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Seeing people as people, nothing else - Daniel Silliman

The man is scratching his head.

Drawn as a few simple shapes, a few bold lines, the man is seen from behind. He's seen simply and individually, standing there and scratching his head. His hair is a little scraggly, down over his collar, and his short-sleeve shirt sags a little over the small of his back.

The man is drawing number 42 in Jason Polan's art project: "Every Person in New York." Since late March, Polan has been drawing people on subways, in fast food restaurants and on streets, spending a couple of minutes on each sketch. In drawing number 52, a woman in a skirt stands under an umbrella. In drawing number 26, a person reads a book at a table.

In describing "Every Person in New York," which is in progress at www.everypersoninnewyork.blogspot.com, some commentators kind of chuckled at the ridiculously wide scope of the project. Some said, knowingly and condescendingly, that, of course, Polan isn't serious and doesn't really mean he'll draw every single one of the people who populate the most densely populated city in the United States.

Maybe he doesn't. I don't know what Polan intends to do, beyond the few words he wrote on his web site, but looking at his first 60 drawings of the more than 8.2 million people in the city of New York, I can see he is counting people as individuals.

This, in fact, is the most shocking thing about the project: He's drawing people as individuals, drawing people one at a time, drawing people who are, in their individuality, nothing more than themselves. It's unsettling. They're not black, not white, not smart, not dumb, not good and not bad, and I can't tell if they pray or who they would pray to, if they prayed. They're not rich and not poor, not American and not foreign, not beautiful and not ugly, and I don't know who they're voting for.

With just lines, in a series of simple sketches, these people are just people. Nothing else.

Polan writes, as if they're all his closest friends, "When the project is completed we will all have a get together."

For some of these people in these two-minute drawings, this is probably the first time they've ever been treated like this, as individuals, distinct from any class or category. Maybe some of them have had that sort of attention, where they were treated as themselves and nothing else, maybe by a mother or a teacher, a lover or a preacher. But that's not true for most of us, most of the time.

A great Jewish theologian once said the problem with theology is that it always talks about God like God is a thing. Theology, he said, talks about God like God is something you could call "it," instead of talking about God like you're talking to God, talking like you're talking about a "you."

He said, too, this also is the point of ethics: People aren't things, and shouldn't be dealt with as anything but individual people.

It sounds, when the Jewish theologian says it, like nobody could ever really have that problem. I mean, maybe communist dictators and serial killers have that kind of trouble, where they treat people the same way they treat things, but they're sick.

When I see Polan's drawings, though -- where there's this empty space totally protecting these people from everything else -- and I remember politicians debating the preferences of poor, rural, white people, think about preachers preaching about the separation between the elect and the damned, then I remember the way I recently dismissed someone as "just another uptight perfectionist."

I think Polan's pictures might be moral monuments to truly seeing people, stripping people of all the interpretations I normally give them to make their individuality less piercing. As I look at them, and then look at them again, I have to say I hope God sees me like this artist sees the people of New York.

Daniel Silliman covers crime for the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached at (770) 478-5753, ext. 254, or via e-mail at dsilliman@news-daily.com.