27 February 2009

Best Shots (61) ~ Vanesssa Winship

(87) Vanessa Winship ~ From: Sweet Nothings (26 February 09).


Hey Dude! The Strange Wave of Politics

Sand Monster - Ke Iki Beach, Hawaii.
Photograph © Clark Little/SWNS.COM

Clark Little photographing the inside of a tube wave.
Photograph © Sean Davey/SWNS.COM*

It is funny how sometimes a theme will pop out of the media. Today The Guardian is running this slide show of work by Clark Little who has made a career of photographing the inside of big waves. The work is pretty remarkable. Here I've lifted and example of Clark's work and an image of Clark working.

Now for the fortuitous convergence. At The Nation you can find this article - "Surfers versus the Superferry" - that reports on the strange coalition that has emerged in Hawaii to oppose the operation of a massive inter-Island ferry. Reading this essay I was reminded of Rebecca Solnit's reflections on how politics can insitgate strange partnerships. This coalition of Environmentalists groups, "of Native Hawaiians, joined by people of Japanese and Filipino descent and a contingent of New Age haoles (recent white settlers seeking Shangri-La)" and surfers is a perfect example of what she is talking about.
* Update (just a bit later): I am using the credit that The Guardian provides for this photo, but on Clark's web page the same image, accompanied by the caption "Clark Shooting the Shorebreak," is credited to Gregg Miller. I cannot locate a web presence for Gregg but wanted to mention the discrepancy in credits.

Update (27 March) ~ You can read more about the Hawaii case and the (at least) tentative legal successes the anti-Ferry coalition has had here at The Nation.

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26 February 2009

Media Coverage of War Dead

Not long ago, various entities in the media got all worked up because the White House wouldn't allow photographers into the Oval Office for publicity shots of the new President. I thought at the time that their complaints were more or less totally ridiculous and said so here. In part my irritation over that flap was colored by my sense that the press has been supine when significantly more important matters were at stake. For example, over the past two decades (since the first Gulf War) the military has prevented photographs of the caskets of returning war casualties. The press has basically capitulated completely.

Military personnel escorting coffins at Dover Air Force Base in
one of hundreds of photographs the Pentagon released in 2004.
Photograph: Agence France Press.

Today, the government rescinded that policy, sort of. According to this story in The New York Times Defense Secretary Gates announced that "the news media will now be allowed to photograph the coffins of America’s war dead as their bodies are returned to the United States, but only if the families of the dead agree."* With all due respect, I think the families of military dead ought to have no say in this. Men and women who head off in the military are public figures - they represent the country. Their deaths in service are the cost - in the case of Iraq, the senseless cost - of policies our government is implementing. The rest of us get off Scot free and are happy enough with that. We do not, however, respect or honor the sacrifice of the dead or their families by allowing their remains to be secreted back into the country. The claim to 'privacy' simply masks the cost of war. I have made this and similar points here and here and here and here and here and here and here.

Do not misunderstand me. I know from personal experience exactly how obnoxious and intrusive the press can be when a young person dies. But the press is hardly going to be showing us dismembered and maimed bodies. (After all, the military still keeps the press corralled "on the ground" in Iraq and Afghanistan. That is another matter though.) What they might show us is the mounting number of flag-draped caskets that are coming back as the result of military adventures. To the man quoted in The Times story who claims that allowing coverage of returning war dead will simply "politicize our fallen" I would say, that the decision to go to war is a political one. While I am saddened by the fact that this man's son died in Iraq, unfortunately, the politics of the matter started well before his casket was shipped home. (And, of course, as The Times reporter makes clear, Bush the elder's initial policy decision to prevent photographs of the returning dead was itself politically motivated.) We here at home can only assess whether the sacrifice being made is 'worth it' if we have some basis for knowing what sacrifice is actually being made. The "new"policy persists in making that task especially difficult.
* You can find other earlier stories from The Times on this issue here and here and here and here.

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25 February 2009

David Campbell ~ Photography, Multimedia, Politics

I want to call you attention to this new blog David Campbell has included on his web page. Campbell, whose work I have mentioned here (my very first post) and here, is among the people in political science whose work has inspired my own thinking about how politics and photography intersect. Go visit, and have a look at the other work David posts on the web page. His work is surely smart and will make you think.


The Political Landscape in the Siskiyou Mountains

Christopher LaMarca's Forest Defenders series makes visible some political struggles that remain safely out of sight for most of us. He says this about the work:
I have been photographing these activists and loggers since the summer of 2003. My connection to this project revolves around the passion and endless work that consumes these people who live in the back-country for months at a time; and who are willing to sacrifice their comforts' to stand up for their beliefs.

Although these activists are often seen as radicals or eco-terrorists, little has been documented about their activities outside of these stereotypes. These stunning landscapes will continue to be decimated due to political pressure and lack of education, these are some of last truly wild places left in America.
The activists engage in civil disobedience - taking up residence in the treetops to prevent them from being cut, blocking logging roads, etc. - in hope of delaying or disrupting the 'harvesting' of forest lands. Their adversaries include the U.S. Forest Service and employees of logging companies. The conflict LaMarca chronicles are taking place in Southern Oregon very close to where my son August now lives. In that area logging is among the most stable and lucrative (if dangerous) ways of making a living - so the conflict here runs deep.

The work (including the images I've lifted here) has been published by powerHouse Books. (Thanks for the post Jörg!)

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24 February 2009

Poor Annie Goes to the Pawn Shop

From The Guardian today ~ this frightening report:
"Annie Leibovitz, the celebrated New York photographer who has captured many of the most memorable images of the icons of Hollywood and Washington over the past 30 years, is not the kind of person usually associated with going to a pawn shop. But it seems that in these extraordinary times even the likes of Leibovitz need to find cash in extraordinary places.

The photographer, whose pictures of Michelle Obama adorn the March cover of Vogue, has turned to a company called Art Capital that specialises in lending money with fine art as the collateral.

The New York Times disclosed today that Leibovitz has borrowed about $15m (£10m) from the firm in two separate tranches.

Public records show that she secured the loan partly against property she owns, but also by putting up as collateral the copyright, negatives and contract rights to every photograph she has ever taken or will take in future.

Such an exceptional step, involving in essence the pawning of her entire life's work, may in Leibovitz's case be explained by the tumultuous few years she has been through. Her long-time friend Susan Sontag died in 2004, and she has been in costly litigation over the renovation of some of her properties."

Why frightening? Because even when she was relatively flush Leibovitz seemed to have no boundaries when it comes to pumping air into our over-inflated celebrity worