Thoughts and Actions in Sociable Dystancopia Ed. 2

Extolling the virtues of a sanctioned general strike, aka the stay-at-home order

Edition 2: Community

suburban street art rainbow fence covid-19

Suburban street art during COVID-19 stay home order.

COVID-19 pushed us inside. The retreat indoors gave us space to consider how we want to live, when outside. By this I don’t mean when to go on a daily walk, or if to wear a mask. Both important, of course. What I mean is, what kind of world do we want to live in?

Do we want a rigid hierarchy that satisfies only our R-complex need for ritual? How much longer do we concede to the tyranny of left-brain dominance? What will organization mean, and will it be nodal?

So with time on my hands, I figured the best way to explore these ideas was to get involved with my own community. There would be plenty of hours available for reading, and exploring theoretical frameworks. But actual practice was necessary.

HOAs: Organized WTFs? and thus brilliant tutors

Our small association is self-managed by resident volunteers and an elected board. Sometimes we answer to the county or state. Mostly we’re left alone to our own affairs. The city is irrelevant here.

In many ways, it’s ideal. Secluded, but connected. Quiet, yet sociable enough. There are clear boundaries. Privacy respected, but nobody can do whatever they want to the common area.

This all works very well, until our landscaper decides to cut-back shrubs. Then all hell breaks loose. In other words, our common grounds matter. So I volunteered to be the landscape committee chair.

Somebody has to pay for this sh*t, but what if… ?

And nobody wants to pay. People do, of course, or the whole thing will break given its dependence on the legacy system. But I do wonder, if that system collapsed, could the neighborhood adapt?

If alternative systems for living were necessary here, what would the bottom-up be? Would people bother to organize? A stigmergy, of sorts? Or would the board attempt to govern, as before?

Presupposing community survival, my guess is the board would be ineffectual. Organizing would be outcompeted by disinterest, something the board contends with now. If by-laws are unenforceable, then it’s as good as a law repealed.

Building-by-building coalitions would tend to their own. It would be patchwork. Stigmergy. Fractal, and in that way, micro-localist.

Landscape would be managed differently, I suppose. But also a source of potential conflict, since it’s the glue that binds us.

I say this because that’s almost how it is now. By-laws and the power of the board to levy dues and spend is tolerated. But it’s not loved or always regarded as necessary for everything.

“Why should I pay to water their green space over there?” Well, it’s community green space. That’s why. Then again, perception and reality are fickle things.

Recency bias and the empire of your daily bread

So the question then becomes why does its governance continue in this way?

Simple explanations: State and federal law backs it. It’s a familiar order. Plus our food and money comes from elsewhere. Wage labor or fixed income, usually. There are dependencies and liabilities.

Why should anyone sympathize with a resident who dislikes the organization here… but moved here knowing the association comes with its own legal and social contract?

No sympathy, is one reaction. They can exit the community, if they want. And this is of course true. Cold, yes. But without a doubt a legal truth and not altogether immoral. It is, in most cases, a peaceful solution for the intractable.

But then an eyebrow raises.

What if because of forces beyond the territorial area, exit isn’t simple? Particularly in an interconnected world, growing in complexity. And during a time of historic transition to a new economic age. Now compounded by a pandemic, high unemployment, and civic unrest.

Beyond the scope of association by-laws to grapple with? Maybe. But not an irrational concern, if the intention is long-term community survival.

Individual lessons learned by committee

There is that word again, “committee”. In a reputational order, they are not immune from 2-star reviews. They can be everything that grates you about group indecision. When decisive, it’s sometimes oppressive.

Nonetheless, if kept in check and in proportion to the size of task and community, they can be a useful guide for elected decision makers. In other words, don’t ask a committee to work out a plan for something over-scaled. This will lead to another committee, which will lead to… yeah, you get it.

So, in the context of small associations, it can work. But it’s people, after all, and people can be strange. So it depends. Who is it? matters as much as budget does.

What I learned as landscape committee chair, and what you can take from it

1. My Way or Highway style doesn’t work.

Consensus is necessary, somehow. If it’s not there then don’t bother calling for a vote, unless required. Because if you do without understanding, regardless of outcome, there will be resentment. All voices heard. Discussion is a must.

2. Ad-hoc communication at meetings is asking for chaos.

Clear guidelines for discussion, virtual or in-person, are necessary. Boundaries must be set. Time respected.

3. Elected decision makers such as a HOA board, should be kept at arms length. But you do need them, because decisions.

You cannot block association members from a committee meeting, unless threatening or disruptive. But if any board member other than a liaison is active, the committee is no longer bottom-up. Instead it’s tool for a top-down agenda and the feedback loop is fake. Again, clear boundaries must be set.

4. Decision makers must be compatible with the bottom-up recommendations of a committee.

Not everything will be possible during your term, but decision makers must be open to the input. They must value what your committee is about. If not, it’s a pointless exercise.

If decision makers show a passive disinterest in your purpose, then reconsider involvement. Because you won’t get much done.

5. Don’t let it become a vanity project or crusade.

If there is board disinterest or disrespect and this is clear by their actions (spending), then be honest and ask yourself, what can you achieve?

If they’re imbeciles or in bad faith, no-confidence will come their way. Don’t go down with their ship.

6. Relevant information must be disclosed, especially if you’re asked for a concession.

If a board won’t won’t disclose pertinent info, it’s deceptive leadership. You must exit, in this case.

7. Mind your reputation, especially upon exit.

Unless you relocate, you’ll still be a member of the community. You’re a neighbor and possibly a friend. So be gracious to the people who deserve it, when in-group or upon exit.

