On the fence

“My work as a photojournalist is not to publicize the numbers–reporters do that–but to show you the faces and the real life experiences,” LA Times photographer Don Bartletti told a group of middle and high school students during a recent trip to Madison.

In 2003, Bartletti won a Pulitzer for his work on Enrique’s Journey, a story about a Honduran boy who immigrated to the United States in order to find his mother.  His pictures for that story, as well as other visual narratives on immigrants’ lives, are remarkably visceral and captivating.  Somehow, in the starkest conditions of abject poverty, he’s able to capture one small detail to remind us we are witnessing human spirits frozen in time.  His recent work has focused on Mexican and Central American immigrants, but he’s crossed the globe to cover similar topics.

It’s delicate work that defies sentimentalism.  Bartletti’s journalism, I’d argue, is work that can–and maybe should–speak for itself.  And I’d venture that after he left Madison, the photographer agree with me.

Bartletti came to Madison after former UW chancellor Biddy Martin chose Enrique’s Journey for the Go Big Read program, a project designed to get people reading and talking about the same book.

Earlier in the day, Bartletti had presented his photos to a group at UW-Madison.  That audience–mostly university students, professors and interested adults–was receptive,  listened respectfully, and asked question about the photos.

But later at Centro Hispano, the photojournalist found a much different reaction.  When Bartletti finished showing students and Centro staff members his slideshow and gave the audience the chance to comment, the conversation turned a little tense.

“Question,” said Eugenia Highland, a Centro Hispano program coordinator.  “The purpose of your work is to show and share the stories, right? Show the faces and all that. Do you have any political…do you have any further purpose with your work?  Are you trying to change something?”

“If you’re asking me if I have an agenda, I don’t,” said Bartletti.  “I can’t make up my mind.  When I’m in Mexico or Central America and I see the way people live, I can totally understand why they would ride freight trains to leave Honduras.

“But when I’m here in the United States and I’m with my gabacho friends and I’m looking at the budgets of the school systems of my town, and I see that now every teacher has to be trained as a bilingual teacher, every student has be given a free breakfast, and sometimes a free lunch, well that’s costing me a hell of a lot of money.  Why? Why is that happening?  Well, I understand, because I was on the other side.  And I saw the human need for people to leave.”

Centro Hispano program director Mario Garcia Sierra paced the floor, held his chin, and waited for Bartletti to finish.

“I think it’s a little more complicated than that,” said Garcia Sierra.  “There’s a lot of data to prove that what immigrants bring outweighs what they take.  And it’s a little offensive to suggest that immigrants are a burden on society.

“And I urge you to be cautious about how you talk about these issues without adding to these myths that Americans hold.  Especially when you’re talking to a group like us, who may be a little more connected to these issues than you.”

After the discussion, neither Bartletti nor the folks from Centro Hispano said goodbye to each other.  I got a few more quotes, and headed to my car.

I met Bartletti outside.  He looked rattled and upset, but said he’d be willing to talk with me a little more.  He was headed to the Old-Fashioned to meet some friends for dinner, so I offered him a ride.

On the way I asked him if anything like that had ever happened to him before.

“Never,” he said.  “I feel like I was completely ambushed.”

I understood.  Here was a Pulitzer Prize winner, a man who had more respect and notoriety in journalism than I’ll ever have a chance to experience.  But the scene at Centro Hispano…well, it was a little embarrassing.

I do think he made some poor word-choices during the discussion.  Out of respect I won’t include the podcast, but at one point, while defending his lack of agenda, Bartletti asked Highland if she knew how to read a newspaper.  Yet, I think his intentions are noble, his work is phenomenal and the sacrifices he’s made for the profession are unquestionable.

This Los Angeles photographer, well-versed in immigration-reform rhetoric, had no way of knowing that Madison is in the middle of a racially charged debate over how to address our educational achievement gap.  He didn’t know that before his presentation, Garcia Sierra had just educated his students about recent repeals to the Dream Act or that he regularly encourages young Latinos to stand up for themselves when they feel their identities are threatened.

“At Centro Hispano, we try to instill in students high expectations, we try to share our stories with them, and we try to teach them their own history—all the contributions Latinos have made to U.S. history.  We try to help them understand why they’re here in the Midwest,” Garcia Sierra later told me.

At the Old-Fashioned, Bartletti ordered a beer.  Not long after, it seemed, he was feeling a little better.  Don told me a story about his father growing up in New York City and how, before he left the house, his dad would tell him that when he walked into the street he was no longer Italian–he needed to protect himself from people who might judge him for his nationality.

It seems like Bartletti has always had an inherent understanding of the subtleties of discrimination.  Maybe that’s what motivated him to cross the desert, ride trains, and take pictures of migrants’ faces.  He’s been at the tail-end, but also understands the plight of the angry American taxpayer.

