Tag Archives: melbourne

Of a Mediocre Photograph (Part I)

It is the last day of winter

and as I walk to the city library slipping from the glove of the Melbourne Writers Festival shaking off some final lingering thoughts, I pass the last bulky complex in a row of imposing buildings giving way to open space and a wide, symmetrical cascade of steps. Patterned multigrain bricks stretching up to the sloping plain at the top go escape my peripheral line. Pairs of people are sitting in various configurations at the top, conversing, hand-gesturing and sipping indistinguishable beverages.

I find this scene immensely pleasing to the eye and am unable to resist snapping a quick picture.

Scrolling through my photo gallery I am somewhat shocked to realise that I have tens – no – hundreds of similar photographs. Ordinary, you could even say meaningless, snapshots of landscapes, street crossings, the odd view from a cafe with empty cappuccino mug in the frame, and taken under atrocious lighting more often than not.

In other words these were flat, purely cross-sectional ‘documentations’ that did not draw on the complexity of the scene. They neither conveyed statements nor attempted character studies into any of the faceless strangers in the photographs. Why then did they exist, and in such multitudes?

Upon contemplation, I came to realise that this was not the intention of these amateurish records at all.

Imagine reaching the highest altitude level in Paris, offering up the most magnificent aerial view like a gift. You can substitute that for Mt Fuji, Niagara Falls, the observatory deck of Eureka Tower. What do you do? Let out a gasp/sigh, take it all in and realise you’ve been holding your breath involuntarily a few seconds later. Then – you’ll remove your camera from your belongings to snap off a few clicks, almost all of which you’ll look back on later and concede do not do the place justice, but probably won’t delete anyway. This too is involuntary.

It is never just about capturing the time or place – these random variables mean nothing when taken in isolation without our feelings imprinted across them. If it was just the superficial record of a particular breath-taking landscape or period that we were after, then we would as a matter of competitive disadvantage defer naturally to professionals with the award-winning pictures. Instead we continue to manufacture our own amateurish creations with an insatiable sort of hunger. It is of some vague human solace to us.

And what is that?

If you pressed me to explain, I would go back to the afternoon’s little discovery. I would probably say something about how the accidental combination of sunlight and my mood had registered some sort of a poignant response in me. My frame of mind at the time – which, wandering, free-ranging, and pleasantly buzzed from the unexpected liaison I’d just left, happened to be perfectly ready to accept such a simple visual delight  – something that surely would not ordinarily produce the same result, and completely out of the question had I been stressed, harried or in a rush.

Taking into account these preconditions of mind, place and time, seemingly necessary for such an involuntary stimulation of the senses and the newfound appreciation of my physical surroundings, of course means that the same photograph alone would be unable to evoke similar reactions (which I suspect are simply hormonal releases of pleasure) upon review. Yet still I take them by the hundreds, hoping vainly that such random documentation will allow for a few choice, perfect moments to live on, or more accurately, to be relived some time later at whim. Perhaps it is subconsciously pre-emptive: a misguided act of preservation to stockpile emotionally pleasurable stimuli if ever my reserves run low.

As I reflect a few hours and kilometres later, indeed I hope that looking upon this photograph on a future day will bring me back to this unique feeling, here and now, at the intersection of the time of day (4.50pm) and place (moderately crowded crossing at Swanston/Flinders Lane); that is, a moment of utter peace, being in touch with my surroundings, and the warm taste of promise that one cannot help sucking in from the almost-spring air.

Some exhibits from a dubious gallery

1011130_10151634332886465_440160422_nphoto (13)photo (18)

photo (14)

photo (12)photo (15)

photo (16)

Tagged , , , , ,

Homelessness Part I: Consciousness

The other night at work, while preparing to do a sweaty and rushed bin run outside the urban gutters of Melbourne Central, a work friend ‘G’ and I conceived a plan to drop off an untouched tub of rice to any one of the resident homeless campers of the complex (our goodie bag also included beef, mild salsa and suspicious Mexican beans). We dashed off with benevolence in our bones, giggling even, ‘what a thing to do on an otherwise boring work night!’ ‘why didn’t we think of this before?!’

To our surprise we could not locate a single one of the day-time homeless folk to be seen, even after a thorough lap of the whole block or two. ‘How strange,’ we sighed, exasperated already (the little expedition was not going as had been enthusiastically planned), ‘where could they be?’ Where could they be indeed? Unfortunately not much thought was devoted to this (very important) question before our minds were conveniently occupied by distractions of having to get back to the shop, the pressures of time, the lone team member waiting for us to return. The heavy bags of food weighed heavy disappointment in our hands.

