The Great Deluge

Four days of Southern California rain.

Haiti is in big trouble. It was in trouble before the quake and now it is in critical trouble.

We all know this now, and we knew it very soon after the deadly quake hit this small Caribbean island.

But after visiting one of the global news sites, and seeing that they had 33 different stories and 23 different films, all about Haiti, all located on the homepage, I was confronted with a question I couldn’t answer.

Is this too much coverage? Is this beneficial, or like my tiny piece of California soil, has it reached the saturation point?

We now have the ability to cover world events in real time, which initially, and in most cases, is still viewed as a great thing. I agree, in some ways.

One part of me says, “The more the better.” “Haiti is in big trouble the the more attention we give this story the more benefit, the more aid will pour in, and it will be impossible for the world to ignore the situation.”

But I’m not sure this system is working.

When I hit the news site that had all these stories, you know what link I clicked on? Guess. Come on, guess.

I clicked on the Golden Globe winners. I did. And frankly, I’m not interested in the Golden Globes, the Oscars, any of that stuff. Nothing wrong with it, but I just don’t follow it. So I was really surprised when I found myself staring at a complete list of winners.

What happened to me was total overload of the Haitian news story. And I AM interested in Haiti. I AM interested in the region. I AM interested in following the story. I AM interested in the photography emerging from the story.

But it was too much. It was short attention span news.

I turned on the television, the first night the networks landed, en mass. Here were lines of reporters on the ground with very little to say. They would pass the mic back and forth and basically explain what they saw, but in most cases they really had little to nothing to add. I just wondered why all of them were there, and how much of the annual news budget were they spending on this one story.(And then two days later some of these same people are hosting cooking segments on the morning shows.)

Wouldn’t it be better to slow down, get the story, secure a few facts, do some EDITING and then present what you know in ONE clear, concise report?

Instead I got a Twitter-feed-like shotgun pattern of reporting. It had little to no effect. Again, I KNOW this situation is horrific, so I don’t need the play by play. I need the facts.

Day One: 100,000 dead
Day Two: 50,000 dead
Day Three: 200,000 dead

All over the map. But I wonder why report this in the first place. We know there are many dead, so why throw around numbers when you have no real idea what you are talking about, and these numbers are impossible to verify.

Look, I don’t have an answer here, I’m just wondering if I’m alone in this. I keep thinking to myself, “No, this coverage brings attention.” But again, I’m not sure it is working like we think it works. Do other people turn off to this?

And as for the photography, the same applies.

Day one, we were flooded with cell phone imagery. Its horrible quality, but at that point it’s not about quality, it’s simply information.

A day later, the “real” photographers arrive, and the imagery looks much the same but the quality level of the imagery, the resolution, the sharpness, etc, gets better.

Day three and on, the photographers land in platoon strength and now all bets are off. Every single day we are blanketed by hundreds, thousands, if not tens of thousands of images from every possible angle. Again, much of this imagery looks alike.

And here is where the pendulum shifts.

By now there are people on the scene with the ability to give us more in depth reportage. Perhaps they are photographers, journalists, with a history in Haiti, and IF GIVEN THE TIME, MIGHT have the ability to tell us what is really going on. But based on the modern news cycle, they too are rushed, and contribute little more than similar photos, stories, that we have already seen.

For me, I would love to say to this small group of people, “Please, take your time, get the story, get what you need, take the time to edit, find the best way to present it and then bring it to me(as in publish it).” “I will stop what I’m doing and give you one hundred percent of my attention.”

But again, this doesn’t happen. What does happen is dozens, if not hundreds of more carbon copy news stories land in the multitude of information channels.

It’s a very strange situation because in some ways what I’m asking for is more thoughtful, perhaps more beautiful work to be created from a horrible situation, but in the end, I think this is what will deliver the most impact, far more impact that the current style of heavy rain.

I’ll give you an example, and I’m pulling this out of my butt, so hang with me.

Back in the early 1980’s, part of the Sahel, or perhaps all of the Sahel was in the grips of a major famine. A photographer named Sebastiao Salgado decided to go and see for himself what was happening. He went on his own, at least I think he did, bulk rolling his own film, living a tough existence.

Now I’m guessing here, but I would imagine he was on the scene for at least a month, perhaps more, shooting, traveling, compiling images. And if I had to guess, when he returned to Paris or New York or wherever he was living, it took another few weeks, months, to collect the work and then…..release it.

Now this photographer is not a spot-news photographer, a front line war photographer, but that is partly what I’m getting at.

Maybe there were other photographers on the scene, wire service people putting out images in rapid fire, but the work that had the REAL IMPACT was the black and white work of Salgado. It is the ONLY work I can remember from that story. I remember seeing it for the first time and freezing because it was so powerful I could not look away. It was thoughtful and presented well.

I would imagine he didn’t send, transmit or publish anything during the time he was there, so you could say, “Well, if he had then perhaps the world would have known about the situation earlier and perhaps fewer people would have died.” That’s a good angle, but I would imagine there WERE photographers doing this….so where was the impact?

There is another layer to this.

So now Haiti is flooded with media personal, and I mean flooded. I would imagine a HUGE percentage of annual budgets are being spent on this story, and maybe that is a good thing. I asked another photographer who had been there why this was happening, why this story was being attacked in such mass and the answer was, “Because they think they can win a Pulitzer.” I’m not gonna touch that one, but it is something you have to consider.

But the real problem with this is when people blow their stack and attack a story like this, it typically doesn’t last long. You hear tales of “image fatigue,” and Haiti is about to experience this.

