At first glance, this picture doesn't seem all that extraordinary. It does not seem very controversial, provocative or a catalyst of serious introspection, but it was...
I like to think of myself as a citizen journalist sometimes. Through my life-long interest in photography to my college education in broadcast news & reporting to travel journals to my sporadically maintained blog, I've had vehicles of documenting the world around me and evaluating it's deeper meaning. Part of this comes from not wanting to forget events, people or places and part of it is the same compulsion to "collect inherently unique things" as you would stamps, baby teeth, Depeche Mode bootleg CDs or sea glass.
This scene at the seafood distributor is striking because if you flashed back 50 years, this would be the same scene you'd find: rows of people skillfully separating lump crab meat from the shells and nasty entrails all day long. What that means on one level is that the skill to hand pick crabs is still as relevant today as it was years ago. On another level (one that people don't like to dwell on) is looking at who was doing the work then and who is still doing the work now. It's a reminder that things change slowly in the South.
It's also apparent when we visit that part of the country that despite it being 2009, there is still a palpable separation between Blacks and Whites but with a thin veneer of tolerance from both sides. What results is the creation of 2 different worlds and on occasion they touch. So as Ken and I strolled into this room to purchase the crab meat, there was a definite feeling in the space that we were outsiders. But that is true on many levels: we're from the West Coast, our socio-economic situation is different and honestly, our exposure to minorities is quite limited. (Despite being partially a minority, I don't have that much exposure to very many non-Caucasians in my life.)
When I asked the male black foreman if I could take a picture, he was cheerful and turned to ask the room full of ladies if I could do it. There was muttering but no real disapproval. Ken is quick to note that there was no overt approval either. So I snapped the picture before anything else could happen. Part of my zeal for doing this was that in times past, I have hesitated or waited too long and a moment in time (that would never happen again) passed me by. I took a risk and determined this scene would be worth capturing.
As we got into the car, Ken expressed his concern that I had not been sensitive to the situation. To these women, I must have looked like a yuppie tourist who saw them as nothing more than a spectacle, he surmised. And--he continued--my actions would further reinforce their disdain for all we represented. I of course, did not see it this way or at least had not intended it this way. I thought (maybe naively) that they would be pleased that another person recognized their work as something worthy of capturing.
I was bothered by a lack of consensus between the two of us and pondered during the 15 minute car ride to the house and for awhile once we got there: what these women could have been thinking, what my actions said about me and what this situation said about our society. I played scenarios in my head to test if I would have acted the same way if I were black, if the ladies had been all Asian, if the ladies had been college students, if the ladies had been men... And oddly enough my perspective changed in the different scenarios in so much as being able to relate or not relate to the different groups and thus my comfort level and cavalier attitude about taking the picture changed.
But I didn't regret taking the picture. It was worthy of capturing and I wanted these ladies to know that somehow. Not figuring them to be evidentlyblog readers, I printed the picture and wrote a thank you note, letting them know how much I appreciated their skill for delivering an excellent product (which went into some delicious crab cakes Ken's mom made, by the way) and that seeing them at work was a highlight of our trip--unique and worthy of respect. Ultimately, I can't control what these women think of me but at least I let them know that I recognize their hard work and meant no harm.