If you’ve been following along for any length of time, you might be starting to wonder if the author here even owns a camera, and if so, whether he can work it at all. I can! I really do, and I can! I mean, kinda, anyways.
This is a picture I took. Let’s talk about it.
I have proposed that, when we look at photographs, we are metaphorically there for a time. We are, metaphorically, present with this gentleman. We are, sort of, on the scene, and we react a little as if he were actually in front of us. What do we imagine, how do we make sense of this scene?
Here is a man, outdoors somewhere; behind him is a post; behind that are some cars. Is he near a parking lot, or a street? What is the post? These are minor questions, of course. More important is the subject himself.
He is neither thoroughly scruffy and unkempt nor particularly well kept. He is ill-shaven, but his hair is fairly recently cut. His T-shirt does not look new, but nor is it ragged or filthy. The man has a tattoo on his right arm. His teeth are crooked and appear broken. His nose also looks as if it has been broken.
His expression suggests some kind of pain, suffering, or exhaustion. Some kind of stress. If I asked you a leading question “doesn’t he look hungover?” you would likely agree, but you might also if I asked, “doesn’t he look exhausted?” There is something about his eyes.
Let’s add a caption: “Homeless panhandler. Bellingham, WA, 2019.”
When you run across a homeless panhandler in real life, you likely make a number of choices and judgments. Should I put a coin in his cup? Should I make eye contact? Should I cross the street to avoid him? Is he a drunk, a good fellow, a wastrel, a criminal? Is he dangerous?
You might also, maybe, let your mind wander to policy issues. What ought we to do about the homeless, the addicts, the mentally ill, about panhandling? You may be aware of a little or a lot of this policy stuff, and may or may not have strong opinions about it.
In the same way, confronted by a photograph of a homeless panhandler, being in sense “present,” you react in something of the same way. You make similar judgments, your mind wanders to similar issues. You don’t have to decide whether to give him money, or to avoid him, but you might speculate about whether you would have given him anything, whether you would have avoided him.
You might, as in real life, spare him only a moment and a brief reaction: sympathy, revulsion. But, you might also find yourself mulling over the man himself, over policy, over your own opinions.
What of the meaning of this picture? Is this man good or bad, right or wrong? Is he a worthless blight on humanity, or a victim of circumstance? In the West, at least, we spend a lot of effort on homeless policy. What should we do for, or with, the homeless? Should we lend more aid or less? Does lending aid make the problem better, or worse?
Opinions vary widely. If you believe that lending aid to a homeless panhandler merely enables him to further bad choices, further drug use and drunkenness, further suffering, you think one way. If you believe that the problem lies with not enough aid rather than too much, you think another way. You might feel sympathy for this man, while simultaneously believing that his solution lies not in more enabling, more aid, but in less support to force him to improve his own lot. Alternately, you might despise him for a loser, but opine that more aid is the solution. Any mix-and-match of ideas seems possible, here.
If you have been touched more directly by the kinds of problems evoked by the caption+photo, your opinion may have further nuance. Have you been or do you know someone who was or is homeless? An addict? Mentally ill?
Should you drop a dollar in this man’s cup or not? Should you vote for increased funding for homeless services, or against? Should you donate to the Mission, or not? Some people carry fake money with them, specifically to hand out to panhandlers. Others donate to the Mission. Others campaign against such socialist ideas.
To truly understand the meaning of the photograph critically, to understand what people and society will make of it, you need to grasp something of all these points of view. You need to stand in the shoes of both the bleeding heart liberal who would throw money at services to “help” this fellow, and also the firmly conservative voter who refuses to enable his addiction. You need to stand in the shoes of the prankster who throws $100 bills of Movie Money out his car window at panhandlers. These are all meanings that flow naturally from my picture, and my caption.
The critical reading, the sheaf of personal readings, is all of these together. If you published this picture in your magazine, on your blog, in your gallery show, your viewers would arrive among themselves at all these and probably more readings. The man’s name is Steve, and all these things are what your readers would make of this picture of him.
Wastrel? Or Victim?
Help him or abandon him?
It happens that Steve is an alcoholic, and he was both hungover and drunk when I took this picture of him. He was actually kind of cheerful, pleased to hang out for a bit. This picture doesn’t really show his true mood at the time, but I think it shows something of Steve’s life at that time. This was taken near the very nadir of his life on the street; he had come close to dying of alcohol poisoning multiple times when this photo was taken.
Steve is a friend of mine. Steve is an alcoholic. As of now, he’s been sober for a year. And, yeah, he got a lot of help along the way to get him there, but at the end of the day, he still had to do a lot of the work.
There’s no other way.
This is the seventh in a series of essays on photographs, on the ways we as viewers construct meaning from them, and on what it all means.
About the author: Andrew Molitor writes software by day and takes pictures by night. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. Molitor is based in Norfolk, Virginia, and does his best to obsess over gear, specs, or sharpness. You can find more of his writing on his blog.