Now in Seattle, after years of idealizing a city in a part of the country that I had only experienced through the colored and admirable words of others, I find myself challenged. Confronted with perplexing incongruities of expectation and reality. Struggling to feel confident in my ability to do what I came here to do as a Communications Intern: share a story that I am only just beginning to listen to.
I was told that I would be writing and publishing stories for Solid Ground, a poverty alleviation service organization. And, due to my interest in photography, I could explore how I wanted to incorporate that into my role. My supervisors spoke of the sensitivities involved in telling stories of poverty and homelessness. They noted the inherent amount of power that I wielded as the writer and publisher. I decided how to represent the individuals, I decided what language to use, I decided the tone that would direct the piece and ultimately what emotions and responses that I aimed to elicit from the reader. I was grave with realization at the responsibility that I held. I felt grossly unprepared. It was my second day in a city that I knew very little about, yet I recognized the immensity of what there was to know: its history, its people, and the established and apparent reality of homelessness.
I began my personal exploration of the city, finding a comfortable and familiar sense of security behind my lens. Chasing the energy of the city and the allure of newness, I photographed not everything, but anything. Anything that intrigued, that suggested an insight. I wanted to absorb and to observe a city that demanded to be understood. Seattle was an enigma to me that day by day exposed another facet of its identity, some more difficult to embrace than others. Some realities, such as homelessness, were overpowering and unfamiliar to me. I didn’t photograph. I felt incapacitated by this unfamiliarity, as my role here was so dependent on a confidence in an ability to represent this subject.
I am beginning to recognize the beauty in not having all the answers. In not exploring my subject but exploring with my subject. Whether that be a personal exploration, like the tourists in Pike Place market or the streets of Seattle’s lively U-district at night.
Or whether a professional one, like my coworker and his role on a tenants rights advisory council, or the residents at one of Solid Ground’s housing developments, I can identify as someone who doesn’t know but wants to learn. There need not be such a firm distinction between the storyteller and the subject – the final piece, whether a written story or a visual one, instead should be a collaborative effort. I hope that I can confront the discomfort I feel about my role as storyteller and recognize the powerful position that I am in.
I spent one Sunday afternoon exploring the Seattle Art Museum. On display was an exhibit featuring Edward Curtis, a photographer known for his extensive documentation of Native Americans in the early 20th century. He dealt with the unfamiliar, he was fed by his curiosity, and his work greatly influenced how Native Americans were to be portrayed indefinitely throughout the rest of American history: a constructed and romanticized primitivism. His work is a shining example of the power wielded by the same hands that hold the camera and pen. Dually criticized and applauded for years to come for, Curtis is only human, and as such he his imperfect regardless of intention.
I am in a position that demands engaging with Seattle in ways that may make me feel intrusive, uncomfortable and uninvited. And yet simply the chance to engage is an opportunity like no other, as long as I navigate it with sensitive caution and utmost sincerity.
I write in the a.m., before work begins. My eye catches a figure walking passed the café window and for a moment I am transfixed. The young man is a spitting image of Kurt Cobain, with tousled dirty hair framing a boyish face, a Washington-born grunge legend that most likely frequented these same streets of Seattle not long ago. I wonder how he liked his coffee? Probably black. Just a thought.