Sunday, December 14, 2008

Alices in Wonderland: Thoughts on Narrative Discovery, Getting Lost, and Where to Find the Rabbit Hole

The changes to journalism in the digital age involve not just questions of economic compensation, technological innovation regarding new methods of delivery as well as new forms of presentation, and the redefinition of our practice as newsgatherers (will we cull still images from life or a video stream, will we combine the offices of writer and photographer? etc). They also impose upon us the obligation to review the role that narrative plays in our endeavors and decide on what sort of narratives serve our purposes best, how new media can shape those narratives, and what our narrative traditions have to offer us, both in terms of orienting us as well as providing clues to the type of content we wish to purvey. While we ponder the brave new world of clicking and linking, we also have to reflect on first principles, so it behooves us to consider the basic functions of narrative in general. It turns out there are important reasons for doing so.

Since the advent of new social theory in the late 50s and onwards, which also spilled over into literary theory as a result of the focus on language and semiotics, theorists and critics have shifted focus from traditional social determinants (economic and political factors) to the ideological function of narrative both in its capacity to foment and confirm key social values and also its use as a kind of social glue, reconciling contradictions that might otherwise tear a society apart (of course, what theorists have tended to overlook is the capacity of avant garde narratives to create new values. More on this later.)

Ever since Levi-Strauss’s famous formulation regarding the ideologically conservative function of mythic narrative, these theorists have examined the key role that storytelling plays in a culture, how it forms the ground of our being. The basic principle is that “mythical thought always progresses from the awareness of opposition toward their resolution”. Levi-Strauss analyzed the Oedipus myth, but there are many basic myths that fit the paradigm. Take, for example, the story of Adam and Eve. The bible makes it quite clear that incest is taboo; yet, if we are to accept this account of creation on the surface, it would appear that humanity is the product of incest, that society could not have arisen if it were not for incest. So human society is the bearer of a dirty secret, an “original sin,” a fundamental flaw that must be repressed or expunged. The narrative posits an ethical dilemma that seeks resolution: on the one hand, the need to privilege one human strand over all others, one tribe, the chosen people. Thus there is need to demonstrate its “noble” lineage, which must remain pure and intact, going back to an original creation. On the other hand, there is the need to admit differences between the various tribes, the fact that they are not all the same either in value or in substance, and that if it were not so, then all of humanity would be damned and civilization would be inherently evil. The contradiction is resolved via the narrative that is spun through the Book of Genesis, and I will spare you the literary analysis; the point, however, is that the narrative is busily at work performing a valuable ideological service to society.

The strength of Levi-Strauss’s argument stems from his recognition that the content of the narrative is only half the equation; the other and more crucial half consists in its form. That is, it doesn’t matter whether any particular story overtly emphasizes a certain set of heroic values, as in Mel Gibson’s mawkish We Were Soldiers, a film that extols the virtues of family, comradery, plain talk, and “honest feeling” to the point of making you want to choke on your apple pie. What matters is that it participates in a generic family of narratives that are structured in such a way as to formulate heroic behavior in a particular mold. Think for just a few moments on how romantic love and marriage are “structured” by the many stories that surround each of us from a very early age: princesses saved by princes, outside threats annihilated (and usually figured as ugly, lustful, and somehow unnatural or unwholesome), marriage/kingdom and children/subjects all wedded together in a finale that slips the noose of Time, thus intimating the superiority of the arrangement, its everlasting value. How many stories participate in this basic structure, from the Grimm brothers to Disney? Such stories create expectations in its listeners and tap into emotional reservoirs in order to elicit an almost Pavlovian response that gets channeled along very strict lines. You are made to desire a certain end and will follow a specific path to achieve it. The power of its hold on us is considerable. I remember vividly the reaction that a professor of mine had while we sat in a theater and watched Spielberg’s E.T. He wept. This was a highly respected professor of art and literature, a connoisseur who made a living on the side advising wealthy patrons of art, and a man of consummate culture and critical understanding. He was a Cambridge gentleman. And he wept at the sight of a silly plastic extraterrestrial doll fashioned out of the emotionally retarded imagination of an overrated Hollywood director. I myself cry ever time I see the Alistair Sim version of Dickens’s Christmas Carol. When Tiny Tim comes out with that “god bless us everyone” I can’t control it.

And that is the thing, it begins at a very early age, long before we develop the critical faculties to analyze the stories, question the values, and alter our behavior. These are what we now call Meta Narratives, narratives so firmly entrenched in our consciousness, with forms so fundamental, that we are not even aware of their existence. Because as Louis Althusser argued, ideology is unconscious. First we absorb rudimentary narratives such as the taunts of children: “Tom and Nancy sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G. First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in a baby carriage.” These establish the basic terms with almost mathematical precision: A meets B creates C. As we get older the theme grows with us. It gets developed in pop music: “ Love and marriage, love and marriage, go together like a horse and carriage,” sung by Frankie Sinatra no less. And of course it reaches its narrative zenith in soap operas, musicals, novels and other more sophisticated cultural forms. Such narratives train us to be good bourgeois citizens: to subordinate or subsume the potentially threatening or extravagant drives of sexual love to the demands of middle class family life focused on the production of more good citizens to keep the marketplace going and stoke consumerism, which in a sense is a passive mode of pleasure seeking and functions as a kind of perverse, inauthentic, or parodic aestheticism. False perceptions, false realities.

What we are talking about is plot rather than theme, and as Aristotle realized, its social or cultural power is peremptory, and that is why he placed so much emphasis on the aesthetic realm. He considered art more valuable intellectually than history, though the former is fiction and the latter putatively “true.” The story neednt overtly extol the virtues it secretly desires to impress on the audience. The theme and the plot could work against one another, as they do in the Mel Gibson film. This is the worst type of ideological condescension and subterfuge. While the film broaches themes that would appear to be egalitarian, multicultural and broadly humane (extensive scenes are given over to the enemy’s viewpoint and stress their humanity), the plot surreptitiously reinforces its basically conservative and Americo-centric value system. The enemy is depicted as “normal” and “human” insofar at they evince American behavior traits, and in the end the American way wins. The plot, at bottom, is a competition in which the “best man wins” – a metanarrative at the very core of the American value system.

Of course, as I hinted above, there are narratives that probe and question and create new values. And even while these also operate more or less along the same lines as the mythic structure that Levi-Strauss analyzes (plots, after all, must reach a “resolution”), the outcome need not be conservative. It can break chains as well as forge them. There are narratives that invite you to discover and learn, just as there are narratives that merely plump up the pillows under the fat asses of couch potatoes. There are narratives that reassure or console, and there are narratives that leave you hanging, or that leave you with questions rather than answers. And while both types make use of similar motifs very often (compare Disney’s Sinbad with Homer’s Odyssey), those motifs or methods as they appear in narratives of discovery may provide us with a key to understanding why narrative pleasure is so powerful and how we might harness it for the purposes of journalistic communication.

