Thursday, July 21, 2011

Seeing Past Your Biases

Oracle Junction, 2005

The other night I read a blog essay written by a conservative acquaintance that bothered me so much that I’m still fuming over it.

The premise of the essay was that people living in poverty in American really don’t have it all that bad. According to a leading conservative think tank, the poor enjoy air conditioning, cable television, hot tubs, Xbox games and a variety of other luxuries. Its conclusion—that the poor are either that way by choice or, in the case of alcoholism or drug abuse, as a result of moral deficiency—is the kind of thing that makes it easy for the more mean-spirited among us to vilify the poor and believe that poverty is a chosen condition.

This is one of those issues you don’t want to get me started on. I acknowledge the presence of abusers in the system. But the research I’ve done through the years among the poor in America—studies that have taken me from the slums of our nation’s major cities to the “hollers” of Appalachia and the rice fields of the Mississippi Delta—tells me that few people living in poverty either chose to live that way or are so content with living on the dole that they have no desire to change their condition.

I’m pretty sure my conservative friend writing from his affluent suburb has never spent much time living in or around chronic poverty. People who are losing their homes today, for example, are portrayed as morally corrupt for having believed what some people told them they could afford when they couldn’t. I suspect my conservative friend has unquestionable faith in the myth of the “welfare queen.” If he did spend some time among the poor, of course, he’d find that the poor don’t have hot tubs because they can’t afford to pay the water bill or have to haul water to their abodes in buckets from a creek or a neighbor’s outdoor spigot. They don’t have Xbox gaming systems because they never had a home computer and had to sell the television set for pennies on the dollar to pay for a transmission repair or a child’s dental filling.

But enough with the ranting. What does this have to do with the picture above? It’s this: the lesson I learned from this picture was about seeing beyond my own biases.

Up until the day I took this picture, I’d been one of those Easterners who’d basically written off America’s deserts as inhospitably dry and colorless. Be honest. When you think of a desert, isn’t brown the prevailing color you see in your mind?

On the day I took this picture I was driving from Phoenix down to the Mexican border. I’d purposely taken the old tw0-lane road south from Phoenix in order to avoid the blur of interstate driving and to hopefully see more of how people actually live out there.

I’m not sure why I pulled over to the side of the road to take this picture. It may have been the Catalina Mountains that grabbed my attention. I’d stopped at a few places along the road to take pictures of giant cacti, but hadn’t really captured the surrounding mountains in a way with which I was pleased.

The idea of “desert flowers” wasn’t completely foreign to me. Still, when I stepped up from the hot asphalt roadway onto the sandy plain shown in this photograph, I taken aback for a moment when I found myself surrounded by colorful flowers. Voila! From a purely photographic standpoint I had something interesting and colorful to occupy the foreground in the photograph.

I don’t know if my conservative acquaintance will ever been open-minded enough to question his biases. But I do know that taking pictures in the desert made me a better photographer. It’s not just because of the way I was compelled to challenge my biases, but because it reminded me of the importance of stopping and looking and listening. It taught me to be more aware of the subtleties of the desert’s colors and textures and to be more aware of my surroundings in a way that I couldn’t have been if I’d been viewing them at seventy miles an hour from an air conditioned card on the Interstate highway.


  1. WELL SAID. And what a beautiful photo! You really do show so much color in that desert shot!

  2. You're right, Chris; I always picture the desert as an arid wasteland. You're also right about the poor. As a result of my accident our annual income dropped nearly 70%. I certainly didn't ask for 7 fractured vertebrae and chronic pain syndrome for the rest of my life. That said, our home is paid off, we have food in the pantry and, most importantly, we have each other. My family is by no means wealthy but we're rich beyond compare.