Man and Meat

2012 Second Prize: Leigh Bush

‘to understand is to experience the harmony between what we aim at and what is given, between the intention and the performance – and the body is our anchorage in a world’ (Merleau-Ponty, 1962: 144)

An 800 pound beef hangs, suspended from the rail above our heads. Cooper has already removed the animals 'clothes,' or hide, and pulls down the chainsaw from overhead to divide the carcass into sides. The young man is barely 22 and hails from a tiny town nearby called Darlington. He has been working with the Moody family, who owns the facility, since he was a small child feeding hogs on the Moody farm. Cooper's biceps bulge from heaving the weight of flesh and entrails and he is dappled in sweat though the room is cool. His tattooed forearms display sinewy stripes that come from the near-daily use of guns, knives and saws. A pristinely honed knife sits bloodless in its holster; he is able to drain a half ton animal with one clean plunge of the blade.

The body can tell us much. The work of a farmer, a slaughterer and a butcher is programmed into this young man's figure. According to Mauss, and later Bourdieu, these dispositions are not necessarily conscious, but they are rather "techniques of the body," which, along with countless other environmental and biological factors, shape an individual’s habitus, or combination of physical and mental dispositions that a person has as a result of life experience and cultural context (Bourdieu 1977). Because Cooper's body is socially, historically and geographically contingent (Crossley 1993), this image provides a striking visual illustration of embodied forms and actions that are becoming increasingly rare in American society. Like many past bodies that have built our railroads, monuments and cities, modern technology and industry is making these bodies obsolete.

Like with all photos, this one "arrests the flow of time" leaving an ambiguous message open for interpretation (Berger 1972). What this photo does not tell us is the story of Cooper's desire to flee from the midwest. It does not tell of his young daughter and ex-girlfriend who require alimony. It does not reveal coworker's deftness despite being nearly blind, or the baritone cadence of the words " hey boss" that he repeats to calm the animal before slaughter. This photo does not tell the story of a man torn between two worlds, a rural world that has formed his body, mind and habitus, one that he slips into like it's a well-worn baseball mit, and an urban world where he holds a radiology degree and wears a crisp clean white uniform. For this reason Berger comments, "meaning cannot exist without development", and the beauty in the ambiguity of photography is the precise aperture for ethnographers to find their narrative voice (1972).

Berger, John. 1972. Ways of Seeing. Harmondsworth: Penguin/BBC Books.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1977. Language and Symbolic Power. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA.

Mauss, Marcel. 2006. Techniques of the Body. In: Techniques, Technology, and Civilization. Ed. Nathan Schlanger. Durkheim Press: NY.

Merleau-Ponty, M. 1962. Phenomenology of Perception. Transl. C Smith. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Commentary on Rachel Tanur's Works

An egg weighs two ounces, making a dozen eggs about a pound and a half. How many eggs do you think are in each of these baskets? Fifty? One hundred? More?

My photograph of the young Midwestern man with his side of beef and Rachel’s of the Guatemalan girl with her eggs beg for context, which is both the beauty and the limitation of photography. A photograph provides us with information that is partially contextualized. It is a visual representation that illuminates one way to ‘see’ what the text is unable to describe: the Crayola colors of hand-woven Guatemalan fabric, the skillfully crafted baskets and netting, even the ambiguous expression on the young girl’s face. In this sense, according to Sartre, we are “looking at”, or making the subject into an object (1956). But we can also use the photo to forget our own particularity and, through self-deliverance, find mutuality with another (Simmel 1971). In other words, we can actually perceive the visual vibrancy of the culture, perhaps intuit the expertise of its people and ponder about the girl’s emotional state, and in doing so we might temporarily lose ourselves and cross the bridge into another’s world. Yet, they are but the introduction to a knowledge that includes the rest of our senses (smell, taste, touch, and sound), as well as our own histories (Howes 2003).

