Lost and Found
For several years I've been dissatisfied with my work as an artist. Not with the quality, or quantity, but with my own purpose and residual effects. As I wrote in a previous post, what bothered me was that much of art, my own included, offered evidence of a problem without proposing a solution. I finally distilled my own misgivings down to a single question: Am I helping?
I look at people volunteering at NGOs and non-profits, giving time and money to help others in positive, constructive ways. Although guilt isn't the right word for how I feel, it does remind me that I can always do more, and do better, than the vague effort I expend right now. But then I shouldn't just buy a plane ticket and go try to build clean water infrastructure in third-world countries or throw ice cubes at the polar bears – there's a lot of problems with those thoughts, from “white savior” complexes to the fact that my inexperience with the implementation of real solutions would make me a liability rather than helpful. I do a lot of things very well, but photography is the one talent I've honed to something approaching professional skill, and “hobbyist” isn't a prefix I would want applied to someone working in humanitarian aid or climate change science. Even as a photographer, I don't take the kinds of pictures that change minds and sway policy like Sebastião Salgado or James Nachtwey have. Am I helping?
With this in mind, I acted on an idea, taking a small step towards helping in a small way, close to home and heart. I picked a stretch of highway, one that I ride my bike down frequently, and had identified as having excessive amounts of roadside trash. I took one trash bag, and picked up trash until it was full. It took less time and distance than I'd expected: barely an eighth of a mile in about 15 minutes. I brought it all back home, sorted out some interesting pieces, and photographed them in a product advertising style. The rest is sorted into recycling and trash for proper disposal.
The photography remains mere evidence, but now the purpose, and thus the effect, are elevated. The amount of trash, the time expended, are nearly meaningless on any scale when compared to what some people do everyday. This is just one small step, one bag at a time, one little bit of highway just a little more healthy and attractive. Anyone can do this, and I think I'll try to make it a part of my weekly routine. Am I helping? One bag of trash at a time.
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