One of the most magical -- and scary -- things about creative work, and creative photography in particular, is the way that once we create something and send it out into the world, it takes on a life independent of its creator, seized and made over by those who encounter it. This is especially true in the visual realm, where images connect with the viewer on so many levels, both conscious and subconscious. I had a graphic (pun probably intended) demonstration of that today, in the reception given to a recent art photography piece I did for a student speech contest, of all things.
Some background is in order. For several years I've created posters, T-shirt designs and program layouts for the Tucson Japanese Speech Contest, an annual event run by a good friend of mine. It's part academic competition and part celebration of Japanese culture, where people dress as anime characters and taiko drummers and martial arts groups offer performances. The contest is hosted by various campuses of Pima College, our local community college.
My poster designs in the past have involved pretty typical Japanese images like geishas, kabuki performers and sumo wrestlers (view them here) , but for this year's contest I photographed a lovely mask of a bad spirit from traditional No theater and photoshopped it onto a textured background. Off it went to the powers that be at the college for approval, where it languished from September to -- oh, yesterday, when my friend got an email from one of the college officials about "concerns" raised over the image: it was powerful, disturbing. Responding to the obvious subtext (the mask does have horns, after all) my friend sent off another email reassuring all and sundry that the image did not in fact represent the Christian devil. Then, pressed for clarification, the official offered a possible explanation that sidestepped religion and stepped right into a different quagmire.
Everyone in the country, and even many outside of it, will know of course about recent events which put our sundrenched burg of Tucson, down here in Baja Arizona, on the map. Crazed shooter in a supermarket full of people takes point blank aim at Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, shoots her in the head and guns down many others, killing six including a judge and a child. Images of suspect Jared Loughner flooded the press and the Net: bald, gleaming of eye, prison-jumpsuited, staring at the camera with a weird wide grin.
The connection with my photograph? Loughner was a student at Pima Community College's Northwest Campus, disturbing students and teachers with his odd rants and demands. The College is understandably sensitive about this connection. So, the campus official allowed as how it's possible the reason my photograph was being rejected was a fear that it might remind people of Loughner.
Although it seems a stretch of the imagination, and a blow to the notion of critical thinking, to consider that people looking at a mask from classical Japanese theater would see Loughner's face, who can say? Photographs, and other kinds of visual arts, don't exist in a vacuum, nor are they the exclusive property of their creators. When art lives in the world, it becomes a part of the world, where viewers wrap their own context around it. Mask, devil, gunman . . . the fascinating thing is that a photograph, once made and sent off into the world, can be all these things, or none of them, at the same time -- part of the endless co-creation that is art.