Tag Archives: Politics

Do #BlackLivesMatter Anymore?

#BlackLivesMatter was a thing, just like #OccupyWallStreet was a thing before it. And now those things are done. The problem with turning chronic social injustice into a media concern is that once it loses its traction in the media people get the idea that somehow it’s been dealt with. A cause grabs media attention (with its very own hashtag) and people call it “raising awareness” or, if they’re feeling lofty, “raising consciousness”. Something has been accomplished. Progress has been made. We can go home now.

After the tent city at police headquarters had been disbanded, after the march to Queen’s Park, after Kathleen Wynne’s acknowledgment of systemic racism, after push-back from the Toronto Police Association, I drifted past Toronto Police Headquarters and noticed something odd. There’s a bronze sculpture by Les Drysdale out in front. A woman in police uniform holds a trowel and leans in as if spreading mortar for a new brick. Someone had left a fresh slice of watermelon on the trowel. It looks as if the (Caucasian) police officer is serving up watermelon to the ghosts of the Black protesters.

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How are we supposed to interpret this? Maybe it’s a straight-up racist taunt. Or maybe it’s an ironic comment from someone frustrated with the (fairly typical) “What? Me racist?” response from respectable men like Mike McCormack. Or maybe it’s the work of an agent provocateur who wants to throw gasoline on the fire. Or maybe it’s a prank by kids smoking weed in the alley near Fran’s. Or maybe it’s radical art by students from OCAD.

Then, of course, there’s a second-order question of interpretation. Once I record the watermelon on the trowel as a photograph, how should viewers interpret the image I’ve made? I don’t think it’s for me to say. However, I do want to point out that this was not a fortuitous capture in the moment. I spent maybe 20 or 30 minutes photographing the sculpture with watermelon and thinking about what I was looking at. I shot from different angles. With and without a polarizing filter. With a variety of people walking through the scene. Ultimately, I settled on a shot with the streetcar in the background. I like the play of red between the streetcar and the watermelon. I also like the fact that the streetcar places the scene unequivocally in Toronto where, as everybody knows, we don’t have problems with racism.

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Rob Ford’s Funeral Procession

Yesterday morning I walked down to St. James Cathedral bearing my camera gear like a giant question mark. I wanted to see if I could discern what makes Rob Ford tick—not Rob Ford the man, obviously, since he’s no longer with us, but Rob Ford the cultural phenomenon.

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Mourner, hat in hand, waiting for the funeral procession.

I went with a theory: that Rob Ford is an accidental postmodern. The way I understand postmodernism, it began as an intentional critique of the relationship between power and culture and supplemented its theorizing with a set of practical tools for subverting that relationship. It challenged the hierarchical structure of cultural production. The distinction which privileges high art over pop culture is a false distinction. So, too, the distinction which privileges scientific/academic discourse over lay inquiry. Professionalism over the amateur. Religious orthodoxy over grassroots spirituality. Reason over dreams. White over black. Man over woman. Straight over queer. Not surprisingly, the earliest theoretical glimmers of postmodernism coincided with the rise of practical movements: Black Power, Feminism, Gay Rights.

More recently, we’ve witnessed the emergence of cultural phenomena which, while never intended to fulfill a postmodern agenda, nevertheless bear some of its marks. They are accidentally postmodern. Facebook is a good example of this. It has ripped down the walls between our neatly compartmentalized discursive habits. Now, it’s hard to tell whether we’re reading news or advertising, gossip or fiction. Facebook makes it impossible to privilege one discursive mode over another. (The only thing that’s privileged is Facebook itself.) In the same way, Rob Ford never woke one morning and said to himself: Hey, I’m gonna be a postmodern mayor. It just happened that way.

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Consider the evidence (or don’t, since that might be too scientific). Ford occupied the office of mayor which, traditionally, evokes a sense of gravitas. The mayor is addressed as Your Worship, and he has all the powers of a Justice of the Peace which entitles him, among other things, to preside over marriages. Tradition treats it as an office marked by dignity. People loved Ford for the fact that he was accessible and casual. He was hands on. Accessibility may have come at the expense of dignity. Everybody knew he was smashed on the job. Everybody knew he worked while driving. Talked on his cell phone while driving (gave a woman the finger when she told him to hang up). But so what? He demystified the aura that enshrouds the mayoral office.