I cannot speak for others, though I am curious to know what early narratives grabbed hold of you – for me it was any narrative built on this motif of discovery and escape: James and the Giant Peach, Alice in Wonderland (or Through the Looking Glass), the Narnia tales, the Ring trilogy, The Phantom Tollbooth, many of the Grimm fairy tales (darker than the Hans Christian Andersen set), Exodus, Stuart Little, The Odyssey, and a host of others. I have noticed that my six year old daughter likes to watch Discovery Kids and Dora la exploradora on TV and also that most of the childrens literature I buy for her (or my mother sends on down) generally makes use of the motif of journey and discovery. It may well be the most basic narrative motif of all. And I suspect that its raison d’ être consists in the fact that discovery and intellectual curiosity compose a drive every bit as exigent as the death or sex drive.

Which started me thinking about what we do as journalists and what characterizes the genre in which we work (whether it be imagery or text is immaterial actually). Journalism is historiographic, for example: it seeks to be the paper of record, the evidentiary testimony. Journalism is also educational: it seeks to analyse the meaning of the events it reports. And journalism is certainly didactic; that is, it has a moral function within the culture. It is very much concerned with how we live and with assessing that way of life. In a sense journalism is journey of discovery and enlightenment, an exploration certainly, an adventure. It travels the world in search of meaning. It seeks to make sense of things. So, logically, we must look to journalism to provide us with the same, or some, measure of excitement inherent in narratives of discovery and exploration.

And one of the peculiar features of this type of narrative is its ironical emphasis on getting lost – and found again (like Dorothy repeating the mantra, there is no place like home) – which is more than just a convenient plot device intended to get the story rolling (of course, you have to go down the rabbit hole in order to begin the journey). It is also a state of being that implies as well a state of reading or comprehension which in turn bears consequences for how we think about the process of understanding itself. If we reflect on these principles we may well learn how better to fashion our journalistic narratives in order to tantalize our readers as well as inform them. The importance of loss is that it is a prerequisite to recovering one’s bearings, it constitutes an ideological reorientation. One must shed one’s prejudices and presuppositions in order to prepare to receive real knowledge. It is a twist on the Socratic tradition. The dialectic is designed to refute doxa or “opinion.” Alice is forced, largely through the devices of nonsense literature, to question her assumptions about reality, discard orthodox notions, and reinvent herself. It is an old old trick, best exemplified by Christ’s use of parables in the Gospels. His whole assault on the establishment amounts to confounding the pharisees and their literal understanding of their own history. He challenges them to rethink the meaning of what they do through posing ostensibly impossible conundrums that don’t appear to make sense. Stick a hookah in his mouth, and he is really no different than Alice’s caterpillar. Add an impish smile, and you’ve got a Cheshire cat.

Anyone who has read Proust knows that the “longueurs” induced by his hypnotic and ostensibly rambling sentences were considered by the author to be a strength of his style rather than a debility; that is, the boredom they sometimes induce was intentional because they free your mind, they allow you to drift and daydream and escape control to some extent. The pleasure derived from getting lost in a narrative, from becoming absorbed into it, is the secret of narrative power. It is a wonderful paradox: loss is gain, lost is found, aimless direction is purposeful, and wandering is wisdom. It is the exact opposite of bourgeois thinking – what are you taught in college? Choose a track (major) and stick to it. Attend class, hit the books, keep your eyes on the prize, and follow all the prescribed steps that lead you to the ultimate goal, a well paying job.

OK, let me drop down from the theoretical stratosphere for a moment and plant my feet where every photographer ought to be, right on the ground. Forget literature for a moment. Listen to what Alex Webb has to say about taking pictures:

I only know how to approach a place by walking. For what does a street photographer do but walk and watch and wait and talk, and then watch and wait some more, trying to remain confident that the unexpected, the unknown, or the secret heart of the known awaits just around the corner. And so I began that first morning by walking into crumbling, tattered Port-au-Prince. The roiling, boisterous street scene of hawkers, beggars, and money changers, timeless and familiar, engulfed me. . . . (Introduction, Under a Grudging Sun.)

Engulfment in the experience, walking willy nilly, getting lost and wandering without direction, and all the time waiting to discover, to intuit, to learn – and to keep going. For one of the things that tickles me about that book is the Haitian epigraph that Webb attaches: dèyè morne gainyain morne (beyond the mountains there are more mountains). Which hints not only at the trials and tribulations we face, but the desire that the journey never end, that we continue to traverse the mountains and get lost in them.

Such a different experience from what we find in the newsroom, which is all about deadlines, speed, straight lines connecting A to B to create C. And of course it has to be. But let’s not forget that within that institution there is still some room to maneuver, there is still some time for dawdling and reflection. As Josh Korr of Publish2 reminds us, the choices are not quite so stark. We neednt resign ourselves to a choice between, as he puts it, the “curly fries” of nude Britney content and the limp “broccoli” of intellectually fortifying content; instead we can have that broccoli cooked up with a “crispy Thai chicken . . . and red pepper in chili jam sauce.” While the newspapers may report on the bare bones of a particular event, or worse report on nothing at all and provide mere “filler”, there are magazines like the New Republic, the Atlantic, the Nation, or webzines like Slate, which provide articles with more meat so we can better understand the meaning of that event. And of course, via linkage, the various elements can all be brought together in one place so as to provide a smorgasbord of information rather than a diet of bread and water. Narrative comprehensiveness can be furnished not only by beefing up individual narratives but also by bringing various narratives into relation with one another, in a kind of web mosaic.

That is one solution. People love to click or surf the web. Clicking, linking, is the equivalent of Alice’s little bottle that asks, Drink Me. One slug and you are translated to another realm of being. That potential for discovery, loss, transformation and wonder is kept alive by clicking on links.

What Korr has in mind is certainly a viable possibility and could easily be incorporated into the media’s MO. What I have in mind is something different and less likely to function under institutional direction, but could certainly align itself with institutional initiatives of various sorts via linkage. It is a bit like a pilot fish attaching itself to a great white shark. While the great white commands everyone’s attention, the pilot fish can reap the benefits by riding alongside for a while. If, for example, CNN were to run a story that I was covering too in my own way, then the trick would be to divert some of the visitors of their site over to mine. If established media were to adopt Korr’s suggestions and provide a plethora of links, then it might be possible to negotiate with them and have them directly link to your own. Of course, you can already link from your site to theirs, and getting your own site out there in the public eye is merely a matter of setting up the metadata so as to encourage Google’s creepy crawlies to register the site and push it toward the head of the search list.

That is another solution. But there are also solutions inherent in the forms we choose to present the material we wish to communicate. We need to explore different types of website construction and push html, flash and other softwares to their limits to see what we can come up with in terms of presenting solid material in new ways. The problem with so many news sites and blogs is that they are content to provide the same old tabloid style layout and add in a dash of linkage for seasoning. Instead we should approach the canvas like a mad collagist, break up the old plates and throw ‘em in there too.

