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Learning Through a Lens

by Beca Damico 6 months ago in art
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An essay I wrote for my college writing class about the importance of photography and how can learn from photos.

Learning Through a Lens
Photo by Alexander Andrews on Unsplash

My father always carries a camera with him wherever we go; his Nikon is almost like the 4th member of our family. His photos are on the walls of our living room, and in our friend’s living rooms as well. He’s been photographing the world around us for as long as I can remember. My father is a passionate and careful man, he has many hobbies and spends countless hours learning how to perfect his skills. When he sees something that’s worth photographing he gives it his all. From my father’s devotion to this art I was able to understand that photography is much more than looking through the viewfinder of a small rectangular box and pressing a button; photography is knowledge. Photography is curiosity. And most importantly, photography is crucial to the understanding of the world around us, especially of parts of this world that are unreachable to some. It’s no surprise that we all take photos. During this time in Utah for spring break, I have taken the same photo at least 20 times. The photo captures the mountains that surround Salt Lake Valley, these mountains are known as the Wasatch Front. In the winter months the mountains are covered in snow, and resemble a cake covered in powdered sugar; during fall and spring, the mountains are a medley of colors ranging from orange to red to pink, its unexplainable, and in the summer the mountains are lush and green and welcoming. The view of these mountains changes every day, in fact it changes every time you look at it, and after 10 years living here, I am amazed by the Wasatch Front every day so I photograph it. Something compels me to take out my phone and take a photo of the mountains because I know the next time I look at them, the view will have changed. However, I’ve never stopped to think more about photography, to question why we all take photos, or what the purpose of taking photos is, let alone how we can use photography to learn more about the world around us. If we all do it, and we see hundreds of photos in one day because of social media, then why are photographs so important? I thought about important photos I have seen that I could recall from memory. The first was the “Falling Man” from 9/11, which shows a man moments after he haphazardly jumped from one of the World Trade Center towers as they were being attacked. The identity of the man is unknown, and the photo evokes a feeling of despair and desperation in me. In contrast, there is the kiss on the street from V-J Day, which captures a moment of triumph and impulsiveness between two strangers after an important victory. This photo reminds me of winning, but leads me to wonder about the strangers, and what the feelings on the streets were like that day. More recently I saw photos from the volcanic explosions and the destruction it caused in Tonga. Before this tragedy happened, I am ashamed to say, I would have struggled to point out Tonga on a map. The horrifying images of destruction led me to wonder about the country, and strive to learn more about their community and other places I might not know much about. I made it a promise to myself to not wait for disaster to strike somewhere, to seek knowledge about an unknown place. This promise led me to the question: how can we use photographs to learn? About ourselves, but also about the magnificent world around us.

Joachim Schmid, a German man, has spent his entire life collecting discarded photographs that he finds on the streets, in flea markets, or even in between books. He is featured in the short documentary titled “The Invisible Photograph” which explains his fascination with found photos, and how he puts together his collections. Schmid’s life’s work proves that photography is global, it's one of the most common human activities and one that almost every single one of us has engaged in at least once. In the documentary Schmid states “people now apply photography in every situation. There’s nothing that has not been photographed permanently.” After Schmid collects these photos from the ground, he works to group them according to patterns. For example, he has a collection of found photos titled “Bags” which demonstrates the photographs that he found depicting bags. Another collection contains photos of airplane food. These collections that show patterns and like photographs are astounding to me. It's incredible to think that in a world with 7 billion people, more than one person took the same or a very similar photograph, or had the same ideas for a photo. I had never thought of this before. Schmid concludes that his work is “about our collective production of snapshots” and my interpretation of this is that this collective production propels forward learning and understanding about each other. I believe that this magnificent pattern demonstrates that we as humans are a lot more similar than we are different, regardless of culture, social status, race, or color of our skin. His collection urges us to put aside our differences and focus instead on the way we are alike. Take for example his collection of selfies, a photo of an Asian couple, is placed next to a selfie of a white couple throwing up peace signs, who are next to an African American couple. Someone who sees this sequence of photos will first notice that all couples are in essentially the same position, engaging in the same activity, not the color of their skin or how different they look from one another. One might argue that scrolling through Instagram can provide the same effect, but on Instagram we have full control of who we follow and what photos show up, and what kinds of people appear on our timeline. But Schmid’s collection isn’t curated in that way, perhaps only for him, because if I were to look at the collection I would have no control over the people or things I saw. Thus, opening doors to pockets of civilization that I might have never had exposure to, and consequently inspiring me to learn more about these different cultures and people. As I pondered on Schmid’s work, I continued to wonder about how we could use photography effectively to break down myths, misconceptions and stigmas surrounding certain cultures, races, and stigmatized communities, because after all, photography is the most unbiased way to record something. Once the photo is taken, it captures that very moment in all its glory, it’s greatly different than reading a book about a racial minority that has been edited, and modified etc., the picture is raw, and candid, it's a portal to that moment from the eyes of the photographer.

