Among the Things That I Am Not: Photojournalist

by Diana Dawson Plattner

Several years ago, as you may recall, the U.S. invaded Iraq. It seems strange to think we ever weren’t at war in a desert, that there was a time when camo looked wrong and fake if it wasn’t in shades of green. That most of us imagined the Middle East as a place of endless golden sand, with a few mirages and mosques and bullet-proof limousines to break the monotony. That we’d come to know it instead as a place of fractured gray mountains, hard-packed fields of green and brown, narrow alleyways and narrow twisting seams of caves, crowded asphalt streets, cellphones, cigarettes, and places so ancient the Bible hardly remembers them.

But that sounds rather grand and global, when what I mean to write about is entirely personal, and frankly, quite small.

During that gray wedge of time after the bombing of the towers but before the invasion of Iraq, I attended a war-related march while on vacation with the husband in New Orleans. I had my camera with me, and my notebook. I freelanced as a steeplechase photographer and copy editor and was half-imagining becoming a photojournalist. I’m partial to photography in general, but especially to good photojournalism: its ability to freeze and intensify the moment and preserve it for eternal reexperience — not only as a moment in time but as a  moment in feeling, without the blotching and fading of ordinary memory. I also wrote: essays, stories, odd bits and pieces of nothing much, hopefully but also with a measure of embarrassment.

To head off any false dramatic tension about my becoming a photojournalist: that was never going to happen. You need much thicker skin than I have to approach a hostile world with a camera. As a steeplechase photographer I was okay — there are safe places to stand where you won’t get run over; you operate independently; you shoot the races and the between-race milling about of people who are indifferent to the same half-dozen or so photographers they see, over and over, throughout the season. If you don’t know the trainers and riders personally, you recognize them all on sight, and they recognize you. They are as indifferent to your presence as cattle are to cowbirds.

Outside the steeplechase venue, I struggled. I couldn’t bring myself to approach total strangers out of the blue and ask to photograph them. When bullies with security badges and walkie-talkies pushed me around, I took their meanness right on the chin. But I imagined I could toughen up with practice.

And so I showed up early for the march, camera in hand, extra rolls of film in bag; I squared my shoulders and waded in.

The most photo-willing marchers were a familiar type: more into the culture of the thing than the thing itself. Posing next to their hand-drawn signs, scowling, giving belligerent thumbs-up. They were in the minority; most people avoided the camera. Idling about in pairs or larger groups, they were self-conscious, shy of being singled out from the herd. If they saw the business end of a camera pointing at them, they took a sudden interest in something over there and shifted their torsos away.

Organizers — volunteers in blue jeans and reflective vests — began moving through the crowd with bullhorns. Listen-up! This is a peaceful demonstration of public opinion. Stay between the barricades. We will encounter some ugly disagreement. Do not engage. As the volunteers passed through, the slope-shouldered, lock-kneed postures disappeared. Those who’d been sitting on the curb stood up; clusters began to break apart; people retrieved signs that had been propped against trees or fire hydrants. For a few awkward minutes, nothing seemed to be happening. Shorter people stood on tiptoe, trying to see what was going on up front.

I climbed up on a traffic bollard to get a better shot. Up ahead, the mass of people filling the side of the street that was barricaded for the demonstration were beginning to move, the crowd-fabric stretching, the head of the march beginning to pull the body like a Chinese dragon. A few drivers on the unblocked side of the median honked in support. A woman leaned out a passenger-side window and yelled, apparently at me, Go home, bitch!

By then the spaces between the people ahead were opening up. I jumped down from the bollard and back into the crowd. Standing became shuffling and then, after an uncomfortable few moments that felt like walking in leg-irons, free movement.

I entered the stream of marchers, snapping shots, trotting ahead to gaps in the crowd and turning around to shoot the approaching marchers, their signboards, banners, balloons, children. Now, on the move, no one was paying attention to photographers. I was aiming the lens at full frontal humans, and none of them seemed to notice.

I thought of hunkering down and shooting upward at people as they passed, but once I’d dropped a knee on the pitted asphalt, I couldn’t concentrate. If you can’t focus mentally on the shot, there is no shot, and I couldn’t trust the waters to part around me. (At a race track once, I was positioned foolishly close to the stalls while the runners were being saddled. I stood framing up a shot in the midst of a school of thoroughbreds darting about like nervous fish, when suddenly from the dark periphery a rough hand grabbed my arm and yanked me aside. Jesus Christ, the guy cried. He had the short-fingered, rock-hard hand of a groom. He looked like he’d been scared shitless. That was close. That was too close. I pulled loose and looked around but whatever it was, was over.)

I finished one roll, fell into step with my neighbors, switched rolls while I walked, caught my breath. Those first thirty-six shots were going to be a letdown: a lot of people walking. Aside from occasional novelty headgear — oversized Uncle Sam hat in red-and-white sequined stripes; a bath towel secured on a head with a bandanna, meant to suggest either a sheikh or Jesus, it wasn’t clear which — there wasn’t much that was visually interesting. Whatever atmosphere there was, I wasn’t catching it, either personally or on film. I couldn’t blame it on skittish subjects; people no longer gave a tenth of a damn about the camera. I just couldn’t — see.

I trotted ahead to an empty spot behind a line of grannies carrying a banner. I could drift in their wake and focus on the people on the sidewalk, on the other side of the metal parade barrier. Now there — there was some atmosphere, maybe too much of it. I’d expected loud voices from the opposite camp, harassment, cat-calls; what I hadn’t expected was an almost deranged level of venom. People red-faced with anger, yelling personal insults, spitting. Voices shouting to get a job or go home or go kill yourself. I raised the camera and aimed: nothing. Framed in a glassy rectangle, the enraged faces became people-masks with open mouths. They could’ve been protesting a bad choice for the school board. I lowered the camera: sound and fury. Raised the camera: heads, t-shirts, sunglasses.

There was no place for me in this moment. I had no business here.

In the final leg of the march, the crowd on the sidewalk had grown thick, and the road seemed narrower. The marchers were starting to lose their composure, and the noble good-spirit of half an hour ago was curdling. Up ahead, on the right, a handful of volunteers in their reflective vests were standing arm in arm next to the sidewalk — the barrier had fallen down, and the angry bodies on the sidewalk were pressing toward the marchers.

Those three volunteers. Shouts and verbal abuse from one side, enthusiasm turning to disappointment and anger on the other; and yet they stood as patiently as draft horses, harnessed at the elbow, their faces turned aside. Instructing the marchers, “Keep going. Do not react. Keep going.”

I didn’t raise my camera. I was not the photographer to capture this moment. I was not, and I was never going to be. I kept going. I didn’t react. And I didn’t mind.