Current innovation is largely subsumed under the category of journalism as film, as a cinematic experience. This manifests itself as a variety of multimedia forms that assemble oral history and other soundtrack material along with what are basically slideshows of still images, though occasionally we get a more kinetic result with the addition of video or attempts to move in and around the still imagery a la Burns. The leading exponents of this trend are, of course, MediaStorm and Magnum in Motion, the latter of which has just produced an unusual website that presents the results of Jonas Bendikson’s documentary project on modern slums, the Places We Live.

While I looked over Jonas’s elegant and concise multimedia site, it occurred to me that it performs its function with remarkable facility and style. It is supremely adapted to the viewing habits of browsers too, it flies along without sacrificing any of its gravity, it keeps you riveted but it doesn’t drag, doesn’t overload. It is important, experimentally speaking, because it marks a very deft adaptation of the protocols of journalism to the exigencies of webstreaming and surfing. It also incorporates a certain amount of “play,” a dimension of learning that we cannot afford to overlook when we put these things together. And like any decent experiment, it raises lots of good questions not only about its primary theme but also about the form and its potential, which can stimulate more innovation.

The motif of the closed room at the end of each string that a viewer travels, which allows you to revolve 360 degrees while the inhabitants of the room narrate their stories, is not just an innovative means of presenting oral history, which is one of the vaunted advantages of multimedia presentations, but serves as an interesting metaphor of the project as a whole. Traveling around the site is very much like entering the rabbit hole and ending up in the small room at the end of the tunnel with no way out, until you drink from the little bottle that promises to transform your being, (in this case, your thinking about people who live in the world’s slums).

But despite the packaging, the basic narrative is still very much traditionally journalistic: it moves from a general statistical background to the human interest story at its core. You are given information about a city at the head of each journey, a sort of data-map to accompany the geographic one, and then you meet different families to get their stories, their points of view regarding the conditions under which they are forced to live. And you don’t just hear them – you are right there in the room with them, so there is a virtual reality brought to the encounter that significantly amplifies the experience. This in turn humanizes the story, as they say in the biz, it provides the emotional and rhetorical content that brings life to statistics and forges a connection, a sympathetic rapport between the viewer and the subjects. That connection can be a very powerful tool for change.

But other facets of this fascinating issue – which I happen to believe is one of the most important facing us, that is the issue of development, urbanization, and population displacement – are left out of this engaging picture, so many of its crucial explanatory features are ultimately missing and a complete understanding of this phenomenon is not possible via this site. What is the history of this movement? What are its antecedent features and causes? To what extent and why is this phenomenon a feature of post-colonial societies? Why is this a problem of the Third World, as it appears to be on the site, and not the First World – or is it? (in fact it was, in a somewhat different form – this was a dominant theme of the European 19th century, as a result of industrialization, so in order to understand this phenomenon, we also need to investigate the workings of global capital and development in the past as well as our own time.) What are the consequences of such population movements and concentrations? What are the environmental, economic, political and cultural consequences? Not that any site could achieve such completion or be an encyclopedia unto itself. But these are all questions traditionally subsumed under journalism when it sets about investigating larger themes, they are not outside our conventional framework, so we should not hestitate to broach them.

Therefore, the question arises, at least for speculation’s sake – why shouldn’t we expand our discursive territory even while we expand our aesthetic plane, and thereby provide more and different types of material (information as we say nowadays)? Why shouldn’t we cross boundaries and combine disciplines and create truly polyphonal sites? Why should the idea of giving voice to a multitude of people be limited merely to reproducing oral histories? Why shouldn’t we conceive of the site as a kind of library with an overarching theme, a place where a variety of readers will find a variety of content that not only caters to each one’s need but also seeks to pull it all together, to make sense of it all, to find you while you wander around its many corridors. I don’t think you need sacrifice the elegant concision of a site like Jonas’s in order to provide more information, either. One of the points on the map could conceivably lead the surfer back in time as well as to another place, and provide historical imagery and oral history just as in a Ken or Ric Burns documentary. At the back of the site is a list of pertinent links, and these can be used to direct the viewer to other sites providing historical, sociological, political and economic information.

Will the cinematic model of presentation prevail or will other models supplant it? I suspect that it has a significant future and its potential is yet to be tapped. It is a bit like the Nickelodeons of old, which eventually developed into the greatest of twentieth century art genres. And given that movies still play such a large role in the culture, and all the “reader expectations” as academic theorists like to say, are already in place, it is all too easy to play into that set of expectations and direct them toward the consumption of news material. As software and the ability to stream content across the web improves, thus facilitating easier downloads, the appeal of such presentations will surely grow. The phenomenal popularity of sites like YouTube, which even politicians are now using in order to communicate with the masses, is evidence of the fact that cinematic experience, its kinetic quality, exerts a strong appeal on people and perhaps best defines or satisfies the readerly habits of a 21st century audience. But there is an older model that, for all its dusty associations with the past, also promises great things for the future, not the least of which is the potential for liberating the reader, for providing a truly eclectic content that allows for individual exploration and discovery. I am sure many of you know the movie Seven. In it, the disaffected older detective Somerset spends his nights in a closed library solving crimes by researching through the books on a multitude of subjects. Up on the second floor, the guards play poker and appear to be uninterested in “culture,” but they indulge the detective’s intellectual tastes by playing classical music on the portable stereo. The library accommodates all types.

And this raises a fundamental question facing all of us as we reinvent journalism in the coming years: what exactly is the function of the reporter these days? The old categories don’t seem to have much value in this new and developing context: we are called upon to be more than just photographers, writers, sound recorders, historians, editors, researchers, or computer whizzes. We wear all those hats and others too. Course we don’t want our photographs to get swallowed up in a kind of mental pap suited for the dietary needs of this century’s cyber astronauts. We want our images to stand out, to play their full role. But discursive polyphony need not work to reduce everything to mush; it can work to put things into relief too, and even make them hard to swallow.

And it is not just a matter of whatever particular tool you happen or have to pick up. Snap a shutter, push the record button, put pen to pad, or rearrange some dpi’s – these functions of production are matched by a much more significant demand – that we change our very thinking about what we do and what we ultimately produce.

Several people on a Lightstalkers thread seemed to feel that our practice was no longer a matter of being a mere content provider, that we had to dress up the meal too. Actually I think the analogy is poorly thought out – dressing up a meal is providing content. Granted, you don’t eat the table setting, but you do consume it in another fashion. We are still content providers, very much so, and the danger is that we may allow a love of novel presentation to eclipse the content that is our ultimate raison d’etre. Our job is to provide meaning, and we can ill afford to confuse the means with end.

