Sense of Place - Doug Johnson

In photography, the phrase "sense of place" describes images that show not only what a place looks like but also how it feels to be there. Capturing the feeling of a place is hard but at their best these images are enlightening and unforgettable.

However, "sense of place" can have a much broader and darker meaning. I was reminded of this while reading "Ragtime" by E. L. Doctorow when Father -- arguing that the humiliated Coalhouse Walker, Jr. should abandon his nonviolent but resolute pursuit of justice -- concludes with "Even Mathew Hensen knew his place." (Note: Matthew Henson, the first African-American Arctic explorer, has been recognized as the first person to reach the Geographic North Pole. Although Admiral Peary received many honors for leading the expedition, Henson's contributions were largely ignored.)

If showing a location's "sense of place" is hard then thoughtfully portraying someone's place in their family, community or social hierarchy is insanely difficult. One of the most successful of these, at many levels, is Margaret Bourke-White's image of victims standing in line for food after the devastating 1937 Ohio River flood that left one million people homeless.


The American Way


How do we "know" our place? Should we even have a "place?" Why does it change? A friend recalls her family's meals where the boys ate steak while the girls ate cereal. This seemed perfectly normal until she discovered "feminism" in college and replaced her assigned place with one of her own choosing.


Sanse of Place


Many of my photographs try to give a geographic sense of place but this week's photo, from a St. Patrick's Day parade in Boston's predominantly Irish-American South End, is one of the few that was actually taken with a communal and social sense of place in mind. This little girl is too young to remember the vicious race riots in "Southie" following Judge Garrity's decision to desegregate the schools but her presence at this parade, wearing a necklace of shamrock-green beads, is surely a sign of progress. As a white, male, baby-boomer; I've had little need to think about, let alone question, my place in society. Wouldn't it be grand if she doesn't either!


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