The invention of the camera gave us the ability to capture the world around us in fleeting moments of time. Then, few people could afford to own a camera and film was limited. What remains of that era are family portraits, and images of important events and political figures.
Today, cameras are widely accessible and digital features allow us to create and discard photographs with barely a thought. We take pictures of our cocktails at parties, our dogs when they fall asleep on our chest, a dandelion on the side of the road.
From one perspective, these types of photos are excessive or pointless. From another perspective, we appreciate the ability to capture the small details of life that impact us the most. In a similar way, local Austin photographer Daniel Read chose to photograph an atypical subject that mattered to him. This subject was Michael Watts, a Virginia-born cancer victim who lived homeless on the streets of Austin and passed away in a nursing home in 2009.
If you’re like me, you’ve passed by a homeless individual without a word, making no positive impact at all. But when Daniel first met Michael through Front Steps – an Austin organization that provides shelter, affordable housing and education to the homeless – he chose to care and to do something with his camera that made a difference.
The result of three months of photography and years of development is Documenting Dignity, an art exhibit about Michael Watts’ last days, on display at The Gallery at the J through June 21st.
Merely looking in from the outside, Michael’s life was fraught with hardship, and a photographer could’ve framed his series from that angle alone. However, Daniel wasn’t on the outside looking in. He was Michael’s friend, and had the unique privilege of knowing him in a deeper and more nuanced way. Don’t get me wrong: Documenting Dignity captures Michael Watts’ pain and loneliness. But it also captures Michael’s dignity and hope.
And, in the end, we’re all more nuanced than outsiders think. We’re two sides of a coin, embodied. I encourage you to visit The Gallery at the J to experience Daniel Read’s bold and compassionate exhibit, and to think about the things and people you pass by every day. Maybe you have some dignity to document yourself.
The Gallery at the J is located at the Dell Jewish Community Campus and is open seven days a week for viewing. Hours are M-F, 8 AM-8 PM; Saturday 12:30-6 PM; and Sunday 8 AM-5 PM. The Gallery at the J is home to an active exhibitional program and hosts a total of five shows a year, with a focus on local Austin artists.