Exploit and explore new forms of presentation? By all means. Diversify our production in order to tap into different markets – books, websites, exhibitions, lectures? Certainly. But by no means should we ever forget the fact that we are providing knowledge as well as entertainment, and the health of our aesthetic practice depends on a confident grasp of the inherent value of that knowledge. Again I insist that ultimately we are involved in aesthetic production; that is, we work in the realm of perception and understanding. We are narrators, story tellers, so it behooves us to consider very carefully the roots of our practice, recognize its ideological effects, and work toward creating narratives that do more than telegraph information or merely confirm what we already know. We need to pull together the various pieces that our institutions would keep apart. We need to confront a system of disconnection and disembowelment with a strategy of linking and connection, because the effect of this drawing and quartering of our being is none other than the emptying of memory, its adulteration, which leads in turn to our inevitable repetition of a farcical history instead of recreating it – and ourselves in the process. A truly living memory, our authentic history, is born out of just such a painful process, born out of dying, created out of destroying, found when one is lost.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Narrative Pleasure, Digital Journalism, and "Slow News"

Our journalistic endeavors tend to be dominated by the need to get the material published – that is, we want to get our story out there so that people know that something is wrong (or sometimes right) with the world – and we have historically been limited by the inherent strictures of the established media (considerations of space, editorial agendas as to what stories ought to run and how they should appear stylistically, etc). We can all cite famous examples of good material not getting published or getting published only in a severely truncated form. Marcus Bleasdale’s superb Congo material is a recent example of the hurdles we must jump, since he had such a hard time publishing it although it won some distinguished awards before the fact and partly because of those awards eventually appeared as it ought to have in the pages of several different magazines.

Along comes the web and suddenly we are presented with possibilities for self-publishing that go far beyond the traditional vanity press. And given that POY has recognized web publishing as a legitimate genre worthy of prizes means that self-publishing on the web can escape the stigma of the vanity press as well.

But we are faced with significant problems still. Those of us who work independently – and the web facilitates our independence in many ways – are confronted by problems such as how to assert our presence on the web, how to draw in readers, how to conduct business and ensure that we make enough money to keep working, how to deliver content in an efficient, speedy and sufficiently comprehensive manner, and so on. And in the end, because we are still in the process of a transition that may take years before these new forms of publication, distribution and narrative structure finally gel, we settle for half-assed measures – we end up publishing rudimentary slideshows on rather timid and tepid websites run by the established media, and we receive ridiculously little compensation in return. The amount of work required to put together a good multimedia piece is in no way compensated by editorial rates still based on (1) criteria related to print media, and (2) cost cutbacks stemming from the past and related to past ways of doing business.

So how do we bypass the established media and go directly to the consumer? One question asked by Mike Fox on a Lightstalkers thread about business models for digital journalists is whether or not the web can support our endeavors; that is, will viewers be willing, for example, to pay us directly for our content, perhaps downloading a story, either in pdf format or multimedia, onto their iPhone and viewing it there. As Mike points out, browsing the web is a different procedure from browsing a magazine or newspaper, so viewers of the future can be expected to be more selective, more likely to target specific themes (using a search engine to “alert” them as to new relevant material), and unlikely to review more than a few initial entries on any particular subject list after the search engine does the initial browsing and gathering, so that we have to ensure that our work shows up near the head of such lists. Clearly, this new form of “reading,” these new forms of consumption, present significant challenges to us, and perhaps some opportunities too.

There are two issues confronting us, then. How do we get paid? And how do we deliver content in a manner that guarantees its integrity and its ability to reach as many potential viewers as possible? As to the former, I suspect that new criteria for setting prices will eventually emerge and they will not be based on circulation figures but perhaps on file size, number of images, format, and so on. How we deliver the material concerns me more here, and essentially I would argue that if we manage to deliver it in a way that promotes narrative pleasure, then I think that we can answer affirmatively Mike’s basic question about whether or not consumers would be willing to pay for that content. That is, rather than content being a hindrance to conducting business – as editorial wisdom has it, people wont buy magazines with pix of starvation or death or other such journalistic clichés, presumably because readers suffer from image fatigue or they prefer babble about celebrities – it will in fact become one means of enticing more viewers.

Let’s consider a different genre in order to get a fresh perspective on this issue. Why do we go to the movies? Movies are full of violence and devastating imagery every bit as unsettling as anything a photojournalist can come up with. And viewing them doesn’t necessarily make us happy. We cry as well as laugh at the movies. We grip the edges of our seats, we endure ghastly scenes of torture and mutilation. A few examples: The beach landing in Saving Private Ryan. The abandoned parents in their lonely home at the end of the heartbreaking Tokyo Story. The famous slit eye in Buñuel’s L’Age d’Or. The slow and clumsy killing of the KGB agent in Hitchcock’s Iron Curtain. The murder of peasants in Platoon. The death of Apu’s wife and his subsequent abandonment of the child that resulted from their union in Satyajit Ray’s third film from the incomparable Apu trilogy. The beating to death by bats of Ed Pesci’s character in Casino. The battering that Jake LaMotta receives at the hands of Sugar Ray in Raging Bull.

Almost every one of these is a masterpiece and despite the brutal or heartbreaking content, every one of these compels our attention and evokes praise rather than condemnation. Why?

Narrative pleasure. Let me be quite clear: I am not talking about pleasure in a simple sense, the emotional equivalent of sugar on the tongue. I am talking about a psychological state in which is united intellectual, emotional and physical contentment that is brought about not so much by the specific image or theme but by its existence within a structure that provides order, makes sense, and either creates new values or confirms old ones, thus playing an important ideological role in the culture that ought not to be underestimated.

Narrative pleasure results from structure, not content. Narrative pleasure is the aesthetic version of Plato’s sociopolitical concept of Justice – a place for everything and everything in its place. It derives from elements such as those considered by Aristotle in his Poetics. Unity, for example. The relation of beginning, middle and end. Suspense and its resolution. The relation of form to content – a quick example of what I mean by this last point can be found in the film Vantage Point. Here we are treated to a story about the assassination of a president given a narrative treatment that undoubtedly is meant to recall Rashoman on the one hand and the historical assassination of Kennedy on the other; that is, we are treated to a replay of events seen through the eyes of various players in an ostensible attempt to explore the significance of perspective, truth, and coherence. What philosophers like to call hermeneutical horizons. The film is an utter disappointment because in the end all the narrative perspectivalism, the splitting up of the plot into distinct points of view held by each character, serves no purpose other than to prolong the suspense, and the actual plot is revealed and followed in the most prosaic and straightforward manner during the last segment, so all we get in the end is an exciting chase and nothing whatsoever said about the larger themes. There is ultimately a disjunction between the form and the content.

This is the problem with current methods of telling and distributing our journalistic stories. Our methods are disjunctive, piecemeal, choppy, reductive, and formally inconsequential. We furnish bites and bulletins rather than stories with sufficient body to make it worth our readers’ while to stop and absorb their meaning. We fail to provide meaningful, comprehensive and inventive structure capable of contextualizing the violence and the heartbreak in a way that redeems that content and makes it compelling, rather than just another journalistic cliché – just another skeletal child with flies in its eyes – that either repels or bores the viewer. If we take care to create narratives as compelling as those we flock to see at the cinema, then I see no reason why we cannot count in the future on people to solicit our material, download it, and pay us for it.

