new york

The Eleventh Thesis

Haitian demonstration, 42nd Street, NYC 1985

Karl Marx wrote eleven theses on Feuerbach (of whom I know little, except that he was the first person to say “you are what you eat”).The eleventh is the most accessible:

"The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it."

The reason I’m starting with Marx today, and a suitably revolutionary photograph (of which more below) is that I received an email from this morning directing me to a photo essay by James Nachtwey. TED, in case you don’t know, is an outstanding site dedicated to “Ideas Worth Spreading”, and it consists entirely of videotaped talks and demonstrations by many of the finest minds of our time, almost all of them given at one of TED’s annual conferences. More than anything I can think of TED brings together “the philosophers” in a way that can help them to change the world – by disseminating their ideas.

Nachtwey’s photo essay – helped on its way by a TED prize – was embarked upon with the express intention of educating people and galvanizing them into action around the issue of drug resistant tuberculosis, which has been ravaging many parts of the world. On the one hand he is actively seeking to help the fight against this disease; on another, he’s also very explicitly trying to remind us of the power that photography has to influence our attitudes and behavior. In his own words (in his “wish” that constituted his entry for the prize: 

I'm working on a story that the world needs to know about. I wish for you to help me break it in a way that provides spectacular proof of the power of news photography in the digital age.”

Which brings me back to my own photography: I can’t say I’ve ever taken a photograph in order to influence anyone. My pictures seem to be informative or aesthetic or – sometimes – pretentious. Even in contexts where there is a story-with-an-agenda to be told, I seem to have approached them from a pretty shallow perspective. I never seem to “sweat” a subject or story; rather, I find myself in a context (or put myself there) and try to see it with fresh eyes. There’s a lot to be said, though, for familiarity, for looking deep, for revisiting and reinvestigating and probing in order to get closer to the center of a thing. 

Interesting. I admired the eleventh thesis so much, yet I can’t say I’ve done much about it myself.

Take the picture above. I happened to stumble upon a demonstration of epically furious Haitians in front of Grand Central Station. I took some snaps. I was moved in a basically sympathetic sort of way, but not moved enough to find out more about why these people were demonstrating. Somehow they fit some sort of stereotype – and the picture above is exactly that. It’s almost like an exemplar of a particular type of photograph – but in that sense, it’s not really its own photograph at all.

Two minutes later, a row of about 18 mounted cops charged everyone – demonstrators and spectators alike. I ended up jumping on a granite ledge about four feet above the ground praying that my white skin would grant me some sort of immunity. 

It did.