Saturday, September 26, 2015

Are You Really Satisfied With That?

They've been saying -- and acting on what they've been saying -- that photojournalism as a specialty is doomed. With smart phones and easy-to-use point-and-shoot cameras producing high quality photos and videos, "anyone can be a photographer." As I have said before: Wrong.

Here's why: It all hinges on what you mean by "high quality." Much as when the camera companies and tech-heads go on about megapixels and bit rates (usually to get you to buy the newest, hottest, most fabulously expensive thing) the technical image quality just gets better and better, but the quality of the picture itself still depends on the photographer.

For example, Time photographers were recently given iPhone 6's to make pictures during news events, and they made some amazing images. But what does that mean? If you ask me, it means amazing photographers make amazing images no matter what the gear.

It reminds me of a story a friend told me about a seminar led by a famous landscape photographer. The speaker was known for lush images shot using giant view cameras and huge, 8x10 negatives. After a slide show and speech, he took questions, one of which was inevitably what gear he used. He delineated the maker of his equipment and lenses, etc., and then added, "But these slides I just shot were made with one of those little plastic cameras they send you as a gift when you subscribe to a magazine." (This was some decades ago, when cheap plastic film cameras were actually considered a worthless gift rather than the tool of deep, meaningful art school students.)

So the question we the consumers need to ask is this: Are we willing to be satisfied with some grab shot of a news event taken by a bystander with his cell phone? It does show what happened ... but it does little else. And you had better not be expecting the craft of Journalism to ensure you get something better, because the craft of Journalism in the end works for a bunch of guys who are less interested in craft, journalism, or quality than they are in making money. Let's face it: The Paley's and Sulzberger's and Graham's and Luce's seem like noble icons only through the mists of time; none of them took a vow of poverty. So it's up to us, the consumers, to show we will buy good stuff and not buy crap.

But if you're satisfied with the crappy photography ...

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Today's Reading

Today's Gospel Reading, in part ...

Then he sat down, called the Twelve, and said to them,
“If anyone wishes to be first,
he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” 

From Mark, Chapter 9. 

Before this, the disciples are confused about Jesus' lesson, and discuss it among themselves. They are afraid to ask Him what it means, however, and try to figure it out among themselves. Rather than puzzling out the message (or doing the obvious, and simply asking for guidance), they eventually fall into an argument over who is the best disciple. Typical.

Catching them at this, Jesus calls them together, and says the above. 

So is this coincidence? How is it that the reading seems most grandly applicable in a time of Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, and others who feel they should naturally inherit the earth?

Let us move on to what comes next ...

Taking a child, he placed it in the their midst,
and putting his arms around it, he said to them,
“Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me;
and whoever receives me,
receives not me but the One who sent me.”

One can only think of the Syrian children dead on the beach, the crowds of youngsters struggling with their parents through Southern Europe to find safety. Are we ready to receive them?

Remember: these readings were chosen at least a year ago, if not longer. How is it they are so applicable now?

Saturday, September 19, 2015


"The killings appear to have been skillfully engineered for maximum distribution, and to sow maximum dread, over Twitter, Facebook and mobile phones." This is could be one of the very stupidest things I have read in the immediate aftermath of the shootings, though I am sure I shall see much more ... and far more stupid.

The author, who specializes in writing about tech for The New York Times, engages in a rumination on the rapid spreading of information via social media in our age, and speculates on how "as a newshound," the killer anticipated and exploited this. What crap.

The killer was a 41-year-old, worked in the media, and lived his life -- like his contemporaries and others in the business -- online. How else would one communicate with the world? Envisioning his last-minute posting and videoing of his act as some devious scheme gives him far too much credit. While making a video of a killing is bizarre (though no more bizarre than having a range of delusional grievances that drive one to murder), in a social media-saturated world it means no more than posting a video of any other important life moment.

By no means am I saying, as has become obvious, that he wasn't contemplating and planning his actions for some time. He rented his getaway car weeks before, bought his gun and plenty of ammunition (But for what? No one seems to have an comprehensive, rational answer for that, nor in my opinion will they), and packed an assortment of items to aid in an escape (like a wig, a hat, and several license plates), not to mention his many and various online actions, but my point is that there is not the organized, devious, and clever planning that the writer describes. Vester Lee Flanagan showed the organizational skills of an eight-year-old packing to run away from home, not those of some criminal mastermind.