A pdf file, for example, could tackle a subject in a number of different ways, if we are willing to take the time to master the software and learn the principles of graphic layout. Take for example what I have tried to achieve on the Gagá page from my Dominican Batey website. If you look that page over, you will see the photos and text laid out in a variety of manner, and in a couple spots I have made use of imagery that in itself is not particularly good but combined in an adequate structure manages to tell the story in what I hope is a compelling fashion (I am referring to the section of photos with young kids running about, caught up in the excitement and sexuality of Gagá, as well as the section on whips). Granted, I may have created overly large files that download rather too slowly, but such things can be easily fixed. The point is, I didn’t ignore the narrative structure; on the contrary, I exploited it as fully as I could in order to present the material so as to elicit interest, certainly, but more importantly present it as a fully thought out story, with poetic as well as analytical elements, so ultimately the narrative model is not that of the typical “news story” but instead something more like a novel, in which one finds subplots, a myriad of characters, and a more eclectic mix of materials.

That latter point, for me, is very important. As I have argued elsewhere, I think the future of journalism on the web ought to be more eclectic, more polyphonic or intertextual, and cross-disciplinary. This means, inevitably, that we all need to expand our skill set, as the current jargon would put it, in order to keep up with changes in the industry and remain employable. I don’t think this means all that much extra effort, though it does beg questions about adequate compensation. However, while LS members have complained recently about the decision of various news organizations to equip their writers with digital cameras so as to cut back on expenses and consolidate the various aspects of news gathering, I have to say that this has been a salutary development as far as my own survival is concerned, since after years of living with lean cows I am finally getting more work precisely because I can provide both textual and visual content – and frankly I thoroughly enjoy playing both roles. Instead of viewing the consequences of digital journalism as a threat to our existence I think we need to identify their advantages and exploit them diligently so as to control to some extent their direction and their impact on us. And also, allow us to discover in ourselves unsuspected talents and resources that might just add to the pleasure of the work we do.

The formal presentation of news hitherto has been dominated by physical structures that are no longer relevant to the forms available to us in the digital age – the left to right, page turning format inherited by magazines from books as well as the fragmented columns and bars layout of newspapers like the Times are relics of the Gutenberg galaxy. Our job in the future is to take up where Gilles Peress and Fred Ritchin left off with their experimental narrative presentation of Bosnia. Our job is to reflect on the nature of html and flash and consider how these might best serve the creation of viable narratives for the next generations, most of whom, even in third world countries where the digital gap impedes consumption of materials from the internet due to the lack of computerization and wide band access to the net, are being schooled sensorially in a whole new mode and whose consciousness must inevitably be altered by this fact.

I am coming to believe, as well, that brevity is not necessarily a virtue and that in fact the web is capable of sustaining a more in-depth, comprehensive and “long-winded” approach to story telling. Sure, browsing and clicking is usually a matter of brief encounters, but I am no longer convinced that this is evidence of a deterioration in reading habits or that the web induces a kind of ADD in its browsers. There is browsing, but there is also genuine research – which after all is where the net originated, in scholarly research and the need for researchers to communicate with one another. One of the responses I got from my first multimedia piece, on Dominican syncretic religious practices, was that I left out this or that sect, that I didn’t explore this or that theme – in short, that I was too cursory and too brief. Some of the viewers were prepared, indeed expected, a more filmlike treatment of the theme, something longer and more satisfying. I explained that given the current limitations of webstreaming I didn’t think I could provide such a structure, though I agreed it would be superior; and I wonder still whether this will eventually be possible, but I am convinced that our survival, our prosperity, depends on our ability to create such narrative structures and improve upon the current means of streaming information across the web.

You may be aware of a movement called “Slow Food” which has arisen in response to the prevalence of fast food outlets globally and the putative unhealthfulness of such food. What I am advocating here is a greater investment of our time and energy in what could be dubbed “slow news” – news presented in greater depth and without strict allegiance to the time worn principles that govern the reporting of “events.” While it bears resemblance to what is usually called documentary, this approach goes beyond the discursive boundaries normally associated with that genre. I am advocating a form of digital reportage based more on the investigatory practices and principles embodied by the scholarly researchers who originally formed the raison d’être for the creation of the internet. Rather than report that a particular event has occurred, we explore its meaning; rather than note its passing, we fix it, we monumentalize it, we expand upon it through a variety of discourses. We assume that news is inherently, as the name suggests, a matter of reporting that which is “new” or current or instantaneous. Digital cameras and new forms of transmission have promoted this aspect of the news gathering industry, since they allow for speedy delivery of content. While this model will certainly continue to dominate the industry, I think that the web allows for an expansion of this other aspect of journalism, the analytic and investigatory branches of the trade. While we are hardpressed to find work on the frontlines of current events, we may well find that new opportunities will arise in this other market and that even the established media, once they figure out how to make the web pay, may eventually invest more money and effort in this area as well, so that a new kind of journalism can thrive and provide us with the means of making a living as well as pursuing what has to be one of the most interesting vocations available to people with a drive to understand the world about them and the curious habits of humankind.

The Independent Journalist in the Digital Age

Why does one write if not to bring together the pieces? From the moment we enter school or the church, our education draws and quarters us: it teaches us to divorce body and soul, reason and heart.

Wise doctors of Ethics and Morals ought to fish the shores of Colombia, where they invented the word "sentipensante" to define the language that truth speaks.
Eduardo Galeano, El Libro de los Abrazos (my translation).

I recently read a thoroughly depressing article on the state of the media – depressing largely for its execrable jargon (derived from the pseudo-analytic concepts of Mad Ave marketing), its paucity of ideas, and its blithe ignorance of the true mission of journalism. Nowhere in the article was there any hint of the idea that journalists might be pursuing their sometimes hazardous and often ill compensated careers because they are called to it. It is a vocation.

This article (, which presents the Guardian’s Digital Director, Emily Bell’s assessment of the economic disaster facing the media, was full of dire predictions (“The western media is on the brink of 'two years of carnage',” ) and Adspeak: the papers and TV news programs for example are referred to as “brands”. Nonetheless she points out rightly that the challenge for the established media is “getting the success of traditional, offline revenues to move online.” Certainly, as we all move online, the issue of how to make the web pay is paramount, particularly for those of us who work independently, since pay scales have not kept up with the costs of production and we are not receiving a guaranteed salary, so expenses are not always covered and day rates are disappearing.