He blurred lines. With him, it was impossible to tell whether he was politicking or entertaining. The conflict of interest scandal that nearly cost him his job underscores this blurring of lines. He didn’t appear to understand that it might be inappropriate to solicit funds for a personal charity on City Hall letterhead. But why should he when such distinctions belong to an earlier time with its archaic assumptions about propriety? Or consider his personal wealth which suggests white male privilege. And yet he styled himself a man of the people. A mayor for the little guy, enormously popular with working class and Black voters. Never mind his union busting, his racist rants, his groping and butt patting, his refusal to attend LGTQ events. One could call him hypocritical or contradictory. But I wonder if, maybe, he occupied a Both/And cultural space that gave him an extraordinary sense of freedom.

Clowns in gowns pretend to be officiants at a religious service.

Clowns in gowns pose as religious officiants.

At Jarvis & Adelaide, I cut through St. James Park. I remember when this was a tent city during the Occupy Movement. Although I was early, a line had already formed in front of St. James Cathedral, members of the public hoping to get inside for the funeral. I crossed to the south side of King Street and positioned myself across from the front door. Beside me, the media had set themselves up, talking heads, live commentary, drooling experts. A man in shorts and a Santa Claus hat was posing behind them. I laughed. It seemed perfect. I squinted at the man with his goatee and cigarette. Wait a sec. Isn’t that Zanta?

Have you heard of Zanta? He’s something of a fixture in these parts. You can read more about him on his wikipedia page, but the short version is that, 16 years ago, he fell down a flight of stairs and may have suffered neurological damage. He was later diagnosed with schizophrenia. His name is David Zancai, but he has adopted the performing name of Zanta. His performance involves wearing a Santa hat, doing a lot of push ups, posing (totally ripped), and wishing people a Merry Christmess on any day of the year (except Christmas).

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Zanta (David Zancai) kneeling in front of St. James Cathedral.

Zanta lay down on the street in front of the church and started doing pushups. When he finished his pushups, he lay his sweatshirt on the pavement, pulled out a magic marker, and started writing a message on it. Three police officers stepped onto the street and encouraged him to leave, forcing him to the eastern edge of St. James Park where he simmered for a time on a park bench. I spoke to the police officer who led the push to expel Zanta. If I was going to play amateur photojournalist (or whatever the hell I thought I was doing), it seemed a good idea to do some fact checking. The police officer confirmed that, yes, the man is Zanta. He rolled his eyes. He’d had dealings with Zanta for probably 10 or 12 years now. But they had to get him out of there. It was important for the funeral to go off with some decorum.

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Police remove Zanta from the scene.

Later, I spoke to Zanta. He was pleased to hear that my name is David. He asked me if my parents are alive. Yes. Grandparents? One. How about the other ones? Well, um, uh, no (logic didn’t appear to be one of his strong suits). He said he’d tell me where they are. His rambling boiled down to this: my deceased grandparents are with Rob Ford. No doubt they’re delighted to have his company. He talked in a wandering way. It wasn’t an associative wandering. More a string of non sequiturs. It was impossible to have a rational conversation with the man.

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The pipers piped. The honour guard marched. The hearse arrived and pulled to the front door of the church. And behind it all, the rabble. People with their signs and little flags declaring their allegiance to Ford Nation and proclaiming Rob Ford the best mayor ever. They were loud and unruly. They shouted their non sequiturs, their contradictions. I turned and Zanta was gone. I caught sight of his white hood disappearing into the mob. He fit right in. So much for the police and their decorum.

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It would be easy to ridicule the Ford Nation phenomenon. I was born into a modern world, but educated into a postmodern sensibility, so I tread on fractured ground. The reasonable me, the one who likes neat categories and well-reasoned arguments, would very much enjoy running Ford Nation through my privileged blender. But the unreasonable me recognizes that my reasonable upbringing is intimately tied to stories of unjust relations. With time to reflect on the photos I took of Ford Nation’s citizens, I’m reminded of the Black Lives Matter tent city at Police Headquarters. These are not two separate groups. They merge like a Venn diagram. Their points of intersection are messy but they need to be acknowledged. As for Rob Ford, I wonder… Privileged white man with a penchant for hypocrisy? Or could he, indeed, have been an ally? And what does that make me if I dispute those who claim he was?

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Citizens of Ford Nation follow the funeral procession.