Recently, I watched a Netflix documentary with my father called “LA Originals.” The documentary tells the stories of Estevan Oriol, who also directed the doc, and Mark Machado who is most commonly known as Mister Cartoon. But more importantly, the documentary is a door into the world of street art, hip hop culture, and the chicano movement in Los Angeles. Oriol, is a world renowned photographer who got his start as a bouncer at hip-hop hip clubs, which led him to begin managing bands, and documenting his life on tour. His business partner and friend Cartoon, is one of the most famous tattoo artists in Los Angeles and has inked celebrities like Eminem, Travis Barker, Kobe Bryant and more. Together they’ve traveled the world and taken their respective chicano culture and style to places that had never experienced it before. We get to see and learn about it through Oriol’s photographs. His photos are a lens into the heavily stigmatized world of Latino culture in Los Angeles. Oriol is the photographer responsible for the famous “L.A. Fingers” photo and although he was not the first to throw up the sign he “can confidently say that [he] was the first one to capture it in a photo.” Furthermore, many of Oriol’s photographs capture lowrider culture, which is very prevalent in Los Angeles, and is not just a style of car but a way of dressing as well. Through his photos, outsiders to the culture are able to visualize the outfits the men and women wear, and the crazy designs on the cars that characterize this important subculture, consequently, sparking curiosity to learn more about this lifestyle. In the documentary, they briefly mention that this lowrider culture appeared in Japan in the 80s, and that Oriol’s photographs continue to influence and inspire Japanese individuals. Photos in magazines are what taught the Japanese people about chicano culture. Thus, demonstrating how we can use photography to learn more about each other. I loved this documentary because it taught me about various cultures and events that I did not know about. I’m curious and I love learning, especially if it’s about cultures and how people live their lives, so, this documentary was right up my alley and reminded me how much I love listening to people talk about their personal stories and accomplishments. Oriol’s photos are magnificent, and his style is unique, he sees the world differently than any other photographer I’ve encountered.

Another example of a photographer that provides a door into an unknown world is Sebastiao Salgado. The Brazilian photographer has spent a large part of his life photographing the Brazilian Amazon, and the communities that live there. The International Center of photography states that “his photographs impart the dignity and integrity of his subjects without forcing their heroism or implicitly soliciting pity, as many other photographs from the Third World do.” Additionally, he displays his photos in series rather than individually. As a Brazilian, I am moved when I see his photographs, they make me feel proud of my country. Brazil is a Third World, or developing country, and there are many misconceptions and lack of information about Brazil. Notably, the term “Third World” has become stigmatized and is now used pejoratively, but it simply means that Brazil is a developing country as opposed to a developed country such as the United States. Although Brazil has one of the largest economies in the world, the poverty gap is immense, and other economic and political problems are what give the country its label of developing country. Salgado’s photos show the beauty and sophistication behind tribes in the Amazon that have thrived for decades. These tribes created their own forms of government, language and technology, as well as recipes and ways of living, they are far from the primitive narrative they are given by the more modern world. His galleries and exhibitions allow viewers to experience these tribes and cultures in a personal and emotional way. Many of Salgado’s portraits are taken very up close to the person’s face, thus, allowing the viewer to see their tribal markings and really seeing the individual up close and personal. This non-traditional angle breaks boundaries that can only be crossed through photography, because in person, we are taught to not get up close and personal. This is good work. You look closely at the photographs to think about their power. Do this kind of work with the earlier examples as well. However, Salgado’s photos encourage that, and they inspire me to learn more and really study the faces of the subjects as a way to understand them deeper. That’s the power of photography.

As I read an excerpt from Saeed Jones’ memoir, How We Fight For Our Lives, I realized that photos can not only teach us more about different cultures and peoples but those discoveries can have tangible effects on our lives, especially in terms of identity. Jones recounts finding an old Polaroid in one of his mother’s books, at the time he was sixteen years old and learning about himself; the photo was of a man in 1982 who Jones finds out was a friend of his mother’s. She went on to talk about the man in the photo and mentions that he committed suicide after finding out he had AIDS. This saddening fact led Jones to become curious about gayness, and what that meant since he knew the disease was common in gay men. I find it interesting that the first time Jones saw the photograph he “decided [he] didn’t like the man in the picture” and that “[he] felt like [the man in the photo] was looking directly at [him]” and this made young Jones uneasy (5). He goes on to say that it was almost as if “he knew something about me;” but, when Jones begins to accept newfound sexuality, he recalls missing the photo because he knew that he would understand it better now (5). This self discovery is yet another example of how we can learn more through photography, not just about the world around us but about ourselves as well.

It’s no surprise that we all take photos. But what we can learn from certain photos, about ourselves or about other cultures, can sometimes be surprising. Estevan Oriol and Sebastiao Salgado teach us about those around us that we might not understand. Saeed Jones, learned a great deal about himself through one photograph. I’ve always been curious, and I’ve always loved photography. From a young age my father has been teaching me about photography. I remember him giving me lessons on the rule of thirds, and what an ISO was. But I think what has always fascinated me about photography is how we can use it to gain understanding of the beautiful, crazy world around us. This leads me to wonder what I can learn about myself, or about others, through photos, and makes me curious to attend more photo galleries. And I believe the process of writing this essay has taught me that my curiosity can open doors for me in the future and take me to places I never thought of going. My goal is to keep learning, to keep taking photos, and to keep looking at photos.

Works Cited

Estevan Oriol, director. LA Originals. Underground Producciones, 2020.

Green, Patrick. “Meet the Guy Who Made ‘L.A. Fingers’ a Thing.” https://www.lamag.com/citythinkblog/meet-guy-made-la-fingers-thing/. Accessed 22 March 2022.

Handy et al. Reflections in a Glass Eye: Works from the International Center of Photography Collection, New York: Bulfinch Press in association with the International Center of Photography, 1999, p. 226.

Jones, Saeed. How We Fight for Our Lives: A Memoir. , 2019. Print.

Page, Thomas. “ ‘We must be smart enough to survive’: Photographer Sebastiao Salgado sees the bigger picture.” https://www.cnn.com/style/article/sebastiao-salgado-amazonia-interview-c2e-spc-intl/index.html. Accessed 22 March 2022.

The Invisible Photograph: Part 4 (Discarded). Carnegie Museum of Art, 2014.

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About the author

Beca Damico

hi :) my name is beca and im a freshman at nyu! i love writing more than anything. in my opinion writing is the best form of self expression. here i will get to share what i am passionate about, i hope you enjoy.

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