Two Inadequate Voices


2IV is a platform for image-makers to recount and reflect textually on their stories of being out in the world whilst photographing.

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Shane Rocheleau
The Reflection in the Pool

At the outset of what would become The Reflection in the Pool – a book primarily about homelessness – I knew that most of us expend more energy finding ways to not look at the homeless. Even now, I sometimes still reflexively look away. Passing the same homeless men each day, I began asking myself, what would it look like to truly empathize? I realized that my own indifferent, ignorant behavior dehumanized and othered those suffering this social evil. The Reflection in the Pool is my attempt to reverse this behavior. I see active empathy as a road map to solving larger problems in my own life and, perhaps, in the divisive cultural lives of the American citizenry writ large. In setting out to make the work, I finally acted. These men were, quite literally, my neighbors, after all. They lived in tents three blocks from my comfortable apartment. One day, I parked my car near where they congregated, walked up to the group, and said “Hey”.

It took me more than a month to make my first photograph. I did not want to parachute in then parachute out. Further, I wanted to show something more unresolved and complex, not merely the cliché of the homeless man on the street- corner flying a desperate sign, face hollowed and emotionless.

When I did begin photographing, I took great care to make work that granted each man his dignity and humanity. But to do this I needed to unlearn and relearn a whole lot. Most poignantly and surprisingly, I misunderstood the very thing that brought me to this work: Empathy.

Merely imagining myself in another’s shoes, it turns out, can be a distinctly solipsistic, limited, objectifying form of empathy. No one responds like anyone else. I learned about each of these men by allowing them to show me and teach me, by having relationships and accepting difference. My imagination isn’t powerful enough to conceive of the range and complexity of each man’s experiences as homeless — nor, more fully, as human; I learned that real empathy requires that I acknowledge this deficit of my imagination and accept that I can’t fully or truly understand. Otherwise, I default to stereotypes, black and white thinking, and — most dangerously — righteousness.

A homeless man named David Harryman wrote what follows. He emailed me this text following a long conversation we had about the meaning of the Narcissus myth and its relationship to empathy.

When Narcissus becomes enamored of his reflection in the pool, I wonder whether there isn’t another depth in addition to that expressed by you. I believe the ingredients of the human condition & experience include each emotion, moral value and judgment made. It seems very much like the proverbial coin with opposite and opposing sides, one up; one down.

The gist seems like that in The Portrait of Dorian Gray, where his physical beauty was more truly reflected by the portrait hidden in the attic revealing the ugliness of his evil and unnatural life. Dorian’s beauty was the heads, while his true nature was the tails of the coin lying hidden from sight underneath. Narcissus’ reflection in the pool being the opposite of society’s assessment of his physical appearance, the true aspect of his shallow, flawed sense of self might be found in the pool.

This conjecture seems to parallel my experience of different people in their reaction to my homeless condition. Some people seem to be altogether empathetic and concerned about my safety and well-being. Am I hungry, am I warm; do I need anything? Others seem altogether disgusted by my condition; fearful even, avoiding any contact, at times complaining to management or police in an attempt to rid their environ of people like me. I sully their own perception of who they are and how they live. The former feel they couldn’t be kind enough. The latter seem to feel they couldn’t be cruel enough.

Narcissus had already adopted society’s lie concerning him before ever having beheld his reflection. The illusive image both attracted and repulsed him, driving his fragile being to destruction. He plunged into the pool and drown rather than to suffer his attraction to the image but unable to grasp and possess what he saw and felt.

The lie I see in societal reaction to my homelessness appears to be that people’s individual responses in any way reflect me—my true inner self. I’m under no illusion that the reaction of others is of any real consequence or importance concerning whom I know myself to be.

Of the two characteristics I’ve observed, neither type reflects me in anyway. Rather, their reactions reflect themselves, revealing something about their inner being. Those who are kind might feel guilty before God about some perceived omission in their own lives. Maybe this person neglected to fully tithe his income last Sunday in church. My circumstance affords opportunity for him to remedy his omission—a sort of second chance. He is able to satisfy his perceived obligation before God by placing his due in my hand. He buys off his guilt by paying his obligation to me.

Those who react in cruelty might suffer in their own sense of self; low self esteem and uncertainty as to their own value. I elicit their insecurity about themselves, and they shun the vision. Their reaction in no way reflects me or has anything to do with me. It reflects their own perception concerning their own failings and doubts. They have to be better than me. It is imperative not to peer into my mirror as a matter of self defense. “Don’t shoot, I’m already wounded,” they seem to say. They are not cruel to me; they are cruel to themselves.

I am not Narcissus—they are. I am simply the reflection in the pool that can’t be grasped.

Shane Rocheleau was born in Falmouth, Massachusetts in 1977. He received a BA (1999) in Psychology and English from St. Michael’s College in Vermont, and an MFA (2007) in Photography and Film from Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). Rocheleau has exhibited in the United States, Spain, Russia, Brazil, Australia, Ukraine, The United Kingdom, India, and Germany. He has been featured in several online and print publications, including Aperture’s The PhotoBook Review, The Heavy Collective, Paper Journal, Lensculture, and Humble Arts Foundation. His two photobooks were published by Gnomic Book. You Are Masters Of The Fish And Birds And All The Animals (YAMOTFABAATA) was published in 2018, and The Reflection In The Pool was published in 2019. His third photobook, Lakeside, is slated for publication by Gnomic Book in 2021. He currently lives and works in Richmond, Virginia.