You should support the arts. You should support artists. You should support people who aspire to be but are too meek to claim to be artists. No I don’t mean me. I mean the homemakers at the local arts council. The teens and no-bodies on Etsy. You should go to the craft-sale day of the annual carrot harvest festival two towns over and buy that 5×7″ watercolor of the old mill. You should shell out for a caricature from that lady way down at the empty end of the street fair, the one who looks like she’s trying to disappear between her own shoulders. And by you, I mean all of us.
I have never regretted buying something from the person responsible for its existence. I have regretted being the person who is responsible for somethings existence.
This is the story of that regret. It’s been a long enough time and I’ve moved around enough that I’m sure this wont identify anyone unless they somehow come upon it and out themselves. A gig I had a long time ago was working as a photographers assistant. Film was still more common than digital then so I mostly ran and kept film backs loaded during weddings then stayed up all night processing film so it’d be ready to go for the real photographer in the morning.
Every now and then the photographer would get a call from someone with next to no budget or a couple hundred dollars and a city-hall ceremony. Some of those calls would lead to me shooting a roll or two and eventually providing some very school-picture-day quality prints. I’d get some “practice”, a few dollars, and a bunch of admonitions of the “what you should have done…” type. If that’s an apprenticeship, it’s a wonder anyone ever becomes a professional.
I got called off once for a job that was on the calendar Friday, and canceled the Saturday before the Sunday ceremony. That never happened. Cancellations happened, sure, but with weeks or more of notice and even then security deposits being non-refundable made them rare. With nothing to do Sunday, I tried doing some shot-from-the-waist street photography Saturday with the understanding that I could use the darkroom to proof and print the next day because the place was always closed Sundays.
Sunday morning and I’m mixing up some D76 when I hear a pounding. The place was a camera shop, when those were still not such a rare thing. The photographer sold cameras, ran a lab, and shot weddings and portraits all out of a narrow storefront that barely had a window big enough for a cap and gown draped on a chair. I went in the back door from the alley, because I didn’t have a key for the front and was told to keep the lights off and “look closed” whenever I was there alone. Banging turned to screaming, like bloody murder screaming and I peeked through the curtain to the front, half expecting the place to be on fire. A tiny woman who looked about a hundred and twenty years old and dead for the last two was beating on the door. And that’s how I got roped into shooting the canceled wedding.
Grandma drove me to a big white farmhouse at a speed that I think was probably faster than any ambulance I’ve ever been in. There was a field full of cars, a crowd of people in front of the house, and just like a very tasteful arrangement in the back. All classic white chairs and a rose covered arbor that put commercial wedding venues to shame. It was perfect, if you could tune out the farm smell. Everyone there seemed either on the edge of violence or sincerely relieved when we pulled in. Grandma gave some of the angry young men orders and disappeared into the house. People were seated, some kind of vaguely martial operatic organ music started blasting, and I did my best to pretend I knew what I was doing.
I really felt good for a while, like I was accomplishing something. Then I learned why this had been canceled so suddenly. The officiant said a lot of stuff, the only bit I remember, and I’m paraphrasing, was about the couple’s sacred duty to secure the existence of our people and a future for their white children. So yeah. Did Nazi that coming. I should have found a way to leave, even if it meant just walking until I was out of there. I should have opened the camera and pulled out all the exposures I had made to un-make them. I should have done anything other than what I did do which was to just carry on. When I don’t know how to react, I just don’t, react.
I shot the ceremony. I shot the wedding party. The couple, the bridesmaids and groomsmen, and families. I stayed and shot the cake, the first dances, all of it. Then three different people gave me envelopes of cash and an absolutely jacked teenager in work boots and red suspenders drove me back to the shop. I dropped the film at a drugstore and went back afterwards to order enlargements and additional prints to be mailed to the address on the thank you note that I found in one of the envelopes. I couldn’t not do that, I had every reason to literally take the money and run under the “it’s okay to punch Nazi’s” law. I however, am completely spine-free.
Two of the envelopes I was passed had $2000 each and the other had another $1000 but all in odd bills, as if it was filled by a passing hat. The thank you note was in one of the big envelopes and it was very normal. Their money paid for their processing and prints. Everything that was left, I should have donated or something, but I didn’t know how to do that. I should say I couldn’t spend it, that it was tainted. The truth is if I had needed the money right then, I would have spent it. I carried it around for a few weeks and then I had an incident and lost it, or spent it, or had it stolen. I don’t remember what happened to it. It would have been very useful when I got back out of the hospital.
When I was stable again, and in another new town, I decided I’d spend double that money creating something good to cancel out the karmic debt. Some thing awful existed because of me, so now, something beautiful needed to as well. I bought folksy watercolors tentatively daubed on the worst paper ever. I commissioned portraits from people who didn’t know what to charge, and paid them too much. I know it doesn’t undo anything I made that Sunday. I know it’s nothing to those hateful people.