Richard Misrach. Wall, Los Indios, Texas, 2015.
This post has been sitting in the back of my mind since I saw Richard Misrach speak a month and half ago. He came to Princeton to talk about Border Cantos and I jumped at the opportunity to see him and get my book signed. I enjoyed the talk—especially Guillermo Galindo’s performance of small musical instruments from the BorderCantos collaboration—but there wasn’t enough for me to write another blog post.
Given the most-recent election results and the way we’re grappling with processing and protesting the results, the audience reaction to Misrach’s photos is now worth remembering and commenting on.
First though, a long pull-quote from a blogpost by Sean Bonner about his 6-year-old son taking an “I Love Cats” to an anti-Trump protest.
“Hi, can we talk to you for a moment about your son’s sign?”
“It’s very cute, but we are concerned that if someone sees it and takes a photo it will misrepresent the feeling of this event.”
“Lots of people have taken photos of it all night, everyone has been enjoying it”
“That’s the problem, it’s sending the wrong message – I Love Cats? This isn’t about cats”
“He’s 6, that’s what he wanted on his sign. I’m not going to put my politics on a sign and make him carry it.”
“He doesn’t support immigrants rights?”
“There are lots of kids here with political signs”
“Sure, that their parents wrote for them”
“But what will people think if they see this sign”
“I don’t really care”
“YOU DON’T CARE?”
“Are you really upset that a 6 year old isn’t protesting correctly?”
“You wouldn’t be saying that if you weren’t a white man, maybe you should meet an immigrant and find out how they feel, you are mocking the serious people here… Racist!”
I’ve seen similar stories and reactions on Twitter or Facebook between people who are upset but still willing to have some fun and people who are upset at anything which threatens the seriousness of the situation. I’ve had that debate in my head too. Is it in poor taste to carry on posting stupid jokes and kid photos? Am I being too serious by posting a lot more political content? Is it wrong or bad to find the humor in things that, despite their ridiculousness, are incredibly dangerous?
Which takes us back to Misrach. At his talk, when this photo came up on the slideshow, the audience laughed. As they should. It’s ridiculous and stupid and captures everything about the sisyphean futility of building the wall and thinking that it will make any difference to our security. Misrach encouraged this humor with his sequencing where we saw increasingly porous border walls and then this image was the punchline.
I didn’t find out about it until later but this really upset some of the gente students. My immediate reaction upon learning how upset they were was complete surprise. I couldn’t imagine Misrach’s work being upsetting since it’s so quiet and detached. Only once I took a few moments to reflect about where the students were coming from did I realize that that was exactly the problem.
The students who were upset are not photography aficionados. They came to the project from the point of view of individuals for whom the border, and its security, is intensely personal. The wall isn’t an abstract concept or laughing matter. They have family members who have crossed. Family members who have failed to cross. Where I saw saw a useless ridiculous hilarious waste of government resources, they saw a kill zone where you’re more likely to be shot.
Of. Fucking. Course. This. Is. Triggering.
That said, that they got this triggered indicates that Princeton failed to adequately warn them about what to expect. I think this was billed as just “border photography” without any explanation about how this is a landscape photographer working within that tradition first. It’s white guy photography except that Misrach isn’t positioning himself as the expert on border issues.* He uses his whiteness to give him access and protection from the Border Patrol but that‘s about it.
*Though this is a case where the speak over a slideshow format fails since it pushes things toward the “I’m the expert, hear me lecture” side of the spectrum.
I get the sense that the students expected something more overtly political and instead got something which, to them, prettifies and trivializes a life or death situation. They are not wrong.
I on the otherhand see Misrach’s work as subverting the myth of The West, its freedom of movement, and promise for reinvention and infinite travel. This is a political statement. As is demonstrating the quixotic absurdity of the concept of s national border. I am not wrong either.
So where do we go from here?
First, both reactions are correct and valid. That something is triggering does not mean it’s bad or that anyone who likes it is bad. The same with finding it to be funny. It’s good—I’d say imperative—to laugh and keep your sense of humor about even the darkest subjects. Laughing doesn’t always mean minimizing or dismissing, it also means you’re coping and holding on to your humanity.
But if you’re laughing and someone challenges you? Taking the time to reflect on where they’re coming from is a much better reaction than telling them to “lighten up,” lecture them why they’re wrong, or get defensive about your position.* And it’s definitely better than immediately centering your feelings over the complaints of someone who’s been triggered. You might have the privilege to laugh because it’s not as life or death for you. Learn why it’s that serious to other people.
*Also please please please don’t use any defense about how your spouse or friend is a member of the group for which this is life and death as an excuse for why you don’t have to listen to that group’s concerns.