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The Ugly Truth

The first time I visited Glasgow, it was to visit a friend who had settled in the nearby town of Kirkintilloch. He showed me the sights and I was happy to shoot whatever I saw. However, I sensed a certain — I’m not sure how to describe it — maybe embarrassment? — as my camera sometimes strayed from the more palatable tourist subjects (the Kelvingrove, Buchanan Street, Glasgow Cathedral) to the stuff you’d never see in a brochure (panhandlers outside the Lodging House Mission, graffiti in an alley off Sauchiehall St., empty liquor bottles on a street in Govan). I didn’t mean to embarrass, but with a camera in hand, I felt compelled to shoot what’s there, not what other people wish were there.

My friend’s response brought to mind something we all do: call it pride of place. We tend to tell narratives of the place we call home. Maybe because we need to believe that we have some mastery over our circumstances, that we have chosen where and how we live rather than submitting to forces beyond our control, we tell stories of our place that reassure us we have chosen well.

I have found myself doing the same thing as my friend visits me in Toronto. I show him the sanitized sights (the Eaton Centre, the U. of T. Campus, Yorkville, the ROM, Chinatown, Kensington Market) while pretending not to notice the man on the sidewalk outside the Waverly Hotel with a needle in his arm, or the police shaking down a shoplifter, or the (presumably) schizophrenic woman harassing strangers. Toronto is a wonderful city, I tell myself. Ignoring, for the time being, that I was born here and so never had a choice about living here for the first 18 years of my life, and, ignoring for the time being that, for the rest of my life, I have been too afraid to go anywhere else, I couldn’t have done better for myself. Truly, I am the … uh … master of my universe.

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Trudeaumania

Congratulations to Justin Trudeau and the federal Liberals for their stunning election victory last night. To celebrate the ouster of King Stephen, I offer a bit of nostalgia: some photos I took of Justin’s father, Pierre Elliot Trudeau. I think it was during the 1979 election campaign. Our high school orchestra was invited to a Liberal shindig to play the national anthem. The theme to Star Wars was big then, what with the Force and all, so it wouldn’t surprise me if we played that too. I brought my viola and my camera bag, so when I wasn’t bowing furiously, I was lurking around the stage trying to get a decent shot. I had a Konica T3 35 mm camera and Bushnell 35 mm lens. These aren’t great photos (made worse by the fact that they’re scanned from slides), but sometimes it’s useful to revisit earlier efforts. I can see the makings of a street photographer here.

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The Breitling Bombshell

The Swiss watch manufacturer, Breitling, has opened its official Canadian distribution headquarters at 250 Bloor St. E. I wouldn’t have noticed except for the bombshell sitting in the front window and blazing red in the late afternoon sunlight. They’ve propped up a life-sized, or somewhat (ahem) larger-than-life, mannikin of a blond woman in a red dress and riding a bombshell in much the same way as Slim Pickens rode the H-bomb to his doom in Dr. Strangelove. I wouldn’t have cared except the question kept nagging me: what does this have to do with watches?

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Photo Movie: Salvador

Salvador is a great movie to watch if you’re interested in photojournalism. Richard Boyle (James Woods) is a burned out journalist (and self-professed weasel) who, along with a DJ sidekick, Doctor Rock (Jim Belushi), heads down to El Salvador to see if he can pick up some freelance work. The two Americans arrive in time to witness the assassination of Oscar Romero, the murder of four church workers, and the U.S.-backed military push to crush the leftist guerrillas. Boyle connects with a more professional journalist, John Cassady, who feeds him some work.

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Before things really blow up, they go together to photograph the bodies of the disappeared. It helps survivors identify loved ones. As they’re wandering through a dump site, they have a conversation about photography and Robert Capa:

You know what made photographers like Robert Capa great, Rich? They weren’t after money. They captured the nobility of human suffering.

That was a great shot in Spain. One flying through the air.

Yeah, but it was more than a body, Richie. He got…why they died. That’s what Capa caught. He caught that moment of death.

You’re right up there with him, John. You’re in his league. You’re the best.

You gotta get close, Rich…to get the truth. You get too close, you die. Someday…I want a shot like Capa. Someday. Someday.