And this might be the most interesting dynamic of the entire issue: in a country formed by immigrants, who gets to decide if it’s time to close and bar the door?

I don’t think any of us, regardless of our profession, has the luxury of feeling detached on this one.  After all, actively or passively, we’re all involved.

The best I can do as a journalist is to admit, like Bartletti did, that I may know how I feel but I can’t decide on what to do.  I guess it’s a question for all of us.

So…I’ll open it up for comments.  Where do you stand?

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24 thoughts on “On the fence

  1. You did not come to the evening meeting in the Red Gym. After he showed his pictures and told his stories, the question and answer session turned very similarly tense. I think that we should not try to decide if and when close the borders, but to the contrary when and how get rid of them completely.

    • Yes, Kata, I heard that the Red Gym discussion wasn’t much better. I think you make a really interesting point–one that changes the whole conversation. Thanks for the comment! Hope you’re well.

  2. ‘to remind us we are witnessing human spirits frozen in time…’ really like that line, especially when its prettiness gave way to the guts of the story. The contrast really underscored the tension involved when there are no easy answers. This is one of the best pieces you’ve written.

    • Wow, thanks J. I really struggled with writing this post and ended up writing it about 10 times. I was having a hard time writing about an emotional issue and still keeping it from becoming an opinion post. You’re right–in the end, there are absolutely no easy answers on this one. And that’s about as much as we can say before we jump in a rabbit hole. Thanks for reading, brah.

  3. Interesting read, Mario. Without hearing the podcast, of course, it’s very difficult to judge who got bent out of shape unreasonably.

    One of the first things I learned in graduate school was how to feel like a victim myself. I remember sitting in a theory-based class and hearing discussion after discussion with deep critical roots and realizing that, ultimately, I was being judged as part of a class that was deemed hegemonic, patriarchal, gender-biased, privileged, and so on and so forth. But I was the only person in the class who had to go register for the military draft, and I didn’t hear anyone taking up for me on that one.

    I remember going home and watching music videos — one, specifically, was Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” — and seeing messages about men that I’d never noticed before and that bugged me. Granted, the things I was seeing are easily dismissed by members of groups who, on average, probably had bigger problems than the “average” white American male.

    Still, who the hell were these folks to typecast me? Especially when I might have to lay my life on the line for their right to sit around theorizing about what a jerk I am because of my membership in a group I didn’t particularly want to claim?

    In ensuing years, I did a lot of reading about discrimination faced by men in all sorts of arenas, and it was always a little galling that these concerns tend to be dismissed out of hand. The assumptions seem to include that the oppressors could not themselves be oppressed, and everybody knew who the oppressors were, by definition (even if it was a circular definition: men are oppressors and oppressors are men).

    Bartletti’s points on both sides seem like good ones. For the folks at the center to delegitimize a taxpayer’s concerns about spending is as wrong as racism. Wrong is wrong. So were the folks at the center being a little too sensitive? I can’t tell, but I can tell you that I see a little bit of tendency in some of my Costa Rican family members to see racial or cultural issues that others don’t. Does that mean others are wrong? Does it mean my relatives are too sensitive? Something in between?

    But I haven’t answered your question. Most of the time, I think I’m ready to throw open the floodgates. Lately, though, I’ve wondered why anybody would want to come to this country when virtually every other developed nation seems more civilized and reasonable.

    I’d like to hear that podcast. Maybe it turns out you were the only one in the room who had the good sense to keep things calm and to consider things from a more balanced perspective. And that, my friend, would not surprise me.

    • Very interesting response, Steve; I especially appreciate the anecdote. I can picture you with shaggy hair, wearing a Hook-em Horns T-shirt and lamenting the state of the white man–all while cranking I want to “Dance with Somebody.” You really knew how to party.

      Like a true professor, you’ve managed to confuse me further by answering a question with a much more complicated question. But with that said, I think that’s really one of the best things we can do when we’re sorting out the truth.

      This was a really tricky story to try to tell. We have Bartlett–who, in reality, wasn’t promoting any particular perscpective except one the neutral observer–and on the other side we have a group of individuals who feel they are dehumanized and discriminated against by current policies. I think the tension came from the fact that they were really disagreeing on separate issues. I that that for the folks at Centro Hispano, agenda-free equates to conservative immigration policy. And maybe Bartletti thought, “Look man, I’m just doing my job.”

      The unsatisfying part is that both debates are really matters of ethics. And as you know, in ethics, we all go round and round. I suppose that’s one little lesson I’ve picked up here in grad school, not to try to teach the teacher.

      You’ve got me thinking about tossing up that podcast. Maybe I’ll do it, after all, you deserve to make up your own mind. I’ll send you the link if I do.

