SHELBY LEE ADAMS & OUR COLLECTIVE IDENTITY?

Why do we need to define everything? Take for instance, the religious practice of snake handling. Faith manifested in a practice most would avoid. We tend to qualify this practice as foolish, practiced by dull-witted people rather than, at the least, ignorant-to-potential-health-risks or more graciously and probably accurate, as simply a chosen way of life of which we do not participate. We are more comfortable in defining things rather than letting things exists as the mysterious and inexplicable contradictions that they are. Many ways of life are all at once foreign but familiar too in our collective identity as Americans.

There is an experiment of normative relativism in which two participants are asked to define water. In the experiment, a bowl of room temperature water is placed on a table. On one side of the bowl another bowl of hot water is placed and on the other side, a bowl of ice water. One participant is instructed to hold her hand in the bowl of hot water while the other is to hold her hand in the ice water. After an allotted amount of time, participants are to simultaneously place the hand that has previously been in hot and cold water respectively, into the bowl of room temperature water. They are then asked to define the water. More often than not the participant’s responses are conflicting as they describe what they are feeling rather than attempting to define the water. The participant having had her hand in ice water describes the room temperature water as warm while the other participant having had her hand in hot water describes the same bowl of water as cool. The experiment illustrates our tendency to define something by how it makes us feel rather than what it actually is.

As Americans, we love best-of lists, charts, and graphs. They quantify and distill down that which we either didn’t know correlated or that which otherwise would be incomprehensible or confusing. They are often used in demographics and attempt to define large swaths of people by standards such as poverty and education by what we have attributed as “normal”. And then we believe that because we can see a correlation like poverty and ignorance, that we can understand causation or that the two are related. Now I don’t understand my neighbor at times anymore than I understand snake handlers. My neighbor is neither impoverished nor ignorant but the strange things my neighbor does I can more easily wrap my head around than say believing it to be God’s will to be handling a venomous snake. And that’s saying a lot given I once caught my neighbor urinating off his balcony onto my front stoop. Both acts are easily dismissed as strange and my neighbor was drunk and therefore his behavior although irrational, is explained. But I should not define my neighbor by this act alone or rather, how I feel about his actions. A singular understanding of him or the people who take part in other strange behaviors intentional or not, would make them out to be slightly bizarre, odd characters… this includes the pissing drunks and the snake handling charismatics. I know my neighbor is more than just a pissing drunk because I have had more than just that one interaction with him. It makes some sense though (although unjustified) that we attempt to distance ourselves from these people, which we have indeed deemed as odd characters based on one particular behavior because by association we don’t want to be considered odd. But they are just as much a part of who we are as a nation and they are more faceted than what even their most extreme behavior would have us believe.

We tend to promote a fragmented American identity, one in which each and everyone can be on his or her own while being set apart from the whole. And we believe falsely that our identity is unique from the next person and that I can be me and you can be you and we won’t overlap unless we elect to do so. Yet each year lists are generated ranking states or regions as the fattest, the poorest, the most liberal, etc. We latch on to these lists and define the others who we are not a part of by a narrowly defined scope while still maintaining that our own identity is broader than that. And each year that state or region and the people within becomes defined, despite a nuanced culture in any given place, by that singular title, especially the ones with negative connotations such as the “poorest”. Collectively they are seen as a pity, a poor shame, and beyond hope. But this isn’t the collective identity of the poor. It is rather, an incrimination of those insular places not considered poor. I live in one of those insulated places where the ease of healthy living and access to continuing education makes me believe I am living the right kind of life, rather than understanding that the right kind of life isn’t about my well being exclusively or what is afforded to me. Rather, a healthy identity regards the well being of all. I’ve at times almost convinced myself that I cannot live a good life anywhere outside of these idyllic places. And this I know isn’t just me. It’s a collective attitude about the poor places. And it is perpetuated because of the unwillingness of the better-off to understand what isn’t ours or allow others to exist without the judgment that they are in need of what we have. Ignorance is one thing and stupidity is another. But too often we confuse the two and those that are ignorant are considered stupid. Is ignorance a bad thing? Like I said, am I somehow better off by the things afforded to me that have not been afforded to others?
Ever since Jacob Riis, marginalized communities have made for photographic fodder. And as the title of his body of work which documented squalor in New York, “How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York” implies, we do not consider the marginalized to be us. This makes it easy to be dismissive when presented confounding, conflicting, and troubling difficult to deal with problems for which we do not have a solution. As well, what one fraction of the collective whole considers a problem another fraction considers it to not be a problem. If a community has elected to do so or has been put in a place in which certain needs like health and education aren’t met then of course there is a problem for which intervention might be the solution. But we tend to confuse certain lifestyle preferences as needs and incriminate those who do not, or cannot share in that same lifestyle. And it is easy to ask, how can what I know to be good for myself not be good for others? Collective identity however is not so simple as it too contradicts itself. As soon as we understand ourselves as a progressive nation, we read of something in the news that for many seems ignorant or worse stupid and reckless, such as a pastor’s death from snakebite. Our response is often to sensationalize this behavior and push it further into the realm of oddity where it can exist as part of what we believe to not be us. If they cannot conform then they must be ostracized and be put on a reality television program where we simply distract ourselves from bigger issues by forcing upon those people our fixed and slightly less judgmental gaze. They quickly become characters on a screen rather than real people. Or we give up, assuming as grossly over simplified statistics suggest, that things are too far-gone. But things are too far-gone only if we consider solutions that are as finite as our lifespans or a presidential administration’s term rather than broadening our understanding of what is and is not right. It is difficult admittedly to suggest and act upon the understanding that we are not the problem solvers. Like a traffic light, we only consider three options: stop, go, or yield to either of those first two options. All three of which are in response to one thing: progress. Either we are moving forward and we feel fine or we are sitting still, and we feel defeated. And then what do we do with remaining idle?

During my first couple of years in college I’d always determine the last day to drop a class. If at this point due to skipping classes and not submitting assignments in a timely manner I’d earned a failing or barely passing grade that could not be salvaged by bringing it back up to a “C” I would drop the class. I should have been maintaining a better standard all along of course. For those classes I’d receive not a grade, but a “W” on my transcripts for a withdrawal. Knowing I could do this, took the pressure off to actually sacrifice and act responsibly throughout the semester and it also took away the sting of failure. Neutral is easier. But even in neutral a car still burns gasoline it just takes longer to run out and along the way it’s not quite sitting still but nor is it quite moving. As my early college years suggest, idle isn’t really an option either. There is a forth option however but it doesn’t put us in the driver’s seat. In fact, it doesn’t even put us in the car.

Henry Wessel said, “Once you accept the idea that all photographs are fictions, analogies for the things they represent, then you are more receptive to the meaning that is being suggested by that analogy, by that fiction.” I believe this has a wider implication than just photography or art and believing so doesn’t exactly put us in charge. Especially if we cannot even say what is and not fiction. So lets take a moment to appreciate the portrait work of Shelby Lee Adams. Adams has photographed families of Appalachia (yes the same reduced and marginalized region of our United States that are known for those snake handling pastors) since the mid-1970’s. In contrast to the aforementioned definitions we tend to place on people, Adams’ work doesn’t explain a thing about his subjects. His work suggests that they are complex people just like you and me. They are family oriented. They are loving and proud. And the solution, as Shelby Lee Adams seems to purport, is not to figure them out. Rather we should engage ourselves by way of relating to those amongst us who we do not understand in a genuine and at time mysterious way. His portraits suggest the poor are not a problem, and we are not a solution.

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