Individualism vs. Individuality: A Photographer’s Work Reminds Us Of The Difference

In Photography on February 27, 2010 at 1:43 pm

I recently came across the works (thanks to (Notes On) Politics, Theory & Photography) of a photographer by the name of Gregory Halpern. I had never heard of him before, but that is a failure on my part.

I was recently talking to some young photographer’s at a South Asia symposium at Tuft’s University and one of them asked me what kinds of photographers I admire. My response was simple; those who allow their individual intelligence and opinions to come across in their works and photographs.

Such is the works of Gregory Halpern, particularly this gentle, human and beautifully produced piece of work on Harvard University’s staff called Living Wage Campaign

Looking through the images I was reminded of Tony Judt’s recent discussions about social democracy and the role of a sense of community in developing it. In a wonderful talk called What is Living & What Is Dead In Social Democracy? he challenges us to reconsider our regressive narcissism and realize our responsibility to all those ‘small’ people who helped us at every step of our lives and offered the environment, services, support and facilities that allowed us to achieve our individual dreams.

We owe them. More than we are prepared to acknowledge.

We are too used to believing that we individually are responsible for our success and achievements. This self-induced delusion has been the cornerstone of so many assaults on society’s ‘losers’ and ‘welfare junkies’ or whatever it is that we call those we disdain. This belief has been the rallying cry for lower taxes and a related cutting of fundamental social, welfare, educational, transportation and others services that we, since we can just pay to buy them, consider ‘useless’ and ‘wasteful’. We believe that we are not responsible to the community and society around us and that we are nothing more than individuals, isolated and independent of each other for any and everything we achieve.

Nothing could be further from the truth and stories like these remind me, as it should those arrogant mediocrities who pass through the corridors of Harvard and other apparently ‘fine’ institutions of the Ivy League and others. In fact, nothing represents the failure of these ‘elite’ institutions more than the fact that they delude their students into this idiotic dreamland of individuality and community irresponsibility, imbuing them with a narcissism which then becomes the foundation stone of the skull sized kingdoms they create. But there are alternatives and it is a question of asking the right questions. As Tony Judt reminds us:

But what if we treated humiliation itself as a cost, a charge to society? What if we decided to “quantify” the harm done when people are shamed by their fellow citizens before receiving the mere necessities of life? In other words, what if we factored into our estimates of productivity, efficiency, or well-being the difference between a humiliating handout and a benefit as of right? We might conclude that the provision of universal social services, public health insurance, or subsidized public transportation was actually a cost-effective way to achieve our common objectives. Such an exercise is inherently contentious: How do we quantify “humiliation”? What is the measurable cost of depriving isolated citizens of access to metropolitan resources? How much are we willing to pay for a good society? Unclear. But unless we ask such questions, how can we hope to devise answers?

We must ask these questions out of humility, and concern for our fellow citizens, the very citizens who have helped us at every small step of our lives from the moment we left our parent’s homes and tried to make our own way in the world. Nothing has dismayed me more than the recent discussions about health care reform where rarely if ever anyone of our so-called representatives spoke about the idea and nature of society that we wish to have, and of the responsibilities a nation, a democratic government, and functioning republic has towards all, and i mean all, it’s citizens. Lost in the quagmire of cost analysis, political horse-trading and corporate lobby bribes, the entire dialogue marginalized the people we call Americans, leading to even such hideous suggestions that the Americans just do not deserve the best health care this nation can provide.

We are not a corporation. The country is not a business. We seem to have forgotten that. Technocrats, most educated at these so-called ‘finest’ and ‘elite’ institutions seem not to remember that.

The fear mongers like to call this ‘Communism’ with a capital ‘C’. This is just an old instinct that masks greed, callousness, carelessness, lack of compassion and arrogance. It is infantile (clearly this is my favorite word this year), immature and irresponsible. The very people screaming about the sufferings of ‘the other’ across various fashionable ‘other world’ catastrophes, turn a blind eye and a cold heart to our very own – the very hundreds who quietly go about their supposedly ‘small’ jobs, and yet enable the miracles of life that so many of us do achieve.

Look back.

See their dignity and courage and honor.

Give back.

Be responsible.

I wish I can meet Gregory Halpern some day and thank him personally for this  lovely project.

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