(All photos from 2011's Go Topless rally and subsequent counter-protest.)
One day last week, as I was eating lunch, one of my editors burst through my door and yelled, “Max! Quick! There are topless women on the street!” I followed her back to her office, which looks out on the corner of College and Haywood, and sure enough, there they were.
I shot some photos through the window with a long lens, but the editor was not satisfied. She wanted me to find out why these women were topless. As if we worked for a newspaper or something. And so I went dashing down the street with my camera, chasing topless women.
Just another day at the office.
It turns out that the topless pair and their leader (organizer? chaperone? handler?) were advance scouts for the Go Topless event scheduled for tomorrow. You can read the story of this trio and see the boobs here. Don’t worry, it’s alright. Four thousand of your fellow Ashevillians have clicked the link already. You’re not alone.
We all remember last year’s Go Topless rally (termed “Boobfest” by those of us in the media) and subsequent counter-protest (“Anti-Boobfest”). After some debate in the newsroom, I’ve been tapped to cover this year’s event (“Boobfest II: The Revenge”).
I don’t want to spoil any surprises, but let me make a prediction for Sunday afternoon: Dozens of women will, for some reason, bare their breasts, and dozens of counter protesters will, for some reason, be terribly offended. The only real development is that the Anti-Boobers, led by a couple of local conservative firebrands, are sponsoring a photography contest to see who can document the most debasing antics. Personally, I’d rather not lend either side the validation of media coverage, but I have to put my own feelings aside: The first rule of journalism is not to judge, but to always reward attention-seeking behavior.
And hey, who am I to talk?
The first annual Boobfest was, quite literally, a milestone in my career. For better or worse, my coverage of the event raised(?) me to a new level. All of a sudden, after a decade of serious and unnoticed photography, everyone knew who I was. Everyone loved my website. Traffic spiked one thousand percent. The Xpress called and asked me to freelance, which lead to my position on staff.
So, if you're a photographer wondering how to break through: Boobs. It’s the only way.
The converse, though, was that I took a great deal of heat for that coverage. Including disparaging comments from family members, coworkers, friends, and people on the street. I have had brides tell me that they are afraid to show my website to their parents. People wrote and asked for high-res photos for purposes of their own gratification. So many people stole (and continue to steal) the photos that I’ve given up writing letters about it. A close friend told me that I should be ashamed.
The worst part came when I was questioned by my eleven-year-old niece about why I took the photos. She hadn’t actually seen them, but she’d seen me on TV, in the crowd with my camera. How do you explain the moral paradox of photojournalism to a kid? Especially a young girl, to whom you'd like to be a good role model, and who has the very difficult task of reading the behavior of men and trying to discern what is normal.
After living in Asheville for so long, I don't believe in normal. But I do believe that the way you handle your desires is the only thing that separates you from an animal.
My desire last year was to do my job as a photojournalist. I was willing to cast aside questions of morality in order to look on the event with a neutral eye. But like the desire to see boobs, or the desire to have them covered up, the desire to be a hot-shot photographer is something to be handled with caution.
That’s why I have misgivings about covering Sunday’s event. This year's Boobers will surely ratchet up the prurience, mostly for the benefit of the Anti-Boobers, who have a very misguided plan to photograph the acts they consider vile. So unlike most public rallies, in which photographers try to remain uninvolved, this event will illustrate the power of photography to alter--or reinforce--the behavior of the subject.
With dozens of agenda-driven cameras trained on attention-seeking protesters, tensions are sure to escalate. And if the feedback loop of sexual expression, condemnation, and media attention continues every year, we will one day reach a point where we can't be friends afterward. All for what? Some boobs?
So I wonder if this is really the place for a responsible photojournalist. But then, if a journalist isn’t willing to report from an uncomfortable place, what good is he?
In any event, I’ll be out there Sunday afternoon, because that’s my job. If you decide to join me, let me offer some advice.
Boobers: Congratulations on your boobs. It’s clear that they mean a lot to you, and they should. Be careful how you use them, and don't let them define you.
Anti-Boobers: Same as above, except substitute “opinions” for “boobs.” And be careful what you photograph. Every image is an investment, and some yield unpleasant returns.
Guys: Be gentlemen. These ladies have decided--for whatever reason--to reveal a vulnerable and intimate facet of themselves to you. How you react says a great deal about what kind of man you are.
Asheville: Focus on what's important. I don't know what that is, but I know this isn't it.
Follow on Twitter: @DarkTopo
Other dispatches from the Asheville Argus:
Renaming the Suicide Bridge
A pre-dawn Bele Chere ghost town
Open letter to photo-phobes
The Midnight March
Cats and Dogs
The Lay of the Land
Merry Christmas from the Asheville Argus
Birds, Part II
Birds, Part I
Eyes on the Street
The Public Space
Collected Street Portraits
The Day it All Started
Fog on the Top Deck
Introducing the Asheville Argus