Have you ever felt that you have been cursed?
I had to have a blood test a while back; and it was a fasting test, which meant that from 8:00pm on the evening before, until I arrived at the pathology centre on the following morning, I’d had nothing to eat and only water to drink.
When my turn came, I was shown into a room and directed to sit in a chair alongside the nurse’s desk. The nurse was a middle-aged woman, who moved around the small room with the quiet efficiency of someone who had done the same thing countless times before. By way of conversation, she asked me how I was and by way of conversation I replied: “I’m starving.”
She suddenly stopped what she was doing, turned to face me, bent down so that she was looking directly into my eyes and said, in a voice that was hard and cold: “No you’re not!”
Of course I wasn’t. I was a little hungry. Not famished; and certainly not starving. I was just making conversation; a little light banter with someone who was about to suck blood out of my arm. It hadn’t been my intention to trivialize the plight of the millions of people around the world who really are starving. I was simply portraying (and intentionally exaggerating with humor in mind) how I felt at that precise moment in the context of how I normally would have expected to feel; assuming that, by then, I would have eaten my breakfast.
So, when I say that last week, I had a bad week, I hasten to clarify that I am talking only in the context of the weeks that I normally have which, to tell the truth, are usually pretty average.
When I uploaded my weekly image to Flickr – a shot I called My Generation – things were more or less normal. I wasn’t sure about the shot because I knew that it wasn’t one of those that would jump out at viewers in the thumbnail; but I remembered what Nabaz had said about how some people only upload shots they think will be popular, so I decided to go ahead and upload this one anyway, just because I liked it and I thought it had something to say.
After I completed the upload process, I started my routine for commenting on others’ uploads. Now, I won’t bore you with the details of my routine, other than saying that it is quite systematic and has been designed, and refined over time, with the objective of being fair and equitable; rewarding those who take the trouble to give me feedback and then checking out what everyone else on my contact list has been doing lately.
This usually takes me a couple of days but my week started to go pear-shaped the following morning when I woke up with a neck that refused to turn to the left and was reluctant to turn appreciably to the right. At that moment, the prospect of sitting for hours in front of a computer looking at and commenting on photographs did not fill me with enthusiasm; but the guilt I felt about soliciting feedback from others and then not reciprocating was stronger than the discouragement of the restricted movement, so I put on my old neck brace (this has happened before) and attempted to soldier on.
To be honest, the discomfort I felt and the headache that seemed to result from it slowed me down and by the time I had completed my tour of (commenting) duty on the Friday morning of that week, I was ready for some serious remedial massage. So I headed out, walking, doing the old shoulder-turn thing every time I had to check for traffic before crossing the road, until I finally arrived at the shopping center where the massage parlour is located.
Assigned to a young masseuse who looked still in her teens, less than five foot tall and as delicate as a flower, I wondered if this was going to be a waste of time; but when she started to work on my neck and shoulders, poking and prodding, kneading and gouging, squeezing and pummeling with fingers of steel, I just wanted the pain to stop. At one point, when she was attacking a particularly tender part of my upper back, the pain was so excruciating that I felt sure I was going to throw up through the hole in the table cradling my face; whereupon she asked me if I’d like her to go deeper. I tried to decline without sounding like too much of a wus.
When the massage was finally over and I stood up to leave, my head felt like it was a toy balloon, carelessly released by a child and soaring higher and higher into the sky. My neck felt much looser. I could turn my head in both directions. I was floating on air. But later that evening, and throughout the next day, the area where the masseuse had worked on me was agonizingly painful. I couldn’t carry a camera bag. Photography was out of the question. And I resigned myself to having a quiet weekend at home.
On Saturday, I began to feel an irritation in my left eye. This too, is something that I’ve experienced in the past and my sure-fire cure has always been to rub the inflamed area with something made of gold. My wedding ring had hitherto been the perfect antidote. But this time, as the weekend merged into the following week, the improvised treatment appeared to be having little effect. On Monday, I visited the local pharmacy and bought an ointment that was guaranteed to work in two days. But with one eye full of goo and the other weeping in sympathy, there was no hope of me uploading anything to Flickr.