Then, when the time comes to really solve the situation the world is completely burned out on the story, and the media outlets don’t have the budget remaining to keep covering the story at the depth it needs to be covered.

So you have the NGO organizations suddenly becoming the only way for journalists, photographers, etc to gain access and make work. Most of these folks are working for free, or working for wages that are below poverty level, which contributes to the limitations placed on them. And you see the cycle we have created.

The photographer Sara Terry created her Aftermath Project based on this concept. Just because the bullets stop flying or the Earth stops shaking doesn’t mean the story is over.

I think it is completely unrealistic to think this is going to change anytime soon, but I for one am really growing tired of the superficial, super fast bombardment of information that seems to increase on a daily basis.

When is enough enough?

Fingers crossed for Haiti.

Just Say No To Crack

Our fireplace shortly after the last quake. Viva California!

I think I just had a thought. Wait, yep, I did. Okay, here it is.

We hear so much these days about the demise of journalism, about how newspapers are dead, ratings and subscriptions are down and hundreds, if not thousands of people are out of work. This truly sucks.

Now there is great journalism being done out there, in places, and there are some tremendous pieces being written, filmed and photographed, but there is also a lot of schlock being thrown at us, and if I had to say, I would guess the schlock far outweighs the great journalism.

Case in point, TV news running the “bear in a tree” story, which they have done in Southern California at least three times in the past few months. I know, I saw it. It’s pathetic, lazy and there is no excuse, with all that is going on, to do this. It proves that they, the media, think we are pretty stupid, and need to be “entertained” more than informed. Also, newspapers covering celebrity events for no real reason other than there are celebrities involved and they want to sell papers, news, whatever. Same with magazines who run celebs on the cover, regardless of the inside content or photo magazines putting supermodels on the cover, regardless of inside content. In my mind, you deserve to lose subscriptions.

But, something even more poignant just peaked my interest, something I think reaches the DNA level of what is wrong with our “media” or journalism world.

Wait for it…wait for it…

The retouched journalist headshot. Am I the only one who finds this REALLY odd.

So let me get this straight. You’re a journalist, and you write the news. You cover issues with “truth and an impartial view,” but your headshot is fake? Now this might seem like nothing to most people, which is precisely why I think it is a big deal.

The journalist is selling an untruthful representation of themselves, but only writing the truth? How does that work? I know, I know, it might seem really inconsequential, but what it does in my mind is get the ball rolling in the wrong direction.

And when I say “retouched” folks, I’m not talking about 1985, blemish removal, I’m talking total cerebral reconstruction. If you don’t know what happens in the world of retouching today, just so you know, we left Kansas a long, long time ago. Gone are the days of blasting away zits, and in are the complete recreation of human beings. Think I’m exaggerating, stop by a retoucher and ask to see the before and after images. You will be amazed, or horrified. In many of the celeb images we see today, there is nothing untouched from head to toe. Heads are reshaped, necks, backs, legs, etc, even hair and feet. Nothing is real. I’ve even seen this disease creeping into the kid photography realm, which in some ways is even more alarming. Let’s get our kids thinking about a completely unrealistic vision of themselves, right from the beginning! That sounds really healthy.

As you can tell, I detest even the idea of retouching. It’s fake. And for me, it stands for precisely the opposite of what photography, or journalism for that matter, is all about. For me the math is simple, camera + moment = reality.

And now I see the same being done with the headshots of those we hold to be “watchdogs of the people.” Well I don’t buy it.

I think the problem with journalism can be traced to this exact thing. Doubt. Suspicion. Skepticism. Misrepresentation.

How can you misrepresent your own image, and ask to be believed?

Are you a celebrity, like the folks you are writing about? Are you part of the news? Or, are you strictly a vessel of delivery?

Me, I think many journalists have become part of the story, and that is where the foundation shows signs of a major crack. In my mind, you can’t do that. If you do, gone is your credibility.

I shouldn’t hear you. I shouldn’t see you, especially a fake impression of you, but what I should see and feel is the only the power of your work. And I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that what you say is the truth, or as close to the truth as you could possibly get.

I don’t feel that right now. I see those glamor shot mugs and think, “What’s next?”

This really strikes a nerve with me. To me, journalism is sacred, not casual, nor should it be cowed to the level of entertainment shows, and frankly I think that is what is happening. Me, I’m going to boycott any report, story or project that is accompanied by any perfect skin, perfect teeth, 30 pounds slimmer than they actual are, anchor, reporter, photographer, etc. I’ll probably be left without my news, but there are worse things in life.

I’ll leave you with one last experience. Last night I found a documentary on one of the few channels I get. It was really good. I only watched a few minutes, but what I did see was well done. Then suddenly we went to commercial. And there she was. A well known celebrity, only it really wasn’t her, it was some bastardized, digitally retouched, motion version of her, and I mean REALLY INSANELY OVERDONE OVERTOUCHED GHASTLY HORRIFYING VERSION OF THIS POOR WOMAN WHO UNDOUBTEDLY SIGNED OFF ON THIS HORROR SHOW. I was mesmerized as this creature stared back at me with lifeless eyes, or at least what was left of those eyes, and skin that was completely devoid of, well, skin. It was the orangeish, plastic looking stuff that is left when retouchers take all the human parts of the person away. I felt like my soul had been discarded in a roadside bin.

Is this really what we want people? Really? I can’t imagine this is where we all thought the ship was headed. I’m so glad we developed these tools, they are so perfect for overpowering nature and providing us with completely unrealistic material.

Me, I’m going to write a letter. Yep, a letter, specifically NOT an email. And I’m going to send it to the company that made this horror flick. They need to hear it, from at least one person. Might as well be me.

Onward and upward.