When this self portrait was photographed back in 2009 my idea was to consider the implications of private and public persona. Over the past couple of years I have reprocessed the photo several times based upon my original idea. With each new version it has become apparent that the image makes some people uncomfortable.
There are many reasons why someone wrapped in a headscarf might be considered provocative. The face of the subject, me in this case, is obscured. It is a headshot which eliminates any body language to help the viewer read the image. later versions of the image are composited which adds layers of information to further obfuscate the subject.
I believe there is another reason why my self portrait makes people uncomfortable. It is a more sinister reason. For more than twenty years we as free citizens of the United States have been taught to fear those among us who speak with a different accent, dress in a different way or hold unfamiliar beliefs. Xenophobic attitudes now mainstream in our society.
Every day we are reminded to fear and judge people we don’t know because they hold certain religious beliefs. Politicians shamelessly use fear of ‘the potential threat’ to attain office. News outlets shamelessly echo those politicians without asking meaningful questions. Incidents that are thought of as terrorism are endlessly replayed twenty four hours a day for commercial gain. We are warned on a daily basis to hold our fear close.
The bargain we are making is freedom in exchange for security. The case could be made that we are trading those things that make our country great for the warm blanket of a comfortable police state. In our society informers are not even necessary, we inform upon ourselves. Every electronic utterance and transaction is subject to examination without our direct consent by machine intelligence. Senator Joseph McCarthy was once asked; “Have you no sense of decency sir?” Who in the government and security apparatus would we ask that of today?
Lately I’m been making quite a few experimental photo based images. The most recent works are composite images combining photos from my archive with various found textures using a variety of techniques. The results range from good to downright awful. Many people who see the resulting work find it quite annoying and without conventional aesthetic appeal. Guilty as charged.
For many years I constrained myself to making photographs in the predictable way most non-professionals work, which is of course to emulate professionals. I worked especially hard to learn digital black and white photography. It is fun and interesting to produce good black and white work that fits within that conventional niche. Making a good finished photo is still satisfying to me.
I have reached a point where I need to be able to exercise more creativity in my work. I still make black and white images but they are often interpreted into something more like photo based digital art. That is not a term I embrace but it makes the point that many of my images are no longer completely photographic.
I’m not giving anything up by doing interpreted images. It just means my practice has broadened to include other types of image making. Right now I’m only using digital techniques but I hope to start physically modifying paper based images with paint and tools in the future. I’m not a great artist, but I draw inspiration from Matisse who worked with paper and scissors in his last years. He had courage to continue making excellent new work. Maybe I can do the same thing.
It is with regret that I see my country closing borders and stopping immigration. I am a second generation American. My grandparents were immigrants who came to America after the First World War. When I was a child my older relatives spoke Dutch among themselves but only English to me. My generation was to be fully American.
Looking back I understand that I’m an American because my grandparents wanted a better life for themselves and their children. I’m grateful for what this country has given me. I hope other families will be allowed to follow a similar path to a better life in this country.
People who live near the border in the United States often have family and business ties on both sides. The border may be an exact line to some but it is also a region of cultural and economic exchange. We should be careful not to deprive citizens who live near the border of opportunities because others in different regions lack opportunity. We can and should address economic problems where they exist without depriving others.
We often choose to speak of the world using confrontational language. It is worth considering whether less divisive approaches might serve us better. There are ways to accomplish our goals and maintain security that are less fear based.
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