By Wednesday, however, I could restrain myself no longer. I uploaded the shot I called “Por favor” and launched into my commenting routine, not really sure what I was seeing through eyes that resisted delivering any sort of detail to my brain. The shot in question, for those who haven’t seen it, was one of a Gypsy beggar woman, being studiously ignored by the people she was trying to solicit money from at an outdoor café in Barcelona. Like My Generation, it was not a spectacular, eye-catching shot; but I had been encouraged by the response My Generation had received, and specifically by the indication that, despite its lack of spectacle, people had taken the time to look at it, think about it and write down their thoughts in the comments they left; and I was profoundly gratified to receive such rich feedback. So I launched into my commenting routine, buoyed by the hope that a similar reaction to “Por favor” would ensue. But three hours later, when I broke for lunch, there were still no comments; and that situation persisted throughout the afternoon.
I wondered if I had crossed some line in my choice of subject; a behaviour that had influenced my contacts to turn their back on me, ironically ignoring me just like the Gypsy woman in the photograph was being ignored by the couple at the table. I’d seen more controversial images on Flickr that still attracted comments; yet here I was, apparently ostracized for an indiscretion I hadn’t realized I was committing. Was this going to be my least successful (least interesting) image ever? Maybe this was a plot by Flickr to punish me for the somewhat derisory article I had published on Interestingness a couple of weeks before. And it was when this thought occurred to me that I began to suspect that something might be amiss. After a quick investigation, I discovered that comments on “Por Favor” had been restricted to friends and/or family. My default setting for comments has always been “Only you” so that I can complete the upload process before anyone has a chance to comment. Then, when I have done all that I intend to do, I change the setting to “Anyone”. But in this case, I had checked the wrong box. Was it because I had misread the screen through my one gooey and one sympathetic eye? Or had my exposé of Gypsy beggars in Barcelona drawn some preemptive curse? I guess I will never know. But if it is true, as they say, that bad things come in threes (neck, eye and now incorrect comment status), I was hoping that my luck would now change.
And change it did; for once I’d rectified the image settings, the very first comment I received (from bobbat) made up for all that had gone before. I’ve written here before about the idea that the viewer interprets an image through his or her own filters of knowledge and experience; and therefore, in most cases, arrives at an interpretation that differs somewhat from that which the author of the image may have intended. And I still cling to this point of view. But on rare occasions, a viewer, coincidentally or otherwise, sees exactly what the author saw, and for the author, that is an exhilarating feeling.
Bobbat said: “Love the deliberate avoidance of the beggar you’ve caught here.” What I was trying to communicate in the shot was the idea that the Roma, at least those who beg in the streets of European cities, are marginalized by the communities in which they are embedded. Here, the beggar is pushed off to one side of the frame as she stands, silently, waiting for her presence to be recognised. And we can tell from the expression on the man’s face that her presence is not going to be recognised. He is pretending to give his companion his full attention but we also know that his attention is really focussed on avoiding the beggar woman. In terms of the structure of the image, his companion provides a dividing line between him and the Gypsy, making them the two main protagonists in this drama. But there are two other people playing roles here. The two women in the background are looking at the beggar rather than trying to avoid her. They are probably tourists, just like I was; and like I was, they are fascinated to see these women begging on the street. So this image encapsulates the three key points in the story I was trying to tell: the marginalized Gypsy beggar woman, the host population who would rather the Gypsies packed up and returned from whence they came; and the tourists who feel that the Gypsies add colour to their tourist experience.
In the article I wrote to accompany the image, I admitted that I do not have answers to this problem; but I also think that sweeping the problem under the carpet is a not a viable answer. So, thank you to everyone who took part in the discussion, whether by commenting on the photograph or on the blog article; and I’ll leave you with this:
Albert Einstein once said: “Nothing that I can do or say will change the structure of the universe. But maybe, by raising my voice, I can help the greatest of all causes-goodwill among men and peace on earth.”