Monday, March 10, 2008

Bienvenidos, Wilkomen, Welcome!

Hello all, and welcome to the blogging world. Set up in ten minutes or so yet accessible to a world of users, "Leica Perception" will serve as the forum for this week's Reading Response. Each person should be able to sign in and post. Or if you don't feel like making good on your administrator status, you can choose to "comment" and your essay will make itself known, buzzing somewhat below the internet radar.

(The nice thing about signing-in, however, is that you can add links or photos to bolster your essays. Something I think would add quite a bit to the blog as a whole).

And so, away! Good luck with the blog, here's hoping you enjoy the seductive lure of a blank webpage!


Sam m said...

OK. So maybe this is my age showing. But I have no idea what it means to sign in. Or how I am supposed to add my name to the list of contributors to the right. Or how I might go about posting something anywhere other than in the comments. I already have a google account. But that does not appear to offer me any administrative rights on this site.




Sam m said...

Not sure how to post as an administrator, so here it is in comment form:

In response to question three, I am simultaneously fascinated and rattled by the “blurring of the media” and the “kind of witnesses or spectators” that blogs create.

I think primarily in terms of “access” and how it positions me as an interpreter of culture. Earlier this semester, one group of presenters discussed famous photographs from Vietnam and showed videos of those same events. What struck me is how much LESS powerful the video images were to me. In fact, knowing some of the background behind the still images and having access to the moving pictures seems to have taken the edge off the pictures. I am not saying that I no longer think the pictures or the realities they express are disturbing. It’s just… Part of a picture is its composition, not only artistically, but in the things it assumes we know and don’t know. The silences, the things left unsaid.

It’s hard to explain. So hard, in fact, that I think the only way I can explain it is through an analogy: Seeing the videos associated with those pictures reminds me, remotely, of how I feel about DVDs with a director’s “commentary.” For me, that inside knowledge takes a movie out of the realm of “movie” and into something constructed. It’s not that I wasn’t aware that the movie was constructed in the first place. It’s just that knowing too much interferes with my ability to enjoy it, to engage with it as the creator intended. I stop being a “viewer” and become a “critic.” I feel similarly about books that I enjoyed as a reader, but fall flat when I “analyze” them in grad school.

I think this comes back to the way we view blogs and a lot of other first person and DIY web media. I suppose that in a fully wired world, we all could have seen the Rwanda genocide unfolding in real time. Conceivably, that sort of “front row seat” could have made an impact. But I am skeptical. Go to YouTube and search for “Iraq.” Watch a few videos. What percentage of the things you see qualify as “socially engaged,” and what percentage seem more like “war porn”? I don’t think the answer is all that encouraging. Then start reading comments.

Of try this: The sound was off on my computer when I started watching these videos. It never occurred to me that they would have sound. But most of them do. In some, you hear people laughing, even when they are in grave danger. Which seems weird. Even more prevalent are carefully chosen soundtracks, very often some kind of aggressive heavy metal or “gangster” rap.

Which brings me back to the work we are doing in this course. I think we universally admired Phillip Gourevitch’s work. But it is about as far removed from a first-person blog as you can get. He wasn’t even in Rwanda when the genocide happened, and his account is filtered—unapologetically—through his worldview. Which, honestly, is what I want. I know that might come across as horribly old-fashioned, but I have neither the time nor inclination to educate myself about every crisis everywhere in the world. Neither do you. I don’t care how dedicated you are as an activist. As such, we necessarily rely on gatekeepers to keep us informed. Maybe you rely on Katie Couric. Or Amnesty International. But you have to rely on somebody.

Do blogs and other web media supplement those sources? Sure. Once you do get interested in an issue, it is easier than it ever has been to gather information, particularly images and video. But I do wonder if, on the whole, that makes society more “engaged.” In your mind, make a list of all the people you know who are actively engaged in social activism. For those of you who are old enough to remember life before the Internet, think back to that time. Is the number of “socially engaged” people all that much higher today? Not in my experience.

Sure, the exponential increase in “voices” makes it easier to challenge your views on a subject. But how many people go out of their way to do that? I think people are at least as likely to seek out voices that confirm their preconceived notions, thereby solidifying biases rather than bridging divides.

And the images… Is there one iconic photo from Iraq? Is there a defining image? One that we all recall? There ought to be. There are a trillion cameras in the country, snapping photos of every atrocity every day. But that’s the problem, isn’t it? If there had been 1,000 pictures of napalmed Vietnamese girls, would we remember any of them? The only thing that comes close to it is that picture of the young Marine smoking a cigarette after a firefight.

In the end, I feel like the ready availability makes people… not callous, necessarily, but more like they are. For people predisposed to activism and heartfelt engagement with social causes, the images make them more engaged. For people prone to overlook or view atrocities as porn, the images fuel that fire instead. Sontag discusses this idea on page 38-39, noting that the same photographs used for anti-war purposes could just as easily support the other side.

Where do I fit in? I am not sure, honestly, but I think my experience with PostSecret might be fairly typical. I thought it was fascinating. It seemed so… voyeuristic. So I scrolled down, particularly mesmerized by the occasional flirtation with nudity and such. So I scrolled some more. Until I got sort of jaded and bored with it. I never clicked to the “next page.” One was enough.

