291 spent the last four days on vacation in Lafayette, Louisiana, the biggest city in Cajun Country. Hopefully that goes some way towards explaining the lack of recent updates.
Louisiana isn’t the best place to do serious thinking about visual culture, but it still afforded me with some interesting opportunities. Saturday night I attended a cockfight, a longstanding rural tradition threatened by a recent bill that will outlaw the sport in August 2008. Louisiana is the last state to allow cockfighting, so within a year the practice will be entirely underground in the USA.
It’s funny–most of the conversations I had about my plans to see a cockfight went something like this:
Friend: Why’re you going to Louisiana?
291: To see a few more cockfights before they become illegal.
Friend: You have to take pictures!
I wasn’t about to whip out a camera at a cockfight. It’d be like wearing a sign that said “TOURIST.” Furthermore, my goal in seeing another fight was to bask in the experience of it, to get a feel for an insular community threatened by encroaching (sub?)urbanization and government-mandated homogenization. If I’d wanted pictures that really reflected the community, it would require a long-term documentary project. Bringing my camera at this point would have meant sacrificing my current experience for the sake of future presentation, seeking style and composition at the expense of understanding.
Not that the game club offered me the option. A hand-lettered banner at the entrance to the pit read NO CAMERAS OF ANY KIND ALLOWED INSIDE. When the announcer informed all spectators that any underage drinking or gambling would result in ejection from the facility, he added the same warning for any picture taking. Unlike the gambling and drinking warnings, the camera prohibition had to be repeated, this time with special emphasis on cell phones:
“The taking of pictures with camera phones is not allowed. If you are caught taking pictures with a camera phone, you will be removed from the facility and your pictures will be deleted before you leave.”
Why so defensive? To the uninitiated, it probably sounds as if the gruesome pictures that must emerge from such a place would provide eloquent testament to the brutality of this atavistic sport. In reality, though, cockfighting is surprisingly clean–the violence is relatively tame and inoffensive compared to most imagery propagated by, for instance, any major news service.
A better explanation occurred to me as I settled into my hotel room and turned on Nancy Grace later that night. Grace was holding forth on the Michael Vick case, whipping callers and commentators into a frenzy about the cruelty of dogfighting. (The allegations of animal cruelty in Vick’s case are particularly horrifying, including bizarre forms of execution for losing dogs.) Allegations aside, there’s nothing quite like Grace’s counterfactual “common sense” to throw gasoline on the fire of public controversy. In this case, she interspersed it with videos of dogfighting provided by the Humane Society. The videos weren’t actually that violent or shocking, but they served as “visual confirmation” of Grace’s otherwise abstract target. Instead of speaking for themselves, these images were illustrations, acting as a place to project emotions and ideas stirred by Grace’s contagious animosity.
This, then, is what the game club owners were afraid of. As they say, photographic images are necessarily fragments–pieces of reality that demand context and interpretation. Once an image leaves the location where it was created, it can be transformed and employed for all sorts of unintended purposes. A visual snippet from a cockfight, framed (im)properly, confirms a negative view of the sport in a way that objectively witnessing a match–a ceremony embedded in a complicated history and a dense web of socio-economic interaction–never could.