Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Mountains out of Mole Hills

I have talents. Let me count the ways I can generate anxiety. I can get anxious about anything: when to take vacation, what elective rotations to take, how I'll find time to interview Terry Gallaway about being deaf and queer and having cochlear implants now, how and when I'll get ahold of the cardiologist or the neurosurgeon who worked with my refugee clinic kids, how I'll take down or put up the next installation, whether I should go to California in January, how to finagle a trip to NYC to meet Ana Blohm.

I have drive too and I don't understand where it comes from. I want to LIVE, to do things, meet people, take pictures, put myself out there on the street, talk to strangers, pull the world in around me. 

Today, instead, I went into orbit.   I spent two hours standing in front of a computer at JF's place and got wickedly serious and forgot who I was again, like in the think of medical scool. I had a test to prepare for and I got lost in a wave of anxiety. I'm training to save lives, to bring back the dead, raise Lazarus. I passed the dummy test. They gave me a five dollar coffee card, smiled and patted me on the back for a single chest compression. I walked out and wondered if in real life I'd ever run a code or shock someone with 200 J, bring back Jesus. It would feel good to have been anxious purposefully, and with hope, potential even.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Fear, Discomfort, Pain, Bewilderment

I was recently questioned on the title of this blogg and if I meant to suggest I was fearless. I don't mean to suggest I'm fearless. I hate roller coasters, I have life insurance. When I am out late, I run faster when I see someone coming at me from a distance.  What surprises me is how many people tell me that I should be afraid, as if fear should be the backdrop to my life, that I should nurture it like a weak child in need of extra rations.  I don't think it's new to the post-9-11 world that we live in. Fear in some ways is adaptive. If no one feared disease there might be no vaccines.  On the other hand if we didn't fear communists or Muslims, or the end of oil, what would the world look like?

Vaccines seems like a good idea. The fear that leads to racial violence in the aftermath of disasters like Katrina, fear that paralyzed rescue efforts of people trapped in the Superdome, that kind of fear, seems maladaptive and destructive.

This photography project is intended to explore my relationship to the places I'm told to be afraid of and the fear that is projected onto me by the world that I live in. Despite the fear, and variations on discomfort that I do admittedly feel,  I choose to navigate the community alone, and explore even places where others counsel fear and avoidance. I reject that avoidance and accept a certain amount of risk, although the major risk so far seems to be simply being a bit out of place and subject to questioning by residents of these neighborhoods. Most recently, I was asked if I worked for google maps.

I am open to a new title, but please don't propose "under an uncomfortable sky. " It's just flatter than out of key karaoke. I need some jazz in the band or at least some suggestion of poetry even if it smacks of impossibility.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Open Beach, Closed Beach

In the airport on the day down to NOLA I overheard a group of four college students complaining that it was going to suck going to the beach and not being able to swim. I made a point to go and have a look. I drove east out of town June 9th and made it to Florida within five hours. The sand was white, the water turquoise. There were no people. They stayed home and watched the news, I suppose.
I felt like one of the last people on earth watching the white sand blow into the air and the waves lapping the shore. It was like no one came to the funeral. It could have been like a second line, a mad rush to enjoy the last days it was still beautiful.

On the 12th I drove out to Grand Isle. There were hardly any people there either, but the oil had hit and the clean up crews were huddled in the shade of massive white tents and driving their ATV's and National Guard Trucks up and down the beach.  The unmotorized helps was busy sweating into their knee high black rubber boots and their smurf-blue hand gloves. There was nothing high tech about the shovels and rakes they used to remove the oily sand, packaging it for removal into clear plastic bags.

Community Gardens

This community garden was organized by Matt Potteiger of SUNY ESF in collaboration with neighborhood residents. It's not far from where I'll be working. As I mentioned before there are lots of refugees from around the world here and they tend to have strong agricultural traditions. The raised beds are intended to prevent lead exposure from the contaminated urban soils. Not everyone is aware of the risk and many, like the woman below, plant vegetables in their small side yards.
And some people like the gardens just find, but don't like what else they see going on in the area near the garden. When I asked what all they said was  "drugs, lots of drugs." 

The North Side

I've just started working at St Joseph's Hospital, which was started by Franciscan nun's after the Civil War. They bought three buildings: a saloon, a dance hall, and a house of ill repute and converted them into a hospital. I'm far from catholic, but I keep finding myself working with catholic organizations from the Birthing Center in Weslaco to Sister's of Mercy in Guatemala, to St Joseph's Hospital in Syracuse. When I'm working with Catholic organizations, there's always something that sticks in my craw, like the fact that the health insurance policy provided to residents doesn't cover contraception for women, an exclusion clause for religious employers that was approved by the NY State legislature a few years back.   On the other hand the involvement of the hospital in revilatizing the north side of Syracuse is commendable. All bags are mixed.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Prison = Slavery

I've Found a lot of great graffiti art recently. Here's some from NOLA. The image with Lincoln is  not too far from the Superdome. The printed text on Violence is a few blocks from St. Claude Tire, close to the abandoned St. Roche Market.

