Saturday, March 25, 2017

Value Above Replacement Post

Anyone who shoots photographs in public has dealt with cops. They're an occupational hazard. In fact I view occasional interaction with the law as an affirmation that I'm doing something right photographically. It can be a sign that some boundary is being pushed or questioned, at least in the eyes of the law. In reality it's hard to imagine how any photograph can pose a public danger. So a brush with the law becomes a sort of ridiculous dance. You explain what you're doing. The officer scribbles a note on your permanent record, or maybe fakes like they're writing something. A few minutes of everyone's time is wasted. Then they go away and you resume your allegedly suspicious behavior. 

When I saw two campus police approach me a few days ago I didn't think much initially. I was poking around the local community college with my cameras. It was spring break and the commuter school was mostly dead, but I'd stumbled on a motorcycle training exercise that seemed vaguely promising. But just as I'd made a few photos one of the instructors had seen me and waved her arms in the familiar "No Photography!" gesture. So I'd put my camera down and moved along. 

Five minutes later I noticed the squad car out of the corner of my eye.  Damn, I thought, the motorcycle teacher turned me in. Oh well, here it comes. I made a point of deliberately shooting a stand of dogwood blossoms in the other direction, exuding a vibe of routine tedium. Ho-hum, nothing to see here, officer, just a "normal" adult snooping around with a camera. Meanwhile I had my spiel rehearsed. Public space, street shooting, civil rights bla bla bla. 

Cop 1 approached. "Excuse me, sir, but someone reported an incident of public urination on this campus. Did you urinate behind a tree just now?"

Wha...? So this wasn't about photography after all. 

Lane Community College, shown with locations of note

Then Cop 1 dropped the hammer, "The suspect matched your description exactly."

I looked down to remember what I was wearing. I was a perfect match with myself. They had me cold. 

"Yup, that was me," I offered blankly, unsure how anyone had seen me in that tree. I'd buried myself deep in its undergrowth before peeing, but apparently not deep enough. 

In this moment my mind began to ponder police work, which I hadn't really considered in quite some time. I thought of all the potential things that cops encounter on a daily basis, all of the idle time in a squad car looking for incongruities or tips or leads, or something, and it struck me for the first time that police work is a bit like looking for photos. The successful events take up a relatively small portion of energy compared to the broader time devoted to the in-between parts, yet the two parts are interdependent. 

Photography works by a similar process. While looking for photos I can walk around for a few hours and come back with just one or two good images, which together might require thirty seconds to frame and shoot. But I can't achieve that thirty seconds without putting in the few hours of walking. To an outside observer these walks might seem aimless, and in a sense they are. I have no idea what I'm looking for, no idea when that special thirty second period might happen. It might be at the beginning or end of the few hours, or who knows when. But I trust that if I put in the time photo ops will happen.

In a recent interview Chris Rauschenberg described it this way: 
"One of the funny things about photography is that when you’re just taking a picture of something that you think might not be very important or you’re thinking about the way an artist might make a little sketch or something in a sketchbook—maybe that’s something I should think about in the future. With photography there’s no way to tell if you’re making a little sketch in the sketchbook or you are making your masterpiece—that it’s the greatest picture you’ve ever made in your life. It’s a 60th of a second either way, and that’s something you just decide later. That’s sort of a funny unique thing about photography—what you think of as playing scales could turn out to be your masterpiece."
Monitoring an empty community college on break is basically playing scales. Officers spend hours on the same daily rounds. 90% of the job must be boring as hell, spiced up only occasionally by a stray call about public urination or vagrancy or rollups, or who knows what? But cops realize as well as photographers you can't make the big bust without putting in the hours. They're interdependent, but you don't realize which part is which until later. When the alert comes from dispatch it's not immediately clear if the guy who peed on the tree will be that week's exciting arrest or just another harmless soccer dad. 

I tried hard to look like the latter as Cop 2 jumped in: "Can you tell me why you decided to urinate publicly rather than using a bathroom?"