It wasn’t until later that weekend that I came back to this question, and the uncomfortable actuality of that question: that the routines of the homeless, that we presumed to know so well in their constancy, were not so constant after all. The irony wasn’t lost on us. Though the homeless are easily disregarded (literally) day-to-day when it is unpalatable or simply inconvenient to devote attention to their plight; when we deigned to seek them out, we expected them to be there, and so were suitably shocked when they weren’t.

The fact is this: there is no physical human presence that we consciously or subconsciously ignore more. It’s a curious relationship we have with beggars on the street, one that we certainly endeavour to avoid in public and private discussion. It might not even be a real, interpersonal relationship between two people in the way that we know it, the beggar and those who pass her. In our society, out of all the different ‘categories’ of people – presidents, CEOs, paralympians – the homeless are probably the one kind most people go through an entire lifetime without ever having an actual conversation with.

So what does a recognition of homelessness in our lives actually require? Those who are brave enough to stomach the reality – and not just airbrush it into the background of our privileged, ever busy lives – might duly and admirably commit to soup kitchens and community projects. But how about the rest of us? Are we already culturally and psychologically sensitized to ignore them? Or do we consciously acknowledge it and toss them our spare change when we can? Are some people more sensitive than others to the presence and plight of the homeless?

For starters, I wonder if it is necessary to feign ignorance of the less unfortunate in order to carry on with our lives as we know it – as educated, middle-class, students/professionals who have made a way of life for ourselves – these people on the edge of the road are the anomalies who exist outside of the world that we have created for ourselves and live in. This is fairly easy to debunk: most would agree that recognition of homelessness and first world comfort are not mutually exclusive concepts: we can accept the reality that 105,000 Australians live on the street on any given night when we ourselves revel in relative luxury every night. However, this reality does become relegated to – where it remains – the personal and collective subconscious. If local impoverishment was at the forefront of our minds all the time, we wouldn’t be able to make personal shopping decisions daily without second thought, and certainly wouldn’t be able to carry on with our lives without being crippled with the heaviness of global suffering levels.

I’ll be the first to admit that it takes a certain effort to genuinely care about the homeless. There is a huge difference between being concerned about the hardships of the homeless in an abstract, community-social problem way, and actually going out of your way to engage with one on your many travails during the school  or work day. And not doing the latter is not always an indicator of our unwillingness to care about those less fortunate – the seminal Joshua Bell social experiment points out the difficulties we have in paying attention to our immediate surroundings when our minds are far away. But it is undeniably very difficult for most socialised individuals to willingly initiate conversation, or even respond to the entreaties of a homeless person without experiencing the squirmish desire to get away.

Why is this? One factor I would suggest is the public eye: it seems like in any unwarranted interaction, the homeless person and I become centre-stage actors on a stage where our dialogue, ‘please help’, ‘yes’ and ‘no’ become unwelcomely amplified, and passersby look on in vaguely concealed discomfort and relief. Another factor is the immediate association with mental illness – and this is not an unfounded assumption at all. Recent RMIT studies found that 15 per cent of people had a mental illness before becoming homeless, and 16 per cent developed a mental illness after becoming homeless. That makes roughly 30% of the homeless population sufferers of mental disorder. Obviously socio-economic and health factors play a primary role in homelessness, but that doesn’t stop us from setting a mental barrier between ‘us’ and ‘them’, helped along by allusions of psychosis. Of course, the last factor is sheer stinginess. Frugality can be explained by any set of values; most commonly being the ‘Every man for himself’ mentality, that everyone has to fight for his/her own survival, and some will inevitably fall between the cracks.

So clearly, the choice to care is not restricted to character, but rather personal consciousness. Being conscious of a person or situation (especially one that is troubling or compelling) makes demands on our attention, energy and conscience, it divests us of the choice not to care. And once we care, we find that we cannot not care.

So the simple message to take away from this? There is nothing simple about homelessness, but if you find that there is something beneath the simple brush-off we are all well-practiced in that stirs up a flurry of discomfort, it may be that the half-conscious, half-obliviousness you afford the homeless needs sorting out.

Tagged , , , ,
%d bloggers like this: