Ten days ago I called my 18-year-old son in sick to school so he could actually learn a thing or two.
On February 13, tens of thousands marched from Voces de la Frontera (Voices of the Border) on 5th and Mineral in Milwaukee to the Courthouse on “A Day Without Latinos, Immigrants, and Refugees.” Voces’ Executive Director, Christine Neumann-Ortiz, is my friend, fellow Ashtangi, and one of my heroes. In just 10 days, she helped organize an astonishing event to rise up against President Trump’s immigration policies and take a stand for society’s most vulnerable and valuable.
I’ve never marched for a cause before.
My son and I didn’t know what to expect. He came wearing Vans on his feet and his Nikon Coolpix p900 around his neck.
The wisdom of Susan Sontag’s 1977 text, On Photography, has helped me understand and appreciate the education my son received via the lens of his camera as we marched across the 6th Street Bridge.
Photography, Sontag says, is not really an “art” for most but a “social rite, a defense against anxiety, and a tool of power.”
The social rite role of photography is unconsciously ceremonial. When we are part of an event we want to remember or chronicle, today, more than ever, we take and share photos. The photos my son took at the march were a way of saying, “Something interesting happened, and I was there.” I watched him watching the gathering crowd, deciding what moments and sites were worthy of capturing. An elderly man with the US flag draped over his shoulders. A baby girl in her daddy’s arms. A man dressed as a clown. A young man with a posterboard reading, “Sheriff Clark, I want a dream.” My son was looking for stories of an individual among the bigger Story of the whole. A week later, on his 18th birthday, my son took out his laptop, and showed family and friends his photos from “A Day Without Immigrants.” The march photos then became part of another social rite–celebration of birth–ceremony inside ceremony.
Photography serves as a defense against anxiety; having camera in hand gave my shy son a way to participate in the march by becoming unofficial observer/recorder. Especially since the crowd was mostly Hispanic, and we were, as we almost never are, the minority, he could achieve a sense of belonging and purpose through the camera lens. The lens, then, directly connected him to each person he acknowledged through the camera, not as voyeur or outsider, but as a fellow member of the cause.
Tools of power: photographs, according to Sontag, have a way of “encouraging whatever is going on to keep happening.” If this is true, and I believe it is, my son’s camera, small scale though it may be, became influential. He took out his laptop, showed his sisters his work. They’re young but absorbing his interests and overhearing his convictions. He showed some family friends, who asked to be notified of future similar events. Photographs cast a visual vote and can propel others to action.
Though Susan Sontag rightfully notes most don’t make photography into art, some do. I find photography the most compelling of the visual arts. My son has an artist’s eye, and he found, as I bet all photographers do, that every few hundred photos, something extraordinary happens–something he couldn’t have been looking for, a beautiful accident, that tells the individual story within the Story better than textbooks ever could.