The problem is that an exclusive focus on the marketing aspects of this transition, without reference to the other facets that will also determine significant changes in the form and content of future journalism, is unlikely to serve all us who endeavor to protect our independence and promulgate a higher form of journalism. Instead, journalism will continue down the path it chose back in the early 80s, when it decided to market itself as a branch of entertainment. Of course this does not mean that news should not “entertain” its audience, so long as we understand that entertainment to be of a serious variety, equal to the pleasure that one derives from reading a great novel, for example; but the goal of informing, of educating, of truth telling should never be subordinated to the goals of marketing, because that will inevitably result in an adulteration of content. Witness Emily Bell’s conclusions and consider how her perspective enjoins this rather superficial vision of web journalism:

“The traditional news media are failing to produce 'differentiated' content online amongst a 'hurricane of knowledge and publishing' caused by the growth self-publishing online, such as blogging, she added.” Aside from the fact that the phrase “differentiated content” is a calculated bit of stilted diction designed to dress up a rather vulgar concept of interactive communication between reporter and reader, there is also a gross overvaluation of web content and the phenomenon of blogging – with the patent suggestion that journalism should adopt blogging as a model of effective (read: profitable) communication. This viewpoint leads Bell to conclude rather facilely that “outlets should move away from the editorial models of the 'age of representation', where news organisations published what they thought readers should know, . . . to an age of participation and a better understanding of who the audience is.” The use of academic theoretical jargon again dresses up what is really an elementary argument with certain hidden and, it seems to me, pernicious assumptions. One of the implications intended to sway the reader is the characterization of editorial practice in the “age of representation” as authoritarian, in contrast to a putatively more democratic editorial practice in an “age of participation,” based in a “better understanding” of the audience. But of what does this better understanding consist? Frankly, I suspect that rather than serve the best interests of the audience, if we take that to mean their education, this slippery phrase covers up an intention to manipulate the readership in order to profit from their “participation” in the production of “differentiated content.” In other words, it is just bread and circuses to divert rather than educate the readership; and what is more, this entirely cynical approach to marketing news is based on a false aggrandizement of the reader’s ego, since the reader is invited to weigh in on the issues, and thus derive satisfaction from having had his or her opinion solicited. It seems to me that Bell’s vision is nothing more than journalistic demagoguery.

Bell concludes, “Journalists should be actively encouraged to see news as a conversation.” Again, it might seem a laudable concept – conversation, or dialogue, presumably being superior to lecturing – but what are the consequences for journalism if what results from this conversation is nothing more than the kind of blab one generally gets from blogging? To be fair to Bell, her version of this “conversation” is not intended to be quite so degraded, but despite the example she gives ( ), it is not at all clear just how this conversational paradigm will significantly improve journalism.

I can only hope that whatever looms on the horizon will not be so debauched as to succumb to the cheap blandishments of web entertainment. Unfortunately, judging from the superficial character of this article and its very poor writing, it would seem that the model for journalistic communication via the web is still tied to, if not to say straitjacketed by, the prevailing habit of “browsing” content instead of analyzing it, and “text messaging” instead of thoughtful composition. Instantaneity and brevity rule the day; but what we want is a more expansive journalism, a more eclectic approach, and a more innovative use of materials. Again editors will argue, as they did in defense of the switch to infotainment, that instantaneity and brevity are what the people want, that the readers’ mode of consumption is already established and the media must follow suit if readers are to be placated and “circulation” is to grow – but we are still in the infancy of the digital revolution at the beginning of the Information Age, so we can hardly characterize reader habits as yet as though they were cast in stone. Books are online, whole newspapers are online – these and other such forms require readerly habits of a more deliberate and slow paced nature, and undoubtedly as more and more people download them, more such people will be induced to adapt their style of reading.

As I reflected on this article I began to speculate on the form or forms that journalism might take in the coming years, and what this all means for those of us who remain independent contractors. Here are some of the possibilities:

1. Television probably wont change all that much, since the means of production are not easily appropriated by an independent contractor. Given the high cost and complexity of the means whereby televised imagery and sound are transmitted, an individual can gain access only by working with the established media – that is, large corporations able to purchase and maintain the necessary resources. You can sell them your video, but you cannot so easily appropriate the means of production and create your own tv studio (though as more tv moves online, perhaps independent tv stations will proliferate). And even if you could, you still have to buy time on the air, and that is exceedingly expensive.

2. Print journalism on the other hand is wide open to appropriation by independent producers, since all one needs is a laptop, a camera, some software and other such tools that are readily available to the average consumer. Buying air time requires nothing more than paying a webhost, and that is a negligible expense. Thus, the means of production, per se, are not an obstacle to the independent producer; instead, compensation becomes the central issue.

3. If more and more of us strike out independently, will established media outlets be forced to operate more like a photo agency? Will the economics of the web oblige them to work more with “stringers” who are on site – “embedded” in the best sense – and thus cheaper and faster and savvier than the globetrotter? This seems to be the trend, though magazines for example presently find it more useful to buy imagery from the wires. But I could foresee a time when photo desks will have rolodexes filled with the contact data for independent contractors at various locations. In fact, they already do, but they still rely on agencies to find them the reporter on the spot. As agencies continue to weaken, editors will be forced to do more of the legwork.

4. Lamentably, certain factors will contribute to a decrease or depression in wages: The proliferation of independent contractors who are not unionized or protected by an agency, which means we are all disunited and easily played off against one another; the fact that media outlets will have no obligation to pay insurance or other benefits to these contractors, who are not employees of the company; low cost of imagery available from the wires, which will put competitive pressure on the independents to keep their own prices low; restrictive or nonexistent expense accounts; continuing pressure to produce stories quickly, instead of allowing for genuine investigation and substantive analysis; and the continuing uncertainty regarding how to make the web pay.

5. The low wages and the reliance on foreign stringers might boost employment of photographers in developing nations, while making it harder for photographers in developed nations to make a living.

6. Technological development along with economic necessity will probably force us to wear more hats: the reporter of the future will unify in his or her practice various activities that hitherto were the exclusive domain of the photographer, the writer or the soundman. While I welcome this development, since it allows me to fulfill all my creative urges and gives me a bit more control over the content, I also deplore certain consequences: more work for less money, plus the almost impossible task of shooting imagery, recording sound, and writing up material all at the same time. Moreover, I have come to suspect that the current rage for multimedia presentations, at least in the form they are produced presently, which except for a couple standouts, is a rather timid affair, is a lamentable pandering to the lowest type of entertainment, not even a circus but a sideshow with a few crumbs of bread.

