My all time favorite photography work is Broken Manual, by Alec Soth.  Manual was created from 2006-2010 and explores the desire of people to escape their lives and their means of doing so.  Soth has noted that the book is “not about people who run away, but about the dream of running away.”  Contrasts are made between the childhood fantasy of escape and the realities of those who actually did.  A film, Somewhere to Disappear (you can watch the film here for $3.99), documents Soth’s work on the project.  There’s a lot of driving around, searching, solitude, frustration, and eventually the freedom to feel weightless and free enough to be carried by something, whether it’s a vision of a utopia or a sense of purpose and meaning.

The idea of running away makes me think of two stages – childhood and mid-life.  Both are socially acceptable.  Did you ever want to run away as a kid?  For me, it was likely the introduction of constraints and rules, and realizing that my life was not totally my own.  An 8pm bedtime isn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things, unless you’ve spent a few years living without such restrictions and then it becomes an attack on your freedom.  Eventually we are trained to set alarms, do well in school, get good jobs, and an 8pm bed time just becomes another fact of life.

Then you get to your 40’s (or earlier) and the facts of life become suffocating.  All the responsibility of “being an adult” – maintaining possessions, relationships and a sense of purpose is overwhelming, and your time is dwindling.  Deep down I think most people know that time is their most valuable resource, even if their actions say otherwise.  When confronted with the reality of that resource running out we feel the need to take big actions – mid life crisis sized actions.  Characteristics of the mid life crisis – a large purchase or changing your career – seem perfectly valid.  Even getting divorced, attempting to escape the obligations to another person, grows more and more accepted as time goes on.  The larger the obligations the more selfish a complete detachment from them appears.

The problem is that a few generations of people becoming more and more focused on having, being, and doing “the best” has resulted in a society where individual happiness and self worth is displayed physically and materially.  The desire to run away conjures up a picture of childlike immaturity and naivety.  It is recognized that the middle aged person has paid their dues, unlike the child who is not owed anything yet, and that everyone deserves to be happy.  When being happy for most people is being seen as successful (and for almost everybody this is a physical, visually dependent meaning) then things done in the pursuit of that happiness are not seen as completely selfish.  A lifelong pursuit of happiness (in this form) is a back and forth of acquiring obligations and then getting what one feels they are owed or deserve from meeting them.

Put Your Mask on Before Assisting the Person Next to You

Obligations that are common (going to school, getting a job, buying a house, starting a family) get lumped into the image of being an adult.  The majority of people aren’t likely to admit that they are inherently selfish creatures.  The majority of people acquire common obligations (and don’t believe they are themselves selfish), thus anyone doing it differently has to be selfish.  Sayings like “put your mask on before assisting others” and “you can’t take care of someone if you can’t even take care of yourself” cover our asses when we are being selfish.  Chances are we’ve learned that the pursuit of happiness is a human right so long as you’re pursuing the same happiness as everyone else.  It’s understood that you have to pay your dues along the way.

Maybe we start out with the idea that being free with our time is all that it takes to be happy.  If your needs are met, if you have enough, happiness is getting to do whatever you want without worry.  The reality of escaping for a child is that if they did run away how would they find food, where would they sleep, how would they live?  There are only recently introduced, minor obligations (like bed times) but no dues have been paid, there’s no way to even acquire the small amount of enough you need as a child except through your parents.

By the time you are old and strong enough to meet your own needs your definition of enough is completely different.  The common obligations are right there.  We owe a debt to our parents, to society, to the world, for allowing us to reach this point.  Adults are responsible, and responsible people pay their debts.  It’s just what they do.  How could anyone be selfish when they work so hard to repay their debts and contribute to society, thus believing that what they are doing is inherently good for the whole, and any selfish action is done to make their contributions more worthwhile?

It’s Broken

In its beginnings, [Broken Manual] was about that desire to run away, but it was never going to be a documentary of people who ran away. It was my thinking, “What is it, this desire to run away?” Then over time it’s become about the desire to run away and the knowledge that you can’t.

Fundamentally, the work is about wanting to run away. And you would say, “Why would you want to run away, Alec? You’ve got a wife, two kids, nice house.” Comfortable—what is that? I don’t know what it is, but it’s something that a lot of people have. Then you go out looking, and you see these lives. It’s something like, “Yeah, okay. You have the cave and it’s nice. You sleep with the dog, and …” But, over and over again, you do see real misery. So then you’ve witnessed the fact that, with these people, something’s broken and that more often than not, there is a real hunger to engage with me. So, if I were to really leave my life, I would desperately miss it, and people.

Alec Soth

You can’t run away as a child because you don’t have the means or ability to take care of yourself.  You can’t just uproot your life in your 40’s because you have too many obligations.  It’s a combination of the knowledge that you can’t, and not knowing how you even would.  On one end, you have the majority of “normal” people – for them, running away and starting over looks like buying a new car or getting a divorce, and spending a life balancing obligation with a search for personal happiness.  On the other end are the people in Broken Manual.  True happiness seems to elude many of them as well, even though they have already run away.

If you’re running away from something, you have to be running away to something, even if you don’t know what it is.  Ideally we would be able to run away to a place where all of our needs could be met, where we would have both the time and resources to meet those needs.  One end compensates for a lack of time by over-using their resources, the other their lack of resources is remedied with an abundance of time.  Both have holes, and neither one truly works.  Both are broken.

What needs aren’t being met in your life?  What place do you want to run away or escape to to meet those needs, if you even know.

Notes
Quote from Bartholomew Ryan’s Dismantling My Career: An Interview with Alec Soth.  Courtesy of the Walker Art Center.

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