Guest perspective by Ralph Nader
Our just published In the Shadow of Power is a penetrating collection of 92 black and white photographs about life in Washington, DC, by Venezuelan photographer Kike Arnal.
After scores of books and reports by our groups over forty-five years, where the premise was that “a thousand words is worth one picture,” I am reminded of the impact of the reverse saying “a picture is worth a thousand words.”
If you want to see the power of these 92 pictures aided by the discerning eye of a masterful interviewer, visit Brian Lamb’s one hour C-SPAN program about Mr. Arnal’s book (http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/292161-1).
The accomplished photographer Fred Ritchin captured the visual impacts in his foreword with these words: “In shades of gray the murkiness is probed, fragments of anguish exposed, painful contrasts fractionally illuminated.”
Mr. Ritchin asked “how government can expect to lead a planet if it cannot properly help take care of its own.”
“I was born in Washington, DC,” he adds, “and left as a very young child. I never had any strong feelings about my birthplace. Now I do.”
The early, intense reaction to In the Shadow of Power was quite different than the responses to factual reports about Washington, DC’s tale of two cities. It’s the difference between a searching look that reverberates with its own feedback and a scan of factual renditions drained of emotional intelligence.
You decide which prompts more engagement.
Week after week the newspapers report cases of dysfunction, corruption, indifference and harmful delays in the municipal government. They report less the valiant efforts of local citizen groups striving to slow the erosion of municipal functions and services. They almost never report why so many of the wealthy and powerful classes rarely come close to even a state of noblesse oblige for their adopted metropolis. Foreign observers of the way our nation’s capital is run, and run into the ground, come away with disbelief punctuated by puzzlement at the vast resources and their unused capacity here. A few blocks from the White House are the headquarters of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, whose pronouncements describe other countries as under developed.
There are truly many tales of two cities in Washington, DC. There are the two cities of wealth and poverty. By and large, Northeast, Southeast and Southwest Washington cry out for repairs, for affordable housing, for public protection, for health and retail services. The other city, Northwest Washington—the part frequented by tourists—has the private schools and clubs, the gallerias and theaters, the well-kept homes and grounds befitting the affluent and upper-middle professional and business classes.
While the city is experiencing widespread gentrification, it maintains its dubious status as having the highest rate of low-income children in the United States, the highest child poverty rate, and the highest AIDS mortality rate in the country. The capital’s hospitals, medical schools and clinics have co-existed with the lowest life expectancy of any of the fifty states. Scores of countries have higher life expectancy levels than what prevails in the District of Columbia.
The well-off and the poor do share some common experiences: potholes, constant sirens, unreturned calls to municipal government officials, expensive housing and gridlock traffic. The difference is that the former have the means to mitigate, endure, avoid or override. There lies the rub. Those who can make change are not part of the daily risks and desperation so they do not have to be part of the solution.
Henry Allen, the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for photographic criticism when he was at the Washington Post, summed up his reaction: “This book comes in close on Them, who are not to be confused with Us. We do well to know as much as we can and should about Them – we’re all in the same boat after all.”
Kike’s style is not one of overt contrasting photography as in previous books about the tale of two Washingtons; it is more than artistic choice, though his photos are taken with an exceptional artist’s eye. His photos, standing alone or connecting to one another without words, make you wonder and ponder. One can allow them to enter into one’s thoughts and values. Perhaps they may incite you toward a new level of engagement for the human condition portrayed in this volume is, to be sure, Washington, DC-based, but it is also part of the grand tradition of photographers worldwide who have recorded the inhumanity of the few toward the many through this form of indelible visual communication.
For more information, and to purchase a signed copy, visit intheshadowofpower.org.