It seems to me that we are met at an interesting crossroads: while the possibility for independent endeavor is perhaps greater than ever before, given the current technological environment, the individual is also much weaker, beset by uncertainties in the economic environment, the political environment (including the demise of agencies, the lack of institutions, like unions, to protect our interests, etc), and what I consider the ideological environment, in which is formed the concepts and values that govern our practice and give us social standing – in a word, respect. As to this latter, again, current technology is a two-edged sword: it places editorial power in our hands to the extent that we can edit material more easily before submitting it, it gives us more control over our output, but it also “democratizes” photography to the point that editors feel they can stuff a point and shoot in the pocket of a writer and send one person out to cover the story instead of two. The photo, rather than a revelation, is more than ever a mere illustration, an adjunct to the article, a bit of color, a graphic accent intended to vary the page layout, nothing more. As a result, we are dispensable – our function can be assimilated by others. The idea that a photo is a quality statement with its own peculiar expressive power is eclipsed by the virtues of digital on which editors depend: its instantaneity, speed and ease of transmission and handling, its convenience. Lip service is paid to the photographer’s eye, saliva is spilt over talk of exciting imagery, but in the end the ruling factors remain logistical rather than aesthetic (and by aesthetic I mean the principal means whereby we apprehend experience and make sense of it). As such a photo becomes just another mass produced, anonymous, undistinguished utilitarian object. Adornment. It loses its power to surprise, to disrupt, to unsettle (though not to offend), and to perplex. It conforms, in the words of Roland Barthes, to the “civilized code of perfect illusions”; it behaves itself like a good bourgeois in good company. A sad fate, if you ask me.

I would rather drink absinthe and die in a drafty attic.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Digital Journalism and Independent Reporting

It is clear we are living through a period of a possibly radical transformation of mass communication; it is not clear just yet what it all means. . . . It may be a mere expansion of the Gutenberg Galaxy, or an entirely new paradigm on the horizon. Aside from a shift to new materials, new (and costly) tools that are geared ever more closely to the capitalist cycle of planned obsolescence and periodic upgrading, there is a concomitant – and to me much more significant – shift to new means of reaching people, means which promise distinct advantages: broader distribution, longer “shelf-life,” richer discursive content, escape from editorial and ideological agendas imposed by the habits and methods inherent in traditional media establishments, greater control over one’s work, and greater facility working as independent freelancers. The fact is, or so it seems to me, that it is easier these days to dispense with the support (as well as constraints) to be had by working under contract with a paper, a magazine, or an agency, though we all seem to fret as much as ever over the hope that someday we might get a plum post, and the insecurity of freelancing certainly warrants a bit of fretting. It costs money to cover a story, particularly if it requires travel and a long-term commitment to its gradual unfolding, and who is going to pay the bills? Are we to be stuck reluctantly to the usual arrangement controlling the financial end of our business, or can we explore new ways to fund our activity?

One of the signs that we are undergoing great change, and fighting the anxiety that goes with such change, is the constant stream of threads about new software, new cameras, new equipment of every sort. While it mostly bores me, I admit I see its relevance – we need to assess our tools after all – but instead of the usual shoptalk that characterizes most forums, we should be exploring the themes, perhaps more abstract but also more important, that bode for our futures as communicators. Where do our priorities lie? Are we mere consumers (oh, should I get the D300, the D700, the DP-1, the D-this or D-that)? Or are we producers? If the latter, then it seems to me that the questions we should be discussing here ought to be more along the lines of, “what stories should I be telling and how should I tell them?” What new narrative forms are capable of being developed and how might those forms affect consciousness? To what extent do new forms like multimedia slideshows help us to accomplish our goals, tell better stories, or, as some messiahs promise, free everyone from the power relations that obtain in traditional narratives? How might we make use of software like Flash to create different kinds of narratives, or like Omeka to encourage our “subjects” to become authors themselves and interact with our narrative machines according to their wont? What are the implications of narrative experiments such as Ritchin and Peress’s Bosnia site? Is multimedia the only formal innovation available to us, or does the New Journalism depend on a wholesale reevaluation of our activity and an embracing of all sorts of formal practices that hitherto we either discounted or were unavailable to us?

Which brings me to consider whether in fact we should define ourselves merely as photographers – perhaps it is better to call ourselves storytellers, narrators, essayists, anything that allows us to escape the restrictions that the establishment would otherwise impose upon us the moment we assume the title “photojournalist.” And this means as well that we should consider making use of all the tools available to us: in addition to mastering the various software that run our computers, cameras, filing and editing systems, we should master html, Flash, moving film technique – and of course, language. Text. Writing. Why should a reporter limit him or herself to the journalistic clichés of the past (the five W’s and so on), when literature, history, anthropology, sociology and other discourses can be of so much help in filling out the dimensions of a big story? And who says a photographer cannot also be a great writer? I can list many.

You see, I think we are chasing red herrings when we limit ourselves to discussions of multimedia slideshows and soundtracks when in fact the potential for new communicational practices is really much greater than we realize and involves not so much the creation or implementation of new technological forms but a reassessment of older forms of communication along with their integration into the new media. That is, a simple thing like a website offers us unsuspected expressive power if we take the time to reflect on its properties and the new horizons it creates by its very nature. Not just images but words in this context take on a new life, because the structure allows for greater eclecticism and different kinds of linkages which potentially can transform narrative consciousness.

Take as an example the work I am doing on the Dominican batey website: while much has yet to be done (and there will of course be multimedia slideshows along with some recorded oral history), the real point there is that a new way of telling a story can be conjured out of materials that have always been with us – mere images and words – but combined in new ways that allow for a richer discursive experience, a multidimensional semiotic environment that frees up metaphor and restores conceptual “play” to our investigatory machinery – at one moment I am a reporter and at another a philosopher and at another a historian, but each role is played janus-faced and it is not clear where one begins and another ends. We are said to be living in the Postmodern age, a basic tenet of which is that rigid or pure categories are no longer sacrosanct nor manifest channels of truth; rather, collage, pastiche, metaphoric play and eclecticism are the order of being and meaning. Miscegenation. In a kingdom of mongrels, the bastard shall be king. If we are to survive, perhaps even thrive, then it behooves us to embrace this eclecticism and cease to think in the narrow terms that defined our practices in the heyday of magazine journalism (because despite all this talk of slideshows and soundtracks we still behave pretty much like the photojournalists of old). The model of career professionalism that prevails currently, perhaps best embodied by Nachtwey, is not necessarily the model we should be cultivating, as it is not really available to all of us, despite the fact that our universities now specialize in turning out photojournalists along just these lines. Sorry, Time and Newsweek have only so many contract positions, so most of us are forced into some kind of freelance position, which, if we take stock of the situation intelligently, might offer us possibilities for freer action and more valid work instead of being company hacks. What appears to be a stumbling block may in fact be the very thing to break our chains. But we need to be a little more enterprising, a little more imaginative, a little more gonzo.

One thing is sure: new media offer us the promise of once again becoming significant communicators, like the photo-essayists of the forties and fifties, instead of mere one shot illustrators of stories conceived, written and vetted by others. Instead of getting by as an afterthought in the trade, we could instead author our own existence, engineer our own agendas, and become truly independent contractors.