But there’s a scene near the end of the film that seems to undermine what they say. Boyle and Cassady are running in the line of fire between rebels and the military. They’re clearly sympathetic to the leftist rebels and hope to capture that decisive moment when the people of El Salvador take back their country. But the U.S. turns on its military aid pipeline, with all its big machinery. Boyle and Cassady can see the tanks and planes coming. Cassady is after his shot and stands his ground while a plane does a strafing run. Boyle watches in horror as Cassady takes a bullet. He performs a field tracheotomy with a switchblade and a pen. Cassady’s last words are: “I got my shot.”

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The problem with the scene is that, on his own terms, he doesn’t get the shot. He gets a shot of a plane flying high overhead and, maybe, puffs of dust where the bullets hit the ground. What he doesn’t get is a closeup that captures the kind of moment that he values in Capa’s work.

Boyle agrees with him – yeah, you got your shot – and promises to take the film back to New York for processing. But either Boyle’s stupid for not realizing that the shot doesn’t measure up, or he’s trying to comfort a dying man. At least that’s how I view the film. I think we’re meant to view it straight: he got his shot and paid the price. But, photographically speaking, he paid the price for nothing.

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Graffiti as Political Speech

One wonders if some of the usual hostility towards graffiti doesn’t stem from the fact that it’s a kind of political speech. As illustrated below, there are times when the political content is overt. (I note that there isn’t a lot of graffiti conveying conservative sentiments. I wonder why that is. Where are all the spray-can wielding, weed-smoking members of the Young Conservatives caucus?)

Stop Harper - Sign in Bobcaygeon

Stop Harper – Sign in Bobcaygeon

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Churches in Scotland

I suspect (but can’t be certain) that religion lurks in the background of the Scottish Referendum. Unlike Canada, Scotland has a state church which is called (surprise, surprise) the Church of Scotland. However, it’s not the same denomination as the state church of England which is called (surprise, surprise) the Church of England. Clearly, both churches took their names long before the rise of ad agencies and branding campaigns. Despite concerns about waning membership, when you compare CoS’s situation to the position of churches in Canada, the Church of Scotland still has a prominent and formative role in Scotland’s cultural identity. I would be interested to know if affiliation with the Church of Scotland influences the way a person votes in the referendum.

Below, I offer images from several places of worship. First up, St. Mary’s Parish Church in Kirkintilloch, which is just a little outside Glasgow:

The Kiss

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An Independent Scotland?

As we approach the September 18th referendum in Scotland, I will be posting images from my 2nd favourite place in the world (my first is my home – Toronto). I don’t feel it’s my place to express an opinion one way or another. The point of self-determination is that it belongs to the people who have a stake in the matter and to no one else. Outside influence feels like a violation of the rules of constitutional democracy. Canada has been in this position. In 1995, the citizens of Quebec held a referendum in which the Non vote won by a narrow margin. While I am committed to Canadian federalism, I believe there must always be space for distinctive identities to assert themselves. If federalism doesn’t protect that space, then a people must be free to exit.

People might think the Scottish question is a relatively minor blip in world affairs. I think it’s the most significant event of the moment, Gaza, Syria, & the Ukraine notwithstanding. It is significant for what is not happening. People are not killing one another. They are engaged in peaceful conversation about their identity, their future and their aspirations. We should not minimize its importance on the world stage as a model for how a people ought to conduct themselves.

For the first installment of my Scottish series: images of people. These are the people who have a stake in the issue and whose autonomy we need to respect. The first image is of a young girl skipping in front of the Scottish Parliament at the foot of the Royal Mile in Edinburgh (2009).

Girl in front of the Scottish Parliament

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Chorley Park Switchback Trail

So I’m standing above the site of the old quarry behind the Toronto Brickworks, tripod set up with my 70-200 mm, shooting across the ponds and paths below, captivated by the Z cut into the far hill, when I hear a voice behind me: “What are you taking a picture of?” It’s an elderly woman out for walk. I tell her I like the pattern in the side of the hill and the contrast between the yellow construction materials and the green foliage. “Oh that,” she says. “I thought maybe you were taking a picture of a bird or something.” I explain that I shoot whatever grabs my eye. “Oh,” she says. “Well, it may be interesting to look at, but I think it’s just dreadful what they’ve done to the hill. They’re building one of those on this side, too, you know. Up to Chorley Park. Horrible the way we’re losing all this natural space.” I stare out across the former quarry — now reclaimed land — and scratch my head. Maybe I’m missing something here.

Switchback out of the Toronto Brickworks

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