There was a situation, a moment, this weekend that broke my heart for so many many reasons. It has stuck with me. I thought I should share it with you all. I usually don't make long, wordy, blog posts, I am by no means a writer, but bear with me!
On Saturday I was second shooting a wedding here in Milwaukee. (for those of you not in the photography world, second shooting is where another wedding photographer hires/contracts another photographer to shoot for them as a second set of eyes. At the end of the day the second shooter hands the images over to the "lead" shooter, and they handle all the back end stuff) We took the wedding party out after the ceremony to take pictures downtown Milwaukee. We were shooting in front of an old building that is architecturally gorgeous and just an awesome spot for photos. Naturally, a Saturday afternoon in a busy part of the city, there were plenty of people walking past the whole time we were shooting. There happened to be a bus stop on the block close to where we were shooting, and the buses were coming by every few minutes, picking up and dropping off.
One of the bridesmaids had brought a tote bag with her and had set it next to a tree in the sidewalk while she took portraits. She had expressed to me that she wasn't thinking when she brought it with her, and should have left it; I assured her I would keep an eye on it and make sure no one took it while we were shooting.
A couple minutes later two african american men, they looked to be middle aged, one wearing a graphic t-shirt and a backpack, the other wearing what looked like a work uniform/polo and one of those small athletic backpacks that have the cord straps that cinch the top of the bag.
I didn't think much of it. They passed by, and I admit, I watched them pass the bag, as I had just told the bridesmaid I would keep an eye on it (I also watched it when three white boys on skateboards passed, FYI, and numerous other passersby) So we're still shooting, and we changed the direction we were shooting and now the tote bag was in the background of the shot, so I went to go grab it so it wouldn't be in any photos. As I walked past the wedding party to grab the bag I noticed that the two men had sat down on the steps of the building to wait for the bus. This is when my heart broke the first time. I immediately realized that they would see me, and see me move the bag. In my head I'm thinking to myself "they're going to think I'm moving it because they're sitting there and I think they might steal it just because they're black". I had to get the bag and get out of the shot, so I was moving quickly, but in that time my heart broke a little bit more: Immediately, as I reached for the bag one of the men saw me, as he stood on the steps 15 feet away, and brought his hand up and motioned, "oh no, we're not gonna give you any trouble! We're just waiting here for the bus! You can leave it there, we aren't going to give you trouble!"
My heart plummeted.
Exactly what I thought might happen, happened. Their immediate response was to assume that I was moving it because, to put it simply, they were black.
Again, I had to move quickly to do my job, and get out of the shot. I tried express to them that it wasn't because of them, but it just came out as a jumbled string of words cause I panicked at the thought of them making that assumption; I didn't want them to think that of me! (even though I, sadly, understood why they would assume that) "Oh no! I'm not moving it because of you! It was in the shot! It isn't because of you!"
I was standing there, continuing to do my job, but in my mind I was just frustrated.
I hated that they felt the need to have to defend themselves. I hated that I didn't get the chance to adequately articulate that I really was just moving it because it was in our shot. I hated that my first thought was "they're going to think I'm moving it because of them". I hated that their first thought was the same as mine.
After a minute or two, there was a quick break in shooting, and I couldn't stop thinking about it. I decided to walk over to them. I told them "I really did just moved the bag because it was in the background of the photo. I didn't move it because of you guys. I just wanted to make sure you knew that"
Their responses broke my heart, again, just a little bit more. "oh wow, thank you so much. Thank you for coming over and telling us. That is really incredible of you" and the second man reiterated "It really is, that's incredible, it's incredible that you did that."
It is? Is it really?
I get that in this day and age taking any time out to do anything that isn't self serving, I guess is impressive. Maybe it's impressive, purely for taking time. But is it really incredible that I didn't want them to think I made assumptions about them based on their appearance? Does that action really deserve "incredible" being said 3 times?
I don't think I'm naive about the state of our country, and the state of the world today. I pay attention to the news as much as I can. I have read the articles about the recent incidents here in Milwaukee. I know that our world is broken. But it still astounds me that they would classify my actions as "incredible".
I don't really know what the takeaway of this post is. I don't have a "the moral of the story is..." in my mind. I guess the takeaway could be, take the time. If you're put in a situation like this (clearly this is a fairly unique situation, but there are countless scenarios like this that you could be put in) don't just walk away from it. If you get the chance, go talk to the person. You don't even have to say much. Even just saying hello and asking them how their day is going. To show that you care about them on a human level, and you want to relate to them, I think that can make all the difference in the world. We've created a world where we have stopped relating to people. We've stopped talking to people we don't know. We've stopped even making eye contact with people on the street.
(side antic: When I was in College, I went to a school downtown Chicago. Some days I would just be in a good mood! As I would walk to/from the train, with the morning and evening rush of commuters and businessmen/women, sometimes I would just smile. I would walk down the street with a smile on my face. Which shouldn't be odd, but it kind of is. But it was always so nice to do, because I would watch people make eye contact with my goofy smile on my face, walking through/with a bunch of on-a-mission-city-walkers, and I would see them smile back, and sheepishly look away. Maybe they were smiling because they thought I was weird, but maybe they were smiling because, well, it's contagious! Either way, I loved it. I loved doing that.)
We have forgotten the value of connections. We would rather have followers on instagram than have a connection with someone you meet on the street. I'm guilty of this too. There are times where I just want to put my head down and not have anyone acknowledge me, and to not acknowledge anyone else. But maybe we shouldn't be so scared or hesitant to start a conversation with strangers, people on the street, at a bar, on the bus, etc. (yeah yeah yeah, I know, stranger danger. But like...use common sense maybe?) I think if we stop shying away from these connections we might actually start to make some changes in the way we see each other. In this situation, I could have walked away and not said anything. They could have gotten on the bus and thought to themselves "wow, that girl was racist", and just perpetuated the issues that the world is having. But I like to think, in the 45 seconds that I talked with these two men, instead of perpetuating a stereotype or issue, I like to think I turned the table, and made it a positive, or at the least, made it neutral instead of negative. So they walked away thinking, "that white girl didn't suck". And even though I definitely didn't change the world with that small action, I do think those little moments are the ones that have the power to change the world.
Don't miss an opportunity, don't walk away
when you could make a difference.
The bus eventually came, I saw them get up and walk over to the bus stop. As they were boarding I waved and told them to have a great day and they responded with a "you too!". They seemed like nice guys, I wish I could have chatted a bit more with them.
I'm so not great at this writing thing, I'm not used to it! How do I end this??
Go call your mother, tell her you love her, and then go out and make friends with a stranger. There, that seems good.