One of the ironies of our current situation is that we are enticed by formal possibilities that can free us, while we are stymied by financial obstacles, such as the fact that we still rely on the media establishment to pay us – or else who can fund our projects? So the task ahead lies in defining the models that might serve to keep our efforts alive if we decide to work independently of the establishment. So far, lamentably, I can think of only a couple workable but admittedly insufficient models: first of all, that embodied by Salgado, who manages to work independently by taking on commercial assignments that subsidize his documentary work. He also parcels out his documentary work to different publishers, breaking up larger projects into little smaller stories and shopping them off to different global regions. His ability to work in this way arose out of the fame that ensued upon publishing his early work (Serra Pelada, Other Americas) and some lucky strokes (such as being present at the attempted assassination of Reagan). Nonetheless it remains a viable model for the rest of us. The second model is that espoused by Luc de la Haye, who once argued that he didn’t need the support of the media establishment to continue his work so long as he had access to grant money or funds from think tanks and other such organizations. This is the model I have followed, largely because I am a product of America’s graduate school system, in which students survive by applying for grants, so I am just following my habitual MO. Nonetheless, this model too is available to others, though it is limited by the fact that there are few grantors and competition is fierce. However, most of us think solely in terms of the usual photographic organs instead of expanding our grant research beyond the precincts of our profession, and once one decides to look elsewhere, the number of possible grant sources increases encouragingly. All kinds of institutions offer grants, and many of them on the basis of criteria that have nothing to do with photography per se, but instead reward applicants on the basis of their ethnic or gender affiliations, their thematic concerns, their geographic location, or their innovative approach to journalism, among many other criteria.

These models are not, in the end, what we need to focus on in terms of fashioning satisfactory financial arrangements for the future, but the eclecticism they represent may provide clues as to how to proceed. I cannot really say, and I remain, as a result, a very poor man. On the other hand, I am slowly developing a body of work that I can call completely my own, conceived and executed according to my own lights, and whatever its faults, it is original, at least in the sense that it all originates with me. I work for myself, and that is really what it means to be independent. Course, I might be better off financially if I didn’t have a taste for the finer things in life (like a good bottle of Malbec from time to time); but high living and low funds have been features of our profession ever since Capa, so there’s nothing surprising there, and one must learn to live with the consequences of one’s decisions. This does not mean that one should just be content to live with less, nothing of the sort. On the contrary, I think we all need to focus on ways in which we can turn our special talents into a reliable means of earning a living and demand from the market (which can clearly benefit from our contribution, perhaps now more than ever) reasonable compensation for our labors. So rather than expend so much energy on discussing and evaluating the newest software and equipment, we might be better off discussing ways of making money instead of spending it.

The tools are just tools, but they threaten to become fetishes if we overvalue them. The thing that counts is your vision, which, if it is sufficiently vital, will achieve its inevitable form regardless of whether or not you own the biggest, best, newest thingamajig on the market – the real point is to protect that vision, to ward off the mediocrity and stultification that results from the standardization of our tools and unthinking conformity to the dictates of institutions built out of the boneyard of yesterday’s thinking.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Photography in the Age of Digital Reproduction

(nota bene: this essay was originally written for a Fotofestival in S. Carolina, where it was to accompany a slideshow of imagery culled from contributions offered up by the members of Lightstalkers. The mass of imagery, ably edited by Andy Levin and Bob Black, hewed to no particular theme, but its lack of definition nonetheless did not prevent one from grasping the current trends in mainstream photojournalism. Lamentably the more innovative or experimental elements were largely absent from the fold, but I felt I could still write up an essay that attempted to ascertain where we stood as communicators in the brave new world of digital media, and that is what I decided to discuss. For various strategic reasons, the essay did not appear at the festival, but on rereading it a few months later, I feel that the assessment is solid and that one needn’t have immediate reference to the slideshow in question in order to understand the tenets of the essay.)

Although the slideshow presented here stakes no claim over the territory originally arrogated by the famous Family of Man show, it cannot help but evoke some associations, particularly when we continue to view the state of the world today in terms of such fraught notions as the “human condition.” Much has changed over the years that have elapsed since that ambitious but flawed attempt to sum up the world at mid-century, and while the concept of family received a thorough beating from postmodern critics, the notion of a basic human connectedness somehow has survived and even flourished, seeking its reincarnation in new communication technologies. More than rockets to the moon or supersonic jets, contemporary mass media have served to shrink the globe and connect the centrifugal points of its compass. Along with the internet and cell phones and computers, the digital revolution has also transformed the nature and practice of photography in ways that have yet to be understood or fully exploited.

I remember as a child visiting the 1965 New York World’s Fair and upon entering one of the pavillions being greeted with the Disney theme, “It’s a Small World after All.” Its bouncy melody propelled one through a rosy panoply of futuristic delights. That banal promise of a world happily united through technology turned out to be as hollow as the puppets through whose plastic lips issued that silly song. The world is indeed smaller than ever, but no less dangerous – or marvelous, as we can see in this striking series of images taken by photographers from all over the world. Yet while the ties are all the tighter, the knots don’t seem to bite much into our flesh. Gross inequities continue to demoralize and destabilize the relations between developing and developed nations, but even while a migrant laborer on a banana plantation culls the fruit that eventually provides breakfast for some office worker in a steel and glass tower, that distant but intimate tie created by our international political economy remains somehow invisible. Conflicts are smaller too, they are “local” and widely dispersed. World War seems almost a quaint notion nowadays. But the connections between these local events are more insidious though just as exigent as ever, less a matter of overt alliances between nation-states and more a question of arcane ideas and clandestine links between nebulous entities such as factions or sects or ideologies. We are no doubt all united, all bound together in fateful ways, but we do not yet constitute a civil family. It could be argued that it is ever more imperative for our journalists to explore and document these connections, lest their bewildering complexity frustrate and lead us to a numb resignation. We are just as puzzled as ever by our unfolding history on this planet, and we still need globetrotters like these to etch the milestones that mark our progress.

The possibilities for communication and greater understanding are larger than ever, and photographers can still play a major role in shaping how we think about our world. A digital image is beamed by sat phone from the top of a Nepalese mountain to some media hub from which it is then uploaded to the internet and made available to a variety of screens at billions of points on the globe. The transit of this image negates, if not actually annuls, Time and Space. It also cuts across political and social borders. We hear much about how we are supposedly inundated with imagery, oversaturated and desensitized. Certainly the media wraps us round as never before, and we all feel as if we were living at impossibly accelerated speeds. But I doubt that the wonder and the terror that we experience as we fly through the void on this tilting ball could ever be diminished by the imagery that washes over us; rather it is my hope that this sea retain its salt to sting our eyes. Guy deBord’s specular society remains a threat to our authentic social connections, to be sure, but the greater threat lies in thinking that all imagery is inimical to our making sense of the world. The stories that you find here, many of which were produced independently of the mainstream media, are one indication that the art of storytelling via the still image has in no way lost its power to communicate the meaning and the matter of our existence. While imagery is all the more ubiquitous and instantaneous, and thus in danger of becoming banal for being common as dirt, it is nonetheless capable of affiliating viewers, shooters and subjects in a web of mutual interest and knowledge that is visceral and not vitiating. The images gathered here are as provocative as the proverbial stumbling block, and you will no doubt experience the same satisfying if painful confidence in their reality as did Samuel Johnson when he refuted Berkeley by kicking a rock.