But the entire neighborhood does not rest on your shoulders. Everyone is not your friend or ally. Don’t try to be Atlas. Figurative exit is a strategy. Come back, if you want to, when the tide has turned.

These are more effective checks on power in small communities, even if voter turnout is low. Knowing where the HOA board chair lives is symmetrical. Nobody can hide, when everyone is in plain sight.

What is great about an open community

Neighborhoods like mine are a challenge. Commons of any sort always are. None of it will ever be perfect. But if there is a modicum of social cohesion and buy-in, it can function well enough, providing a nice place to live.

People know or recognize each other. So even if at odds over something, they’ll look out for the neighborhood. This is its only perimeter defense, that avoids overpolicing or dangerous inter-rivalry.

The goal is for people to be part of a social graph, and also be who they want to be. Petty tyranny is limited to garden aesthetics, and even then, it’s only an opinion.

Kids can play and seniors can walk their dogs, without fear or unfounded suspicion. Neighbors share food or tools. People chat while working on their car. Pedestrians wave. Drivers slow down… most of them, anyway. Wildlife feels comfortable being around, too, and provide a soothing daily bird song.

People keep to a safe distance and wear a mask during a pandemic, but remain sociable.

In other words, it’s an imperfect but livable place for the living.

Being an active part of said community governance comes with responsibility and above all else, to do no harm.

What does this have to do with photography?


Unless you’re tired of losing money being a lone wolf, in a long tail scheme… or sick of playing a zero sum popularity game, that few people randomly “win”… or frustrated with an obsolete business model, as if people want or need your supply-push.

In a networked age of digital and localist commons, rethink photography systems and practice. Your community can be a guide of how or how-not to go about this.

Is There Such a Thing as Folk Photography?

We have folk music and folklore. I’m of the opinion folk photography does exist.

The family member, professional or not, who happens to be pretty good with a camera and enjoys shooting photos at the family get-together.

A small town photographer, with truly good skills, who is content to one day be somebody who helps build a church and another day shoots photos of the local basketball team.

The moonlighting part-timer, who works full-time elsewhere, working an occasional job on weekends because someone on Facebook liked a posted photo.

A photographer who just enjoys shooting, whenever and wherever possible, and sometimes includes community events in the body-of-work.

To me, what these all have in common is a sense of locality and individualistic styles. It’s folk photography.

You sure about that, smart guy?

It may not seem so now, with the emergence of standardized digital networks blending what is local with national and global distribution.

It could also be dismissed as sentimental, perhaps, because anyone can now point-and-shoot with an expensive camera and record a clean image. This includes people with the much heralded “photo pass”, quickly becoming a redundancy and cynical method-of-exclusion used by the less talented, in my opinion.

Nonetheless, when viewed contextually photography is still very much folksy. Same as ever. Photography has always been good in this way, and has traditionally been a private or public expression of middle-class culture.

The challenge now for folk photographers of different stripes and market locales is how it leads to a reasonably good middle-class living?

For decades, the offshoots of folk photography into the marketplace was photojournalism – now dying or morphing into full-time stock photography (which for many is too inconsistent) – portraiture, and maybe wedding photography.

So what now? A few questions.

With one traditional path to middle-class business closing off in photojournalism, what is left?

Are we all supposed to just open retail portrait studios with large overhead, and pin our hopes on a low price/high volume model where quality and creativity is often lacking? Not all want to live in a photo booth and have a relationship-less customer base.

Wedding photography? This is very much a full-time business and occupation in order to do exceptionally well. It’s akin to being a wedding planner. In my opinion, you also have to really love weddings and see the couple in a truly positive way. This does not fit all folk photographers, even those who do the occasional shotgun wedding.

Are photographers who got their start on the folksy side of things – I believe this is the case with most – all supposed to get into corporate and high-end commercial photography? The money can be large, certainly, but investment risk much higher.

Or are they to chase around local jobs with small business? The danger here is pricing too low and being stuck in a day labor cycle sometimes placating customers with gimmicks, which is an unfortunate by-product of folk photography as well. The other challenge is pricing competitively to actually cover CODB, usage rights, and to profit. But the risk then is not getting as much work, because of pricing.

Should folk photographers settle for amateur status – albeit still costly in dollars and time spent – and just be satisfied with Instagram likes or photo credit? In this situation, everyone is making money except the photographer.

The Answers

I don’t have them. I do think photographers will have to get creative with their business and treat plans as a living document.

Most of the questions I wrote above are generally nothing new. They go back decades in photography. It has never been an easy business.

But despite what might seem old hat by now, we’re still entering into new and uncharted territory in regards to economic and contextual dynamics. Paths to middle-class stability and dignity are not so linear anymore. However, in many ways, it’s easier to be seen.

I think it’s great that many people are into photography. Folk photography is a cultural tradition and legacy, a very good part of who we are. It’s where my background in photography starts, and part of why I still do it. I see it as a bedrock.

Folk Business

I’m of the idea, however, that folk photographers with good skills should view their work as a business – “pro” or amateur. Whether there is profit motive initially matters little because there is always cost in terms of time and money spent. And gear is not getting any cheaper.

There is also the cost of cause and effect and what individual action has on the photography marketplace and the wider photography community, professional or amateur.

Photography, in my opinion, is partly about exploring the broader arcs in our own worlds and locale. The arc needs to start including the business of photography, particularly as it relates to community along with an honest accounting of personhood. The future of folk photography depends on it.