The Lodi Laundry

Today, my last day before residency, I was out on Lodi street waiting to meet the Somali translator for a patient interview. I recently looked up some statistics on the City of Syracuse northside and found that it the percentage of foreign born was even higher than I thought, on some block as high as 40%. The laundry had the most diverse population I've seen outside of the New York City Subway. One Customer asked me to have a picture taken with her after allowing me to take hers.  It's still strange to have the camera turned back on me.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Chickens and Mr. Sneed

When I  was briefly overtaken by a small flock of hens and a handsome rooster on the last day of my visit to New Orleans, I felt suddenly I didn't know where I was. The heat had let up under cover of clouds just long enough that I was pretty sure I wasn't hallucinating.  Just after they scuttled away under the awning of a house with a fading banner announcing the arrival of the red cross,  I met Mr. Sneed who told me where the hens lived.
He walked me to the in an empty house accross the street from where he lived and told me how they slept up in the tree hugging the side of the place.   It's only been a short while since this little flock hatched, he reassured me, it's not the usual thing around here. It reminded me of the rooster I came across in Syracuse. Mr. Sneed denied any cockfighting even though it was a right handsome rooster and the kind known to be used for the sport.

He was glad to meet me. He said I was a pleasant diversion with my questions and my New York accent.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Leon Levenstein On the Vicarious Outsider Experience of Taking Pictures

This is a quote From an Article in American Suburb X: See link in Photography section for full article interview. 

Leon Levinstein: Well, it’s sort of a vicarious experience when you photograph. Because you’re always on the outside. They’re having a good time there, maybe a family, or a couple families, having a picnic, eating this fried chicken and potato salad and all that junk. And you’re on the outside, you know, trying to sneak a picture. You walk around them and around them and look and look and see if for a moment something might happen, and they don’t invite you to sit down and have fried chicken. You’re always on the outside. And then you go somewhere else, but again you’re on the outside. And if you have somebody with you it’s no good, they detract you from what you’re doing. So you got to be alone and work alone. And it’s a lonely—a very lonely occupation, if you want to call it that.

I could really relate to the necessity of working alone. It's not something you can take people to do with you. I do ask if I can take pictures though and many of my pictures are posed. When I go back a second time though, I feel more free to take them spontaneously and the permission becomes implied as the relationship builds as with this one of Mr R I took this week after I gave him some strawberries from my garden.

In this case I was really only semi-alone. The kids were in the car when I pulled over to talk to him.  Although I suggest that at times I do not ask, in this case I did, out of habit.  The kids stayed in the car for the five minutes we talked and I snapped the shots and told him he had to eat the strawberries today. They were soft and would mold fast in the summer heat and humidity. By the time I got back to the car and waved, he'd taken my advise and was fast at work. 

I have a hard time judging the photograps themselves, but I've no doubt the relationships growing out of this practice are interesting.  

Mr. R didn't like one of the pictures I took last time. He felt self conscious of how old he felt he looked. 

When this time I told him he had a nice face, he smiled.  I meant it and I hope he could tell.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Story Writes Itself

Today I met a politician from New York State who came down to check out the oil spill and was shocked, as I was when I first came down, that New Orleans is still reeling from Katrina. When I shared with him that five years after Katrina New Orleans still doesn't have its major trauma center rebuilt he was as shocked as I was at the close of my conversation with the Tulane faculty I met with earlier in the week. Most of the time I've been here I've spent talking to the residents in the lower 9th ward where there are entire blocks growing back in weeds. It's impossible not to read the truth embedded in the landscape: the areas hardest hit by Katrina are the last ones being rebuilt.

Even so, just fifteen minutes away, ensconsed in the Garden District apartment I rented, it's easy to forget the reality of the lower 9th ward. On Sunday I went to Branch Baptist Church where they announced the opening of a new diner where I joined a family for breakfast after the service. They shared more stories of how hard it was to move back to the neighborhood after Katrina. The residents didn't feel they were adequately helped. And it seems reasonable to me to have expected not to pay to have utilities restored or not to have to make a deposit if you had never made one before. One family said it cost them nearly a thousand dollars to have the utility services turned back on because Entergy removed all the meters from the houses on their block.Why our tax dollars, our raised insurance premiums, our FEMA monies didn't cover these expenses, I will never understand.

And there's Mac at the Lower 9th Ward Village, a grass roots organization. He's out teaching people how to get to the other side of fear one conversation at a time. Without the infusion of large sums of money from business leaders and big-name non profits, the community continues its own grass roots efforts to rebuild.There's still no major grocery store in the neighborhood and the Circle Grocery Store, a busy African-American owned business before Katrina on Clairborne Ave remains closed. An enterprising family now uses the shaded entry-way to the store to sell fresh fruits and vegetables.

Friday, June 11, 2010

King Ronald Lewis

Allen Kimball went with me to interview the owner of the Museum of Dance and Feathers. I got a history lesson from the King himself. I also got a lesson in comporting myself professionally as a photographer, a very gentle reminder to ask before turning on my recording equipment and taking pictures. I've been trying to be less timid over time, but today I was reminded that it is possible also to be too bold.

My host was incredibly gracious and gentle while I repeatedly tried to get a grip on the local definitions of family and church which overlap almost entirely with social aid and pleasure clubs, and which are all really "just"--as if "just" had long enough arms to embrace such a place--at any rate, "just" community. Here community is a set of networks bleeding into each other. It is a network of families and churches, many descendants of sugar cane and cotton farmers from Mississippi and rural Louisiana. They have shared blood lines and brought a tradition of gardening to the city before urban gardening. King Lewis said, "Here, it's just gardening."  He calls himself the pied piper of his family, drawing people back from where they scattered after Katrina. He sees himself as the pulse of the community that won't quit beating.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Bundles of Bricks, Stacks of Wood, Lengths of Pipe

This was my favorite scene today. At first I thought these were new bricks, but when I started exploring I realized they were the remains of of a house in the process of being salvaged. The light at the end of the day had that quality I always feel at a loss to describe. Is this Vermeer's light? And whose clouds then? Whose sky?