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Tolerance | by Ed Yourdon
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Tolerance

When I first saw this scene, I was reminded of an approximately similar scene that I had seen a few months earlier when visiting Hanoi -- and which you can see in this Flickr photo:

 

www.flickr.com/photos/yourdon/12864266123

 

So I was aware that I should not make any assumptions about the relationship between the young woman and the little boy. My instinctive guess is that the young woman was (and is) an older sister ... but for all I know, she could be the boy's mother, grandmother, next-door neighbor, babysitter, or who knows what ...

 

In any case, the two of them sat at this bench -- just outside the entrance to the subway station -- for quite a while. She gave the boy a bag of food from McDonald's (a branch-outlet of which is just across the street, on the other side of Broadway), and it appeared that he was munching away on Chicken McNuggets. Meanwhile, she was listening to some music, fussing with stuff in her purse, and ... well, just being "tolerant" of the little boy's antics, as far as I could tell...

 

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I am taking a wonderful two-weekend class at the International Center for Photography (ICP) in March 2014, with the title "The Creative Process: Meeting Your Muse."

 

After two days of very intense discussions during the first weekend of the class (Mar 15-16), we were all given individual assignments to work on during the week leading up to our second weekend gathering (Mar 22-23). Mine was to focus on the concepts of “permanence” and “transience,” and to look for (photographic) ways of expressing those concepts. And during some subsequent back-and-forth email conversations with the instructor, I was urged not to spend too much time thinking about these concepts, but rather to capture (photographically) what I felt about them.

 

Well... How to avoid thinking about such things? I guess one can look at anything that one comes across and observe, “this feels permanent” or “that feels transient.” But at least in my case, it’s very hard to turn my brain off; and I found it impossible not to think about what these concepts meant. After all, if you remember the old adage that “nothing lasts forever,” it reminds you that nothing is really permanent; it’s just that some things are more permanent than others — and, of course, some things are more transient than others. I have a few things that date back to my early childhood, and a bunch of knick-knacks that date back to my children’s early childhood; conversely, I can look at various gadgets in my office (especially the technological ones) and acknowledge that they probably won’t be here a year from now …

 

What does this have to do with photography? And specifically, how can you “capture” the concept of permanence (or transience) in a photograph? By sheer coincidence, I happened to be reading a blog posting by a street photographer named Eric Kim, titled “14 Lessons Alec Soth Has Taught Me About Street Photography” while I was working on this assignment, and I was intrigued by what Magnum photographer Soth said at one point:

 

“Photographs aren’t good at telling stories. Stories require a beginning, middle, and end. They require the progression of time. Photographs stop time. They are frozen. Mute. As viewers of the picture, we have no idea what those people on the waterfront are talking about.”

 

and the additional comment that

 

"Photographs can’t tell stories, but they are brilliant at suggesting stories…"

 

and Soth's final comment on the limitations of a single photograph, with the observation that:

 

"You can’t provide context in 1/500th of a second."

 

So … I can take a photograph of an arbitrary object, and when I look at it by myself, I can conjure up an arbitrarily detailed mental “story” about when I first saw it, how long it’s been part of my life, and why I think it’s relatively “permanent.” But if I show it to you, that same photograph might well fall flat on its face — because you won’t have the context that I have. You won’t understand (and ultimately agree with, or disagree with) my sense of the permanence/transience of that object unless I can provide the context, which will require a series of photographs in order to provide the beginning, middle, and end of whatever story I want to tell you.

 

And all of this seems somewhat pointless if the photograph, and the associated story, is related to any kind of familiar “tangible” object — because even if that object has survived since the day I was born, and even if it will still survive after I’m gone, it’s not really permanent. It probably wasn’t here a billion years ago, and it won’t be here a billion years from now.

 

Indeed, the only thing that I could imagine as being arguably “permanent” in any meaningful way is human emotion. If we all evolved from tadpoles, perhaps our ancestral tadpoles had different emotions than we do; but as long as we have been humans, we have all had emotions of love and hate, joy and sadness, and the full spectrum of what we typically call “feelings.” My parents and grandparents had them, my children and grandchildren have them, and every generation from the ancient cavemen to tomorrow’s “Star Wars" super-heroes, will also have them.

 

So that is what I’ve tried to capture in the photographs you’ll see in this Flickr set. All of this had to be done in the space of a week, and I had only three “chunks” of time that I could devote to actual picture-making (alas, I cannot escape the mundane requirements of paying the rent and putting food on the table). Thus, I could only manage to observe and capture a few of the emotions that I saw all around me each day; I took some 900+ images in three different NYC locations, winnowed them down to 9 keepers, and that’s what I’ve uploaded here ...

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Taken on March 18, 2014