"Well, I didn't see a bathroom nearby and I had to pee."

The truth went a little deeper than that. My strong affinity for outdoor peeing can probably be traced back to a blissful childhood in the hills without indoor plumbing. Peeing outside felt good then and it feels right now. It gets me outside in an odor free environment. It grounds me. On a long walk it creates a natural break. And it's eco-groovy. I've probably saved thousands of gallons of unflushed water over the years. 

Best of all, peeing outside is thinking time. I have some of my best ideas watering plants. For example during my busted leak I'd been ruminating about photographers in terms of the baseball VORP stat, Value Over Replacement Photographer. In my mind Arbus probably had the highest VORP of any photographer. She worked people and scenes to extract material that a replacement photographer would never see. Same with Tichy, Ballen, Friedlander. But Walker Evans or Joe Deal? Meh, not so much. Place any other photographer in Evans' footprints and they'd get roughly what he got. But that's the magic of Evans. He lures the observer under the spell of the obvious, low VORP notwithstanding. 

I know, I know, it's a sketchy theory, and I'll probably attract some shit for it. You can easily cite counter examples. I only had thirty seconds in the bushes to come up with it, so it is what it is. And thinking about it now, I'm not still not sure if that thirty seconds was the money section. VORP doesn't become truly interesting until it's cross referenced with VRBO, but then you get into real estate and deeper power structures beyond the scope of this post. But for the sake of argument, considering that outdoor pee time = thinking time, maybe subconsciously I'd felt a need to duck behind that tree even if I didn't really have to pee. Might I have held it and saved myself an inquisition? And considering the possibility of that inquisition, was it such a wise decision to bring along all these rollups?

"Are you a student here? Community member? Can I see some identification please?"

"I'm a parent," I lied as I handed Cop 2 my license. "I'm here for my kid's soccer game. Just taking some photos before it starts."

"If you're here for soccer there are porta-potties clearly marked near the playing fields."

I've never had a good idea come to me in a porta-potty, and in any case the playing fields were a half mile away. On those very playing fields in just a few moments would begin Emmett's soccer game, an activity in some ways similar to police and photography: two teams going at it for 60 minutes, never knowing when or even if a goal might happen. Players are interdependent on each other, and on the process itself. Cosmic, man. Worth a pee break. That's what I thought. But what I said was, "You're right. That was inappropriate of me. Won't happen again."

They ran my license against their database of bad guys, and naturally I came up clean because I hadn't given them the real one. So I was free to resume my photo making, or stashing explosives, or whatever it was I was not really up to. That should've been the end of it but Cop 2 wasn't done lecturing, "You realize this is a public campus. There are kids here for soccer, there's a family event over there at Oak Hill. You pull your penis out in public and you could get cited for indecent exposure." 

"Trust me, it had nothing to do with that," I lied.

"I know, I know. But it happens. You can get cited for exposure and if you get a prosecutor who wants to push it, you can be in real trouble. That's a sex crime. That'll follow you for life."

My silliness radar was buzzing. I wanted to laugh but Cop 2 said all of this with such a straight face I didn't dare. 

Of course I could only find it silly because society has bestowed on me a privileged profile. If I had a different skin color or an accent, or lacked documentation, or wasn't rollups, an interaction with police might be far less silly. 

From the perspective of a security officer, these other variables might be quantified as some sort of VORS, Value Over Replacement Suspect. My VORS was probably minimal. I'd never be a good substitute for a real criminal. But the cops couldn't know that until afterward, just as I wouldn't know what photos I'd taken until developing my film a few days later. That's when my favorite frame turned up:

Thirty seconds of paydirt from last week


Nishad said...

This is great. Having to pee is definitely an underappreciated challenge of street photography.

Marilyn Andrews said...

Same campus where a cop stopped me for going the wrong way on a one way street in the parking lot - I told him I was from out of town and got mixed up, which was kinda true, and he bought it. Super vigilant law enforcement over there . . .

TC said...

You're lucky they let you go with a warning for all of that dangerously independent thinking.