      And thanks for the thoughts. I hope your mom is OK with my blog, if she’s anywhere near as tough an audience as you, I might have a little bit to worry about. Hi Steve’s Mom!

  4. And when you paint the picture that way — a neutral observer and individuals who ARE dehumanized and discriminated against — it synthesizes the matter quickly. That may be as accurate and succinct as we can get here.

    I think some of the “victims,” though, tend to forget that very few of us are NOT victims in multiple ways. The interesting thing about the Occupy movement is how it has shifted the focus a bit to try to help folks understand that the vast majority of us are dehumanized.

    Whether we’re fortunate enough to have jobs and a few creature comforts in greater proportion than others may not be the real issue. I’ve often thought that the very wealthy and powerful are perfectly happy to have those like Barletti and the Centro Hispano folks quibbling with each other. That keeps the focus where the powerful like it — off of them.

    We’re now living in a state and nation where dehumanization comes in more insidious and threatening ways than it has in a long time. Strip searches are OK, public servants are moochers, unions are thugs, government is bad. The fear of losing what we already see eroding all around us is enough to keep most of us in check.

    I can’t tell if Barletti said anything that was a little suspect, and I also get the idea that his final two audiences as you describe and your friend Kata reports may have had some misplaced anger. That’s looking at it from afar and with limited info, of course. He doesn’t sound like an insensitive or racist guy — just honest about his taxes. It would be unfortunate if some of the very people who want dialogue end up shutting it off because they see racism in an honest thought and a legitimate concern.

    Actually, my mom’s not so tough. But my job is. Back to grading student work on a Friday night. Thanks for the respite!

  5. Saturday morning. Still grading. Sitting here in the office with my morning coffee, enjoying the building’s silence, and still thinking about this issue. Why are the very people who should be working together sniping at each other? Somewhere, this division is causing the 1 percent to chuckle this morning, even as their household servants prepare the breakfast.

    Found this piece in the Times that might interest you:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/13/opinion/brooks-sam-spade-at-starbucks.html?src=recg

    Your comment above about “teaching the teacher” just registered with me. Don’t sell yourself short. One of the things most professors realize is that it’s a great fortune to be in an environment where the possibility of learning from the students always exists — and even more so when a student like you comes along and makes it happen.

    That environment is right here on this blog. Keep it up.

    • Steve, just woke up a few minutes ago and read the NY Times piece. Dang, you didn’t have to reality-slap me so early in the morning. Let me wake up and get my thoughts together. Coffee. The link you sent me had a lot of truth in it. More later…

    • ***Captain’s log: My long-winded response to this comment can be found in the post “black and white of journalism.” I’m going to have to rethink that title though–I’ve managed to sound boring and pretentious at the same time.

  6. Responded on main post. Your readers are probably dedicated enough to figure that out, although they might have to be really dedicated to want to work through our conversation!

  7. stuff white people do: call people of color “over sensitive” and “angry” (*misplaced* anger, even — because you know better) when they point out things said white people hadn’t noticed before; insist that “everyone” is “oppressed” and a “victim”; think they need to pass judgment on which party is out of line in a discussion at which they were not present; derail the comments section of a blog post.

    i’d love to hear the podcast too.

    • more stuff racist people say; “immigration by brown people is a national issue”

      I think the national issue for most is ‘people immigrating here illegally’, it just so happens that the vast amount of them at this time in our history are what ‘martha’ calls ‘brown people,’ although (if we are to pretend to be ignorant enough to color-code people en masse, there are ‘black,’ ‘yellow,’ ‘brown,’ and, hold your breath, yes, even ‘white’ illegal immigrants.

  8. and another thing. this guy asked eugenia highland if she knew how to read a newspaper. eugenia highland. are you kidding me? first of all, eugenia highland is a grown woman of education — which bartletti was completely aware of, and saying that to someone who wasn’t would be completely out of line anyway.

    second, why does bartletti need to know that at a place called Centro Hispano, which is in spanish, for pete’s sake, people might possibly know a little more about these issues than some random guy whose job is to take pictures? i mean, if he’s having a beer afterward at the old fashioned, he’s old enough to drink, so wouldn’t one think that an adult pulitzer prize finalist would have the sense to at least pretend to show a little respect to his audiences and to his photographic subjects?

    a major reason he took the pictures in this series is because immigration by brown people is a national issue. this issue is not unique to madison, and everyone reading this knows that. and people are not risking their lives to move here because they want to become photographers.

    are common sense and respect too much to ask? or is some dude who’s still pissed about having to register for the draft going to tell me that i’m sensitive and angry?

