Tuesday, February 24, 2009

If you see something, say something

Soon after the 9/11 attacks, the Metropolitan Transit Authority in New York City started an advertising campaign: If you see something, say something. The goal was to enlist members of the public to alert authorities if they saw something suspicious or unattended. After the London bombings in 2005, the agency started searching subway riders' backpacks, suitcases and attaches.

I have seen something, these photographs above, and now I am saying something. A suitcase used to mean adventure, of going on a trip for vacation or even for work. A backpack was for camping or for kids carrying books to school. But now such objects have an ominous quality as captured by photographer Justine Reyes in our post 9/11 world. Propped up on a stool in room with cinder blocks and in chiaroscuro, a suitcase [above left], becomes a possible perpetrator. What is striking about the photograph is its clarity without evoking sentiment or even fear. It is documentarian showing us how we now experience something as mundane as a suitcase, that we usually keep tucked in our closet, in wait. But we don't necessarily know how innocent a suitcase might be in someone else's hands.

As for the other image, [above right], it is arresting, as are the others in her "Mask Series." She photographs herself wearing pantyhose masks into which she incorporates wire, lace, beads, hair, plastic mesh, plastic bags, and thread. "The masks themselves are made out of material that is normally hidden under the clothes, close to the body and private," she says on her website. "Here they are exposed."

In our world so much is exposed, from the prostitution procurement of a former governor of New York State to the tweets of millions of people describing the routine and sometimes profound aspects of their life. Ms. Reyes' masks and photographs of luggage seems to suggest that we cannot really hide from what is underneath, whether it is of a sexual nature or not, making her photographs quite honest and compelling. I guess we hope in transparency we can understand our mysteries and that something dangerous hidden in a suitcase in the belly of an airplane or on a subway station platform will be revealed. But what might we lose with all this disclosure?

(Ms. Reyes current work is on display at the Queens Museum of Art International 2009.)

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