This is What’s Inspiring Me Today #2: Poet Linh Dinh, his camera, and the sidewalks of America.

This is What’s Inspiring me Today (Part 2).

Linh Dinh is obsessed with the things that everyone else turns away from. Which also happen to be the things that we stare at, hard, when we think no one else is watching. Linh Dinh is obsessed with porn and poop and fat and homelessness. With disheveled bodies and the boundaries that define what’s “unseemly” and “appropriate.” He seeks discomfort, and finds it all too easily.

In other words, he keeps his eyes open and looks.

Today, I’m inspired by his “State of the Union” photoblog, where he posts arresting snapshots from the sidewalks of cities around the country. He captures vacant lots and doorways, the people who live in them and those who pass by. Each image seems to whisper, “You walked by something similar just yesterday,” and then, “you didn’t even seem to notice.”

I first encountered Linh Dinh through his poetry—titles like “All Around what Empties Out” and “Some Kind of Cheese Orgy”—and as a writer of fiction and a translator of contemporary Vietnamese work. (I also saw him read last week as a guest of Naropa’s Summer Writing Program.) In his writing, as in his photoblog, he likes to make his audience squirm, and also laugh, and maybe widen our eyes a bit along with a sharp inhale.

Whether visual or written, his work is fascinated with the boundaries between public and personal space, the lines that divide outcasts from the accepted mainstream. That define what and who is worth noticing, and what is better by-passed.

I’m inspired by Dinh’s obvious respect for people who either refuse to or are unable to live by the norms pressed upon them—people whose personal lives lie strewn about on public sidewalks, for example, or vacant lots that are relegated to hosting piles of abandoned tires or appeals for “Three Hundred Dollar Divorces.” Offering scenes in which the people involved are often not acknowledging each other, he asks us to witness things that we might otherwise be inclined to ignore.

And suddenly we are faced with something fresh. Or at least something raw and real. Perhaps even tender-hearted. If we can see it, using our eyes without furrowing the brows above them, or slapping on a label right away.

One of the quotes that I live by (it’s pasted in large font on a stickie note on my desktop, and written in various forms throughout the notebooks that I keep) comes from Tibetan-born Buddhist meditation teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche:

Look. This is your world! You can’t not look. There is no other world.

What does it mean to open the front door (that consummate boundary between “us” and “them”) and step onto the sidewalk, approaching our world in this way?

How many of us, actually, are looking?

All photos from Linh Dinh’s “State of the Union” photoblog. You can support his project by donating or ordering a print.

6 thoughts on “This is What’s Inspiring Me Today #2: Poet Linh Dinh, his camera, and the sidewalks of America.

  1. This goes along with my work in trying to be more observant and attentive to what’s around me, beautifully done here.

  2. It is so nice that there are people who appreciate the little details of life that often go unnoticed, or the moments that are so common that we overlook the magic they contain.

  3. Why don’t we look? Why don’t we notice? Maybe because we find it hard to deal with someone’s pain, especially when our own world can be painful. The idea of looking for the beauty and the redemption in all that we see is a challenge that can be most uplifting. Thank you Merete, for making me think of it that way.

  4. “In other words, he keeps his eyes open and looks.” that is good advice, Merete. thanks for the post; these images are profound and feel comfortably familiar.

  5. I spend a lot of time looking at what’s around me, but reading this I think “Maybe I can do it even more.” It’s been a long time since I have read the Rinpoche quote, and I have stared at my computer screen for the past ten minutes just thinking about what it means. I have been making lots of committments lately and would like to add a new item to my list: noticing what’s around me. I have designated an used notebook as my “spy book” a la Harriet and plan to write down what I see in this fun city. The visuals you chose here are amazing, by the way, and make me really desire a functional camera.

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