In the search for clarity, I turned to a friend who both practices and teaches clinical psychology. He has posted a very useful excerpt/summary of an excellent piece that drives directly to the sort of craziness that drove Flanagan to murder.

Put succinctly, he was an "Injustice Collector," the most recent in a line of such, and what may seem a carefully structured method is just an extended collection of deluded, angry complaints and intentions. "Whatever you do, don't cherry-pick quotes from a collector and believe it explains him," Dave Cullen writes. "They tend to state their motives emphatically, but they are mostly outbursts."

Now I should probably give the poor fellow at The New York Times a break. We all approach things from our own perspectives, and when confronted with something so outside of our experience and worldview, something so bizarre and alien as to be positively surreal, we try to box it up and organize so we can understand it. He writes about technology and the internet, and that's how he saw it. But like so many bright, deeply entrenched experts, particularly (and sadly) in journalism, he's lost the path in the depths of his expertise.

In my case, these recent, shocking, hopefully (though sadly not really) unique events have forced upon me, at least, a greater understanding of my role as a part of a news story.

As I said in my last posting, in the journalism business one must go into a disassociated state when dealing with the shocking, the catastrophic, the unimaginably sad. If you don't separate yourself from the reality of it all, you run the risk of being overwhelmed. Sometimes, this attitude can be quite callous and cynical; I refer to it as "telling dead baby jokes."

This is quite easy to do when the people involved literally have nothing to do with you. One is and rightly should be shocked by pictures of drowned children who died trying to flee war and privation, only seeking the most basic of life's needs: safety. But it's a Syrian child, half a world away in Turkey. It's easy to see that as tragic, but nothing to do with me, not in a direct sense.

Alison and Adam were people I knew. Their loved ones are people I know, and people I have had direct interaction with since the killings. They are people I want to help, to be gentle with. I need to cling to the visceral reactions I have to the events, and most important keep fresh that feeling, that moment of hesitation I experience when I contemplate using this picture or that description, fearing how cruelly sad or shocking it might be to my friends and their families. Every death, every horrible news story carries with it this entourage of secondary victims, and as I proceed to trundle through my work in the usual way, I've got to remember that for them this is a uniquely massive event. It may be just another story to me, but it is the central tragedy of their lives for them.

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of the infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.” 

Friday, September 18, 2015

Not Again ...

After careers as a media figure, journalist, businesswoman, mother, and charity executive, Chelsea Clinton has decided now that she is also an author ... and the establishment that adores her and her parents continues to act as enablers.

If the above offends you, allow me to apologize in advance for indelicacy, but Chelsea's easy stroll through careers in which talented others have struggled to advance has always irked me and does so even more with each step. She may be very clever and even very appealing (though I have yet to be presented with any serious evidence of either), but apparently she is not a talented writer.

"Where she succeeds is in making even the knottiest issues seem accessible to a bright seventh grader," New York Times reviewer Maria Russo starts in a hopeful fashion. "In fact, she writes in a style that would seem perfectly at home in a stack of middle-school term papers. ('In my lifetime, a number of countries across the world granted women the right to vote for the first time. Having the right to vote is often only a first step. Being able to safely exercise that right is often harder, even dangerous for some women ... and men alike. In many countries where women are denied a meaningful right to vote, men are too. To be clear, that shared inequality and lack of rights is nothing to celebrate.') There are abundant references to what she has already told us, or will tell us later, a tic teachers seem to love, but alas, no one else." And there we have the damnation by faint praise.

So, aside from the name "Clinton," how has she come to deserve the opportunity to lecture the youth of America for 400 pages? (And seriously, Four. Hundred. Pages. What young person is going to read this? And couldn't their time be more valuably spent reading, I don't know, any well established author on poverty and economics? Surely Steinbeck and Ellison are still in print. Hell, make a run at the other sections The New York Times; there you'll find real journalists who actually know how to write like grown ups.)

So, the review concludes, what is this massive doorstop for? "On the evidence of 'It’s Your World,' Clinton feels a lot for other people. [Oh Dear God] But it mainly seems as if she feels sorry for them, and that’s ultimately where 'It’s Your World' reaches its limits. This is not a book destined to influence hearts and minds in the way 'I Am Malala' [A book by a young woman who has actually done something] has done — by helping children to understand the slow way change can happen and to truly feel a part of that magic."

I wonder what identity she'll be offered an easy, effort-free pathway to next ...