A fan of the space program, Kipp Teague, has uploaded a huge trove of Apollo mission photo scans onto Flickr. They’re organized into albums, but rather overwhelming as a collection, unless you want to just page through thousands of space photos (which, I mean, yeah why not?).
Digg has posted a smaller “best of” selection if you want to see just the highlights.
Photogrammar is an impressive database from Yale “organizing, searching, and visualizing the 170,000 photographs from 1935 to 1945 created by the United States Farm Security Administration and Office of War Information (FSA-OWI).”
Last Spring I was taking a course at the International Center for Photography (ICP) called “Photo II: Digital,” taught by the amazing Keisha Scarville. One of our weekly assignments was to shoot a set of photos that illustrate a list of prescribed emotional states. I got stuck on menacing. “What could I possibly show that’s menacing?” I thought. I wasn’t interested in situational images, like a dog in a threatening pose—I wanted something more existential. I started thinking along economic lines; as a legal citizen with a living wage job in one of the richest countries in the world, what is it I’m really afraid of?
Then it occurred to me as I was walking through the West Village: debt. Student loan debt, I’ve got a whole lot of it! As a graduate of Harvey Mudd College and then NYU for graduate school, I’ve racked up a hefty tab. My monthly payments are obscene (but I would still say it was worth it). As a result I will have to work a high-paying job for the rest of my life to keep up, paying down that principal amount instead of building up a retirement. I’m not even sure I’ll pay it all off in my lifetime. This is my menacing, existential threat.
So I walked to the NYU Financial Aid office, showed the guard my old student ID, and discreetly took some photos in the waiting area. I posted a few of the resulting images here on my website, and was approached to publish one on the website ANIMAL New York.
This Fall I started “Photo III: Digital” at ICP, taught by M. Wesley Ham—who’s also amazing, and who I’d taken a course from before. Each of these subsequent foundation courses builds up from technical topics like camera operation to more conceptual project development. This third-level course is about focusing in on a single project and I’ve been working to continue my financial aid project over the course of the Fall semester. I set out to photograph every college’s financial aid office within range of my apartment in Brooklyn.
I’m still nowhere close to photographing all the schools, but I have learned a lot from the excursions I’ve made so far. I’ve encountered a lot of resistance from college staff who are instantly suspicious of my interest in photographing financial aid offices. “It’s kind of like a bank, you’re just not allowed to take pictures. I guess because of security?” they’d say with a shrug.
Indeed, these are privately owned spaces and I feel the need to tread lightly. I’ve been able to take pictures on about one third of my visits, either because nobody noticed or nobody cared. In only two cases I’ve gotten verbal permission to take photos. I’ve found that public schools like Borough of Manhattan Community College and City College of New York are the least concerned with my photography. The for-profits are the hardest—trying to get into Art Institute was like crossing the border into North Korea. I’ve been getting plenty of material for my project, but very few of the shots have quite measured up to that first trip to NYU.
One of the appeals of these spaces is just how strange and alienating financial aid offices look; they are not beautiful places but they can yield interesting pictures. As I shot more, I felt the project might be seen as taking an antagonistic position toward higher education itself, and the efforts of college staff helping students to afford it. In fact, the problem I’m trying to draw attention to is the economic conditions faced by students and colleges alike. Beyond that, I’m concerned with the impact of all us alumni paying into our loans instead of putting that money to more productive uses in society.
So that’s where I started. I’m shifting the project to focus more on us American alumni. The two big changes I’m making are:
I’m seeking out official permission from each college to allow for more flexibility on-site
I’ll be taking portraits of alumni within their schools’ financial aid offices
That second change is where I’ll need your help. I only have a few short weeks until my class ends on December 12th, and I can’t possibly finish everything by then. I intend to get as much material as I can in the meantime and I’m hoping to set the groundwork for what seems to be a longer-term project
If you’re interested in appearing as a portrait subject, please fill out this Google Docs form. Thank you!
“I always thought of it as a kind of collaboration,” he said. “I’m here, I’m hanging out, and I don’t really know anything. So I’m going to let people lead me and see what kind of threads I can be led along. And if I give it enough time, those threads will lead to other threads.”
Dundon lived in China for six years, unofficially documenting his experience there. In contrast, Taryn Simon used the process of seeking officially sanctioned representation as a kind of material for her project.
China’s State Council Information Office (SCIO) was solicited in 2009 to select a multi-generational bloodline that would “represent China” for this project … Previously known as the Office of Foreign Propaganda, the SCIO researches, develops, and manages China’s external publicity activities.
This morning I was taking a second look at this post from the excellent Lens blog. It’s an interview with ICP- and RISD-trained photographer Antonio Bolfo, who became a cop and did some amazing photojournalism of rookies patrolling housing projects in New York City.
I was curious about how the Lens editors might have connected the project, called NYPD Impact, with the Ramarley Graham shooting, which happened two days before the post went up. It turns out there’s no mention of Graham in the post, and I couldn’t find any comments that made that connection.
‘This is like a safe haven for them,’ Bolfo tells the Times. ‘Kind of like, collect their thoughts, talk to their loved ones, be people. Shed their police persona and relax a little bit.’ It is a place forbidden to civilians. The intensity of the relief this seclusion brings the officers is inverse to their connection to the community. The more they are merely foreign occupiers, the more they enjoy the view, a view that the very residents of the buildings on which they so symbolically trod are not allowed to enjoy … The many must be excluded so that the few may have the privilege of aesthetic contemplation. After all, isn’t that the way Art works?
It’s a pretty harsh perspective, but I can’t help but wonder whether the audience for NYPD Impact actually includes those who live in the projects. The Lens piece does mention the symbolic aspect of Bolfo’s project:
[The photographs] are at turns raw and tender, scary and sweet, and they humanize people on both sides of the badge — those who wear one and those who face them, night after night.
The photos are definitely amazing (be sure to check out the full set) and certainly humanize the NYPD. But I wonder if they do so to the same degree for residents of the housing projects. I wonder about the timing of the interview, which is about a project from 2008-2009. It’s hard not to see the post as a response to community outrage, although I realize it’s most likely just an unintended coincidence.
Update: I contacted Michael Wilson, the reporter who interviewed Antonio Bolfo, and the timing of the interview was in fact coincidental:
The piece was scheduled to run when it did about a week prior, and it was completed and filed in the system before the shooting, I believe. It’s even possible the piece was edited the day of the shooting. I can see where your questions seem like obvious ones after the fact, but at the time, it just wouldn’t have occurred to anyone here to link the two.
Seeing the tiny exhibition on LA photography at the Getty reminded me how much I like Henry Wessel Jr. (who had one print in the show). “It can happen any time anywhere. You don’t have to be in front of stuff that’s going to make a good photograph. It’s possible anywhere.”
The 1st of January is as arbitrary as any day to designate a new year. Reading the Wikipedia article on the Gregorian calendar outlines some of the competing times to round out a new year – in March, May, September, December, as well as January – even when limiting oneself to the history of Europe.
But here I am, reflecting on the year ahead. Here is a short list of specific resolutions I’ve set out for myself:
Read more books
Write more blog posts
Take more photos, take a photography course at ICP
Work through my Instapaper queue (currently at 1,219 unread articles!)
Focus on finishing and polishing my existing projects
Favor those projects that help me keep in touch with friends and family