Monthly Archives: March 2015

juxtaposition

Kitchen scene in Donetsk, Ukraine, August 2014. // Sergei Ilnitsky

Kitchen scene in Donetsk, Ukraine, August 2014. // Sergei Ilnitsky

“In her 1977 collection of essays, ‘On Photography,’ Susan Sontag identified a feeling of helpless voyeurism that comes over us as we look at photographs of people in the midst of conflict. She also wrote about how repeatedly seeing such images could anesthetize the vision and deaden the conscience. Sontag understood photographs of conflict to be making a utilitarian argument — that they could bring us into a state of productive shock — and showed that they seldom did what they claimed, or hoped, to do. The more photographs shock, the more difficult it is for them to be pinned to their local context, and the more easily they are indexed to our mental library of generic images. What, then, are we to do with a thrilling photograph that is at the same time an image of pain?

In Ilnitsky’s photograph, taken last August in Donetsk, a major city in the eastern part of Ukraine, a length of white lace is swept to the left side. Like a theatrical curtain, it reveals a table with a teapot, a bowl full of tomatoes, a can, two mugs, and two paring knives on a little cutting board. It is a still life, but it is in utter disarray. Broken glass and dust are everywhere, and one of the mugs is shattered; to the right, across the lace curtain, the shards of glass and the table, is a splatter of red color that could only be one thing. Domestic objects imply use, and Ilnitsky’s photograph pulls our minds toward the now lost tranquillity of the people who owned these items. How many cups of coffee were made in that kitchen? Who bought those tomatoes? Were there children in this household who did their homework on this table? Whose blood is that? The absence of people in the photograph makes room for these questions.”

– from Teju Cole’s essay “Object Lesson” in the New York Times Magazine

A lot to learn here, in writing and reporting too, I think.

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storytime: chats with uber drivers

The first time I took an Uber, I tried to get into the wrong car.

I was in Arlington, Va., and after a midnight soak in a friend’s rooftop hot tub on a freezing February night, I had to get back to my budget hotel in D.C. My friend sent me a code for a free Uber ride, but I was apprehensive. Could I trust the Uber driver to not kidnap, kill, cut me into tiny pieces and/or stuff me into his trunk? That apprehensiveness grew when when I tried to open the door of a car that was parked in front of my friend’s apartment.

The door was locked. I knocked on the window.

“Uber?” I asked, waving my phone. The confused driver stared at me, and then shook his head.

I tried to ignore the fact that I had essentially turned a stereotype on its head–instead of a large black man trying to rob a small white woman, I was the small white woman who appeared to be jacking a large black man’s car–and I called my Uber driver.

“You’re parked around the corner?”

I got back to my hotel in one piece.


Two days later, I almost missed my flight back to Kansas City.

I sat in the back of an Uber, waiting as we stood still in traffic for five full minutes.

“Is it always this bad in D.C. on a Friday evening?” I asked my driver.

“Oh, that’s the President’s motorcade driving past,” he said.

Washington, D.C.: view from the Newseum.

Washington, D.C.: view from the Newseum.


By the time I visited Atlanta a month later for a computer-assisted reporting conference, I was an Uber convert. An Uber proselytizer, really. I was sharing a cheap hotel room with three other  grad students, and we were shamelessly cutting costs at every corner.

“We can share the cost of one Uber ride, which’ll be $3 each,” I told them. So, we took Uber everywhere.

We probably had ten drivers total. Not one of them was white, and two of them were women.

I asked one of the women how she started working for Uber.

“Well, I came to Atlanta to help out my daughter,” she said. “She’s thirty, but she acts like she’s sixteen years old or something. She burned through all her money. So I moved from Alabama to help her out.”

“Do you like Atlanta?” I asked.

The woman laughed. “Nope, not really.”


“Do you like Atlanta?” was a question I asked often, and more often than not, the Uber drivers said yes.

I soon learned that several of these drivers had recently moved to Atlanta from other states in the South–Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana.

Our first morning in Atlanta, our driver  could not sing the city’s praises enough. “I moved here two years ago, and I love it,” he said. “Ladies, you would love it too. You’re just what Atlanta needs–four, young, smart, pretty single ladies out on the town!”

He wore a metallic patterned shirt, and his energy at 7 a.m. was more effective as a strong cup of coffee.

“Is that your real eye color, or are you wearing contacts?” he asked me.

“I mean, I’m wearing contacts, but they’re not colored…”

“Well, girl, you have got beautiful eyes.”

Funny, the most romantic thing ever said to me was by a gay Uber driver.

He loved that we were new to Atlanta, and he loved pointing everything out. “And that’s the Hard Rock Cafe,” he said, his voice authoritative, as if we couldn’t read the giant neon sign that read: “Hard Rock Cafe.”

“That’s a trolley car–they’re just testing it out. See that man in the yellow vest? That’s a cop. They’re everywhere, but they’re friendly. They’re here so tourists will feel safe and come back,” he said. “Homeless people might ask you for money, but if you say no, they won’t harass you. It’s because they know the cops don’t mess around. Oh! See that other guy in yellow? Another cop.”

Thanks, buddy.

Atlanta

Downtown Atlanta


One of our Uber drivers, it turned out, was a retired cop and Atlanta native.

I couldn’t help myself.

“I’m a journalist from Missouri, and I’ve been covering some stuff about Ferguson and its aftermath,” I said. “What do you think about the police department here in Atlanta? Do you see similar issues?”

“It’s not as bad here. In this city, a lot of the cops are black. A lot of the people are black,” he said. “I tell you what, and this is just my opinion, but I truly believe it. If the racial makeup of police forces reflected the racial makeup of their cities, we wouldn’t be having these problems.”


On our final morning in Atlanta, our last Uber driver had another solution to my questions about Ferguson and race (oops–we’ll blame it on the reporter in me; nobody’s perfect).

“I’m not a Republican, I’m not a Democrat. We need rules and regulations, but we need family values too. You know what would solve the world’s problems? If parents taught their kids compassion!” he said.

“But how does that translate to legislation?” I asked.

“Those lawmakers need to legislate compassion!” the driver said, half-laughing, half-serious. “Nothing is just Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal. It should go deeper than that. My political philosophy, I get that from Star Wars. Yoda said, ‘Only a Sith deals in absolutes.'”

Hear that, world? Only a Sith deals in absolutes.

scribbles//shame

Just returned from the NICAR Conference in Atlanta (or the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting, for those of you who have normal lives and aren’t data nerds).

It was wonderful. I learned more in a weekend than I could in a month. I got to meet (and drink with!) some incredible journalists. New friendships abounded, old friends grew stronger.

Despite all of that,
and despite the fact that the conference was filled with brilliant, intelligent, curious women galore,

There were still
(a few)
moments where I felt dirty
For speaking out loud.

Once
A group of us
(Five women in our early twenties)
Was followed down the street
By a man
Who would just not give up.
We spent two hours in a restaurant
…And he stayed outside the front door
The whole time
Waiting.
For us to finish our pizza
And come back out.

Another man told me that I
“Only give a shit” about myself
When I pointed out double standards
Between men and women.

Well.

You can be twenty-four years old.
And you know better.
Because you’ve read the theory:
Betty Friedan, bell hooks.

But you’re still ashamed.