With attention to these missing pieces we can compose a more saturated image, using our own experience to fill in details and extend our understanding. See how the light falls upon the baskets and the back of the girl’s head and remember the feeling of hot summer sun warming your scalp. Imagine the scent of dry earth and ammonia from the fresh chicken manure. Conjure up the sound of hens scratching for insects or the bargaining chatter of a neighbor. Do you know what fresh papaya tastes like? Perhaps not, and that may be where our imagination falls short. As noted in my photograph, our individual contextualized disposition and position (i.e. habitus), is both our key to and our filter through which we experience the world. If we have not carried the weight of fifty eggs, baked in the hot sun, or slaughtered our own dinner how are we to know what these people experience, and by extension, make judgments about the world? How do you feel about child labor? In a market vs. a factory? In the U.S. vs. the developing world? The idiosyncratic nature of life is dauntingly magnificent. It requires us to transfer sights into sounds, smells, feelings and emotions. We are in a constant process of synthesis. It is a challenge that requires us to get under the skin of our first impressions and to seek an understanding that is as varied, dense and vivid as the cloth this young girl wears.

Howes, David (2003). Sensual Relations: Engaging the Senses in Culture and Social Theory. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Sartre, Jean-Paul (1956). Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes. NY: Philosophical Library.

Simmel, G. (1971 [orig 1903]), Individuality and Social Forms. Levine, D.N. (ed.), Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Commentary on Rachel Tanur's Works: Black and White

Carnival is celebrated throughout the western world; it is particularly famous in New Orleans. What immediately comes to mind is the stark contrast between the white-faced images of the Venice festival captured here, and the pictures of those stranded in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, most of who were African American. Indeed, when I think of New Orleans’ most famous event, I think of whiteness; of white faces partially hidden by masks and masks painted white. Who would ever imagine in examining Mardi Gras, in its organization, in its media representation, in its exclusivity, in its old-line krewes, that New Orleans is 70% African American? Understanding the dynamics driving the way that Mardi Gras is constructed may very well provide a map for interpreting the post hurricane images that continue to haunt us.

Commentary on Rachel Tanur's Works

An egg weighs two ounces, making a dozen eggs about a pound and a half. How many eggs do you think are in each of these baskets? Fifty? One hundred? More?

My photograph of the young Midwestern man with his side of beef and Rachel’s of the Guatemalan girl with her eggs beg for context, which is both the beauty and the limitation of photography. A photograph provides us with information that is partially contextualized. It is a visual representation that illuminates one way to ‘see’ what the text is unable to describe: the Crayola colors of hand-woven Guatemalan fabric, the skillfully crafted baskets and netting, even the ambiguous expression on the young girl’s face. In this sense, according to Sartre, we are “looking at”, or making the subject into an object (1956). But we can also use the photo to forget our own particularity and, through self-deliverance, find mutuality with another (Simmel 1971). In other words, we can actually perceive the visual vibrancy of the culture, perhaps intuit the expertise of its people and ponder about the girl’s emotional state, and in doing so we might temporarily lose ourselves and cross the bridge into another’s world. Yet, they are but the introduction to a knowledge that includes the rest of our senses (smell, taste, touch, and sound), as well as our own histories (Howes 2003).

With attention to these missing pieces we can compose a more saturated image, using our own experience to fill in details and extend our understanding. See how the light falls upon the baskets and the back of the girl’s head and remember the feeling of hot summer sun warming your scalp. Imagine the scent of dry earth and ammonia from the fresh chicken manure. Conjure up the sound of hens scratching for insects or the bargaining chatter of a neighbor. Do you know what fresh papaya tastes like? Perhaps not, and that may be where our imagination falls short. As noted in my photograph, our individual contextualized disposition and position (i.e. habitus), is both our key to and our filter through which we experience the world. If we have not carried the weight of fifty eggs, baked in the hot sun, or slaughtered our own dinner how are we to know what these people experience, and by extension, make judgments about the world? How do you feel about child labor? In a market vs. a factory? In the U.S. vs. the developing world? The idiosyncratic nature of life is dauntingly magnificent. It requires us to transfer sights into sounds, smells, feelings and emotions. We are in a constant process of synthesis. It is a challenge that requires us to get under the skin of our first impressions and to seek an understanding that is as varied, dense and vivid as the cloth this young girl wears.

Howes, David (2003). Sensual Relations: Engaging the Senses in Culture and Social Theory. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Sartre, Jean-Paul (1956). Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes. NY: Philosophical Library.

Simmel, G. (1971 [orig 1903]), Individuality and Social Forms. Levine, D.N. (ed.), Chicago: University of Chicago Press.