Some edited bug photos and a new way of thinking about organized crime

by Rob Tiller

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It’s challenging to capture a convincing image of a fast-moving insect. It takes patience and also decisiveness. For these I was using a 105 mm lens with all manual settings, so I had to focus and adjust shutter speed quickly. My heart was going quickly, too – it was exciting to go after these little guys. These were shots I took late Friday afternoon at Raulston Arboretum.

It was also fun to examine the results in Photoshop Elements after the fact. To state the obvious, you can’t really see much detail in little insects with the unaided human eye. To me, it’s fantastic what you discover about these creatures with the aid of magnifying lenses and sensors. I’ve also been experimenting with improving the raw image with the Elements editing program. Typically I do some cropping and minor adjustments to the lighting and contrast. This week I decided to start working with the “expert” user interface and figured out (with help from some YouTube instructors) how to work with layers.
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Is such editing somehow dishonest? I don’t think so. A photograph is always a combination of technology and human feeling, which is to say it is never purely objective. The sensor in my Nikon D7100 is amazing (24 million pixels!), but it is not God. My own vision has its imperfections and biases both from ocular structural issues and brain processing. Yours, too. We see through a glass darkly. But if we use our best tools as well as we can, we’ll see some new things and some amazing things.
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How many of our fundamental assumptions are seriously flawed? Every so often, I get spun around when I find that an idea that I had thought was beyond question is far from it. This week in the New Yorker Malcolm Gladwell’s piece titled the Crooked Ladder, destabilized my assumptions about the Italian mafia and inner city drug gangs. I thought I knew that the mafia was a serious threat to the social order that was barely contained by virtue of strenuous law enforcement efforts. Gladwell cites scholarship indicating that the early mafia was generally less violent and lawless than the Godfather movies and journalism have led us to think. For some waves of new immigrants (including Irish and Jews), crime was a route to family stability and assimilation taken by relatively innovative community members. And it isn’t a curse on subsequent generations. On the contrary, the grandkids of mafia dons turn into ordinary suburbanites.

But Gladwell finds this pattern depended in part on societal tolerance, including relaxed policing during the liquor prohibition era. Few mafiosi went to jail. Gladwell suggests that what I always thought of as police corruption could have positive effects, in that it allows immigrants to feed their families, prosper, and gradually evolve and assimilate. But this process has not taken place for our inner city drug gangs. Instead, intense policing has resulted in mass incarceration at a terrible human cost.

Gladwell relies primarily on a new book titled On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City, by Alice Goffman. Goffman was an undergraduate at University of Pennsylvania when she began tutoring a Black student in a rough Philadelphia neighborhood she calls 6th Street. She eventually spent several years living in the neighborhood and getting to know the young men who survived as minor league criminals, as well as their girlfriends, moms, and others. The young men generally had spent time in juvenile detention, jail, or prison, and were often on the run from the police for such wrongs as nonpayment of $173 in court costs or minor parole violations. They were constantly the targets of police harassment. It is no exaggeration to say they lived in a police state.

After I finished Gladwell’s article, I downloaded Goffman’s book and quickly read the first couple of chapters. It is vivid and hair-raising. It puts a human face on the urgent need to end the war on drugs, and more generally address the problem of overly severe policing and penal policies. Goffman illuminates a world that few middle-class white Americans have ever seen close up, or even learned about through books or newspapers. It seems particularly timely and important after the racial conflict this week in Ferguson, Missouri.