In the end, I am not at all sure that the gargantuan datastream of photos coming back from Iraq has done anything more to educate us about “reality” than Life magazine did 60 years ago. And I am almost positive that a highly filtered view of Rwanda, like Gourevitch’s, did more to educate me than a thousand blogs would have done.

The days of Walter Cronkite telling American’s exactly what to think are long gone. (If things were ever that way in the first place.) But that doesn’t mean that we are a nation of citizen journalists, either.

Donna said...

Hi All,

Sorry, I'm confused, too. I posted this as a response to another comment already--don't mean to bombard you. Here it is again, since this seems like a better place to be. (I didn't get an invitation--not sure why.) Donna

#2. Is there a place for “art” in war or disaster photography? Must a photographer rein in his or her aesthetics?

I believe that aesthetics in war or disaster photography are not only necessary but inevitable. Since it is impossible to separate the photographer from the photograph, it is also impossible to isolate the photographer’s inherent aesthetic principles —for good or ill.
Susan Sontag makes this point cogently in Chapter 2 of Regarding the Pain of Others. “Photographs had the advantage of uniting two contradictory features,” she writes on page 26. “Their credentials of objectivity were inbuilt. Yet they always had, necessarily, a point of view. …[Photographs are] both objective record and personal testimony, both a faithful copy or transcription of an actual moment or reality and an interpretation of that reality.” Should a photographer coyly “style” a war or disaster scene, in such a way as Sontag alleges Alexander Gardner did with the Confederate soldier in Gettysburg? My instinct is that such tampering is unethical; that, although the viewer will tacitly understand that photography is not wholly objective, he or she also expects the photographer to follow certain (again, tacit) rules of conduct. Incidentally, I believe the same tact rules of conduct apply to questions of “truth” in creative nonfiction—readers expect memoirists to try to capture memory as much as they are able, but realize that memory is not infallible. Imperfect recall is acceptable; whole-cloth fabrication of major incidents, a la Margaret Jones or James Frey, is not.
The point of view of the photographer is also inevitable in this way: photographers choose their shots, just as writers choose their scenes. In such a way, the photographer/artist defines what comprises disaster. And while the definition of disaster, as so chosen, might seem simple, I believe that it is not. Anything but.
For example, I believe that Diane Arbus, whose work I generally detest ( I should be frank, right?), could qualify as a disaster photographer. Granted, the scope of disasters that Arbus caught on her lens were personal, rather than national. And perhaps my sense of disaster arises more from the artist, the suicidal Arbus, than the subjects themselves. Perhaps my sense of disaster even comes from within me, which is hard to admit. But I will forever be haunted—and not in a good way—but Arbus’s photographs of the mental ward patients, which I saw many years ago. What is haunting is the utter lack of dignity and compassion with which the patients are depicted. (Again, perhaps it is my own lack of compassion, or intense discomfort with the images, that makes the shots seem disastrous for me.) I disagree with Sontag’s assessment, in her essay “America, Seen through Photographs, Darkly,” that Arbus’s one-note photography is “simply (or falsely) naieve” (41). I see her work as so supremely voyeuristic that it becomes malevolent. After all, Arbus could always take refuge in her relative (at least, visually, superficially) normalcy. Her photographs seem to whisper to the viewer, “see how strange, how odd, my subjects are. How brutally life has dealt with them. How removed from them are we.” In this way, as Sontag acknowledges near the end of her essay on page 45 (“the freakish is no longer a private zone...people who are bizarre, in sexual disgrace, emotionally vacant are seen daily on the newsstands, on TV”) Arbus is the psychological forebear of Jerry Springer. She is the harbinger, appropriately via the visual image, of the crassness of tabloid journalism and reality TV.
But to get back to my point, crassness aside, I believe that personal disasters do qualify as disasters, if they are so framed by those rendering them—either visually or verbally. (I know that many writers and thinkers, such as Elmad Abinader, who referred to her Mills students’ work as “little stories,” disagree with me.) Granted, they clearly do not impact a nation or a society in the way that a genocide or a natural disaster, such as Hurricane Katrina, does. I’m not arguing that personal disasters, however self-defined, are that significant, or that horrific. But I’m uncomfortable with the notion of limiting (and thereby diminishing) what is “disastrous” in someone else’s life. “Little stories” can spell emotional ruin and spiritual isolation, with or without a corresponding national narrative. For these reasons, I find some of Arbus’s work more disturbing than the work of Salgado. Sontag’s shots at Salgado aside, his photography is less morally ambivalent, his motives are far less questionable, than are Arbus’s. (Maybe I actually both love her work and hate it? She certainly is powerful.)
I also realize that, with these statements, I am lining up with what distresses Professor Faith about traditionally American narratives—the privileging of the personal story over a communal story. But I would argue that the focus on the personal in narrative is a tradition that far predates America. The Iliad and the Odyssey also rely in personal stories. The tradition may be Western—and limited in that sense—but it is also ancient and venerated. --Donna

Donna said...

Just a quick correction: I realized after I posted that I had a bad typo: it's "Elmaz Abdinader"