Eyes on the street

photos by Max Cooper
photos by Max Cooper

Walk out in the street and ask anybody — ask the beggars or the tourists, the hippies or the Bible thumpers, the artists or the accountants — and they’ll tell you the world is going to hell.

As a photographer, this means good things for me.

I've been shooting pictures in Asheville for a decade or so, and it's been a lot of fun photographing our little cesspool of sin. But lately — and I'm being serious here — I've had a bad feeling. We can argue about its cause or debate its solution; you can subscribe to whichever doomsayer you'd like. But when you walk out in the streets among your fellow men, I suspect you feel it too.

I think the world is going to hell.

Cast the nets

Human beings simultaneously seek and hide from the truth. Everybody lies, but some people lie more than others. Some people claim not to lie at all. We call those people journalists.

You can't blame them for dramatizing: If you get to cast your line into the world's river, aren't you going to try to land the big one? You'll gut it and clean it and mount it on the wall, and give your viewers the impression that the river is full of leviathans.

But the river has swelled: We are drowning in journalism. The modern flow of information grants to media what Christ granted his disciples: So many fish that the boat begins to sink.

Such a bright light casts deep shadows, and I don't think you'll disagree when I say that the modern mass-market press is a farce. You can blame Rupert Murdoch or NPR or the oil companies, but all of that is misdirection. The truth is much harder to face. We live in a free country, with a free market: That means the responsibility for the product ultimately rests with the consumer.

We get the journalism we deserve.

The Valley of Dry Bones I

A praise-and-worship band is setting up in Pritchard Park. In the close heat of the evening, I spot the bottles of water they've arranged on a table and make my way through a lazy crowd.

“How much for a bottle of water?”

The girl behind the table is taken aback by the question. “What? Oh, they're free.”

I thank her and reach out to take one, but a man close by reaches out first. He's older, obviously in charge of whatever outreach group is sponsoring the event. He puts his hand on my bottle of water. “And we bless it in Jesus' name.”

The musicians are talking back and and forth, leaning away from the mics so they won't be heard. Even in God's work there’s the stress of performance, and out here in the park there’s no sound check, no curtain to draw while things come together. On the other hand, the audience consists mostly of street people and the converted. Tourists meander to the top of the amphitheater, curious to see what act Asheville will perform for them today.

After introductions are delivered, they strike up the band. A marching drumbeat rings back from the College Street buildings, and a dissonant harmony floats around the park. Female backup singers carry the strain. The song isn’t like other praise tunes I've heard — the beat is militant, the verse a dark chant. The lyrics repeat their assertion: “We declare that the Kingdom of God is here.”

A change sweeps over the park: The usual throng of Asheville's crazy street dwellers has been completely arrested by the music. The tourists look around nervously as vagrants and beggars begin to move to the beat. The verse sounds again and again, and then rises in a strange pitch: “We declare that the Kingdom of God is here — among you!”

I feel the hair on my arms stand up; the crowd twitches and moves. Pritchard Park has become Ezekiel's valley of dry bones, brought to life by the breath of the spirit. It is horrifying and wonderful. Overwhelmed, I make my way through the crowd — some wearing polo shirts, some wearing rags — and escape into the street.

The public space

If you walk out among your fellow men and women, who call themselves “the public,” and raise your camera to your eye, it won’t be long before someone asks you just what the hell you think you're doing.

When it comes to truth, there are hiders and there are seekers, and they deeply distrust each other. One of the best hiding spots is the idea that the news always happens somewhere else, to someone more important than us. It's a comfortable hiding spot, because it relieves us of the duty to act like decent people.

So if you’re a seeker, the public expects you to have a press pass. Luckily, I do — I made it in Photoshop.

The First Amendment guarantees seekers the right to look for truth in the public space. At first, that might seem like a paltry concession, given that most underhanded deeds take place in boardrooms, bedrooms and council chambers. But the power of concerned citizens reporting and communicating in the public space can be staggering indeed.

Just ask Hosni Mubarak.

Consider the fact that the vast majority of what we know about the Occupy Wall Street movement comes not from the mass media but from people on the street. We've seen the images of former Marine Scott Olsen getting his skull cracked not because the local news affiliate had a reporter on the ground but because a private individual had a camera. Take away the protest and the tear gas and the riot shields, and that individual is just shooting photos in the public space. What the hell does he think he's doing?

The Asheville Argus

In Greek mythology, Argus was a giant with 100 eyes employed by the gods as a watchman.

So I had an idea, and Mountain Xpress was kind enough to facilitate it: a news blog whose stories come from indistinct moments in Asheville's streets. A slower, more personal form of journalism. The moments in our lives that no outlet would consider newsworthy are often the things we remember, the things that make us who we are. Asheville is full of those moments. After all, life takes place between the headlines.

Xpress has been running “The Asheville Argus” online for a couple of months now; here’s a hint of it in print. Now, I have no illusions that the Argus will stop the world from going to hell, and I hope Asheville won't see the kinds of things that have happened in Egypt or Oakland. But consider the daily sights in our city: Topless alien worshippers, occupiers under the bridge, street performers covered in paint, a bearded nun riding a giant bicycle and crazy street dwellers who stagger around like milkweeds with legs. Why wouldn't you photograph it?

The only thing worse than a cesspool of sin is an undocumented cesspool of sin.

The Valley of Dry Bones II

The city is alive, but at the Vance Monument, I find vampires. It's only a masquerade, but death is an unsettling pretense. It's strange that so many of us try on the shroud, as if to check its fit, and then walk around in the world.

Back in the park, the crowd has risen like dough and now spills out onto the sidewalks. The church members have handed out banners, and a man waves two of them in time with the music. His face is a rictus of joy. He has cast off his shoes and dances in his socks.

Behind him, another man is having some sort of emotional breakdown, and several church members comfort him. People move among the crowd, handing out bottled water; I take a seat next to a woman in an altered state. Less than four feet away, she’s completely unaware of my camera.

In the rapturous moment, it’s impossible to distinguish religious ecstasy from plain old Asheville crazy. Perhaps that’s the point.

— Asheville-based art and documentary photographer Max Cooper teaches photography at Southwestern Community College. For more of his work, visit http://darktopography.com.

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One thought on “Eyes on the street

  1. Marcianne Miller

    Wow! What incredibly moving words and photos. I’m breathless from the powerful beauty of your work. You’ve turned walking downtown into an unparalleled adventure. I had NO idea you’ve been online for many weeks. Congrats to the Xpress for providing you such a forum that allows us to enjoy your insights every week. Thank you! I sure hope there’s a book in the works.
    Marcianne Miller

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