    • Martha, I wont defend Bartletti or Steve in this comment section, but I’ll invite them to join in the conversation if they’d like to. I’d like to thank you for your comments, though– whatever your reasons or background, it seems like you feel very passionately about this topic. I like passion. And on this issue, I think it’s totally justified. Best, Mario

  9. Some thoughts on this blog post, from some of the greatest and most respected thinkers of our time and society: On Neutrality

    “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
    ― Desmond Tutu

    “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral. ”
    ― Paulo Freire

    “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.”
    ― Dante Alighieri, Inferno

    “Why should we cherish “objectivity”, as if ideas were innocent, as if they don’t serve one interest or another? Surely, we want to be objective if that means telling the truth as we see it, not concealing information that may be embarrassing to our point of view. But we don’t want to be objective if it means pretending that ideas don’t play a part in the social struggles of our time, that we don’t take sides in those struggles.

    Indeed, it is impossible to be neutral. In a world already moving in certain directions, where wealth and power are already distributed in certain ways, neutrality means accepting the way things are now. It is a world of clashing interests – war against peace, nationalism against internationalism, equality against greed, and democracy against elitism – and it seems to me both impossible and undesirable to be neutral in those conflicts.”
    ― Howard Zinn, Declarations of Independence: Cross-Examining American Ideology

    “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.”
    ― Howard Zinn, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times

    “The state does not oppose the freedom of people to express their particular cultural attachments, but nor does it nurture such expression—rather […] it responds with ‘benign neglect’ [….] The members of ethnic and national groups are protected against discrimination and prejudice, and they are free to maintain whatever part of their ethnic heritage or identity they wish, consistent with the rights of others. But their efforts are purely private, and it is not the place of public agencies to attach legal identities or disabilities to cultural membership or ethnic identity. This separation of state and ethnicity precludes any legal or governmental recognition of ethnic groups, or any use of ethnic criteria in the distribution of rights, resources, and duties.”
    ― Will Kymlicka, Multicultural Citizenship: A Liberal Theory of Minority Rights

    • I appreciate these quotes, Jorge, thanks for posting them. It’s my opinion that in journalism, the appearance of neutrality is sometimes more important than actual neutrality. You’ve put your finger on the single biggest challenge for me as a reporter, and one that I’m sure I will continue to struggle with. Thanks for reading and commenting. -Mario

  10. Hello Mario! Even though, I do not agree with the way you frame most of our conversation with Barletti. I am glad you were there to witness what happened that evening. I also believe your post can help us to continue the conversation here in Madison. We did not anticipate any media or blogger coming to the event.
    One thing that I would urge to reconsider is the fact that he is not a neutral observer. His point about the schools is totally inaccurate since it portrays immigrants as if they were here only taking resources but not contributing to the economy. Immigrants pay for their children’s schooling. Immigrants pay taxes and create jobs. How about the fact that immigrant’s purchasing power is over one trillion dollars? And how about the fact that the prices that we pay for goods and services would be way more expensive is there were not immigrants being exploited? I am sure everywhere he goes he is taken care by immigrants; obviously, he does not see any benefit there.
    Last thing I want to share here in your blog is that I am amazed at the level of ignorance some professors have at this university. Too sad they are mentoring many students.

    • I appreciate you taking the time to read this, Mario. And I can understand how you might disagree with the framing. While I was writing this blog post, I did my best to write something that you and Bartletti could each see as an honest account of what happened, whether or not you might like the story. Maybe I missed the mark a little bit.

      But I will say that I’m glad you’re still talking to me. You and Centro Hispano are such important parts of the community, and I really hope we can keep the dialogue open to give due attention to the many underreported issues taking place in Madison. I look forward to talking with you, whenever that may be. Keep up the great work over there!

      Sincerely, -Mario

  11. Mario, I don’t believe it’s ever a “conversation” when people call names and make judgments without knowing anything about the people they’re judging.

    I long ago reconciled myself to the fact that no matter what, I’m always going to be just another white dude to many people. Nothing I say, write or even do is going to make some people think that I’m not one of the oppressors, the hegemonists, the patriarchs, the pigs.

    I think my points were pretty clear and reasonable, but others obviously don’t. My questions to you, the journalist: Who do YOU think is writing the kinds of stuff that shut off conversation? Who’s being dismissive of the views of others? Who’s stereotyping whom? Is there validity to the argument that the powerless, the oppressed, by nature cannot themselves discriminate? Who defines membership in the classes of the powerful and the powerless? Where are the defining lines?

    If I were you, I’d take these as the rhetorical questions I mean them to be. I think these public comments have already spun in a counterproductive direction. Of course, at some point you might have to ask these questions of your sources.

    You were a great student because you listened, and you’ll be a great journalist for the same reason. You’ll also see that the farther you go, the more you’ll get to see of these ironies, the contradictions, and the endless questions and uncertainties.

    I’m just going to pretend I’m in a different corner of the room, having overheard bits of a conversation some folks think I should not have. Thanks for being a gracious host on this post, but I think I’ve got to get home now.

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