“May I HELP You?”……Decoded

16/10/10 6:17 AM

“May I HELP you?,” said the manager of a very up-scale, boutique shopping market in Mill Valley, California.

Those who know me would say—Ben, why didn’t you tell him you are BEYOND help.”   “Rattle off a litany of things you need help with–such as not washing light clothes with dark clothes ” (Oops. Sorry EH for doing your laundry when we were on  Sanibel Island, Florida. That white t-shirt is now a stunning shade of pink. I apologize.)  

I had a dead mouse stuck in my car’s fan/ventilation system. One hundred eighty four dollars later, the problem was solved. I could have used HELP getting that critter out of my car’s vent system. So THAT was what was making that loud whirring sound all summer when I turned on the AC. And the smell? I thought it was a pickle that fell between the crack of the diver’s seat from Sonic take-out.

What about help with a photo shoot from the tippy top of the pointed antenna-thingy, on the top of the Empire State Building? I could use help. Anyone willing to climb up with me, to help change photo lenses?

I have noticed, the phrase “May I help you”……decoded is…………………..Brendan Ben Feeney is taking photographs where he should NOT be taking photographs…………….and management wants me out! Or, management wants to move along people who they deem a threat to their operation. Silly me for intellectualizing a phrase. But I am silly. And I do intellectualize.

Back to the very chi chi grocery market in Mill Valley, California.  Was there a sign posted noting no photography? I did not see one……………..

Were there   security cameras (plural) in this particular tiny, tiny, tiny upscale market PHOTOGRAPHING ME?


But I must first roll back the tape. BEFORE being asked for help —–AKA.”Get out of here,”——– over the store’s  loud speaker system  came a voice. It was a smooth melodic voice with a very cool California accent.”Manager to aisle  one, manager to aisle one……” Why the repetition? I knew what was about to happen——— but did not run.

Like working on a movie set, the line was delivered with intensity and precision———————-“May I HELP you?”

I should have said……….’Man, I am beyond help, but I  was transparent as to what I was doing————-photographing  the beautiful olive oil bottles on the shelf.

We do not see stunning, artistic olive oil bottles back on the East Coast. Click. Click. Chick. Chick. Close up. Now an establishing shot. Click. Click. Done.

Then I personalized it. They were now HIS bottles.  HIS beautiful bottles. HIS store. HIS olive oil. I told him about color theory, symmetrical alignment, abstraction, and asymmetrical alignment…………all deep artistic elements I use in my visual artwork. And I learned my craft from many art mentors whom I dearly love as friends and colleagues. (Coffee, S & B, when I am back on Cape Cod?)

When I began discussing the interplay of light on negative space…………I think this manager was so confounded, he was about to GIVE me all the olive oil bottles on the shelf to get me the hell out of his store.   I could have been more of a pain in the keester, butI  let him deliver his company line.

He thought I was some sort of industrial spy, trying to copy the design of his tiny, tiny  tiny, tiny,grocery store, in a tiny beautiful small enclave of a town, nestled between redwood trees.  I gave him my business card, and told him to look up my work. I can only guess where that business card is now. Can you say, landfill?

If he was PC, he would have recycled it—then it would come back to me in the form of birthday card made of recycled paper.

Yet, I do have a dear friend who is of color. She says she is habituated to “May I help you………………………”

She say, she gets followed around almost every upscale store she enters.  Even “down-scale stores!”

Is this where we want to be as nation in 2010? Then she went on to tell me this has gone on for generations for her, her friends, family, and members of her church…………this “May I HELP you” line.   Translated, in her situation, I hear institutional racism. Believe me, my friend who is educated as I, and  has every right to look, linger, and shop where she pleases, yet still gets the” May I help you? treatment. AKA………………..Leave………………………….Hurry up, and get out of here……………………We are watching you……………………

I am booked for a photo shoot in California soon. Should I return to the store to snap more pictures of olive oil bottles, or should I drop it?  I need advice Blog-O-Sphere readers.

Yet there is something deeper here. Are we growing more suspicious of each other as a society? Security cameras are in every row practically at that big box store that begins with a “W” and ends with a “T.”  And in the other store that begins with a “T” and ends in a “T.”

I get gasoline. I am being filmed at the pump. Then I go to the pharmacy to get a birthday card for my father, and business manager, who turned 82 this October. I am being watched by security cameras. Oh, and the highway I often drive on outside of Boston, there are cameras on every bridge, filming each car as they pass.  Coffee anyone? Yes, I am being filmed at the 3 coffee shops I frequent. Eggs and milk?……………….I SEE MYSELF on a TV monitor, the size of Arkansas, even before I pass through  the second set of doors to begin grocery shopping.

Maybe I should ditch art photography and take up security surveillance photography.

Not an option.

Our privacy is eroding. Our life is being documented on film. Some have no problem with this.

I do.

Is this what our Founding Fathers envisioned when establishing our democracy……………to be watched and followed where ever we go?

I think not.

So next time when being filmed in a store…………practice your silly faces. The ones that your parents told you as a child that, “If you keep this up, your face will get stuck in that position—-FOR LIFE!”  (I believed my parents—and still do.)

Ask yourself today…………………..do you feel your right to privacy has eroded since you were growing up? Then ask, why? Is all this filming truly necessary?

I am not fool. Yes, we live in a Post 9/11 world……………….yet when I want to get one of those gross purple Slurpees at Cumberland Farm, that God only knows when the machine was last cleaned (1972?),  do I really want to be captured on film drinking a Slurpee?

So,…………………………May I HELP you?     Or—- maybee you cannot help me.

 Is your list of items that need attention, in your, life as long as mine?

Smile. make that goofy face. Question one’s right to privacy. Smile, again. It is good for the world—and baffles security cameras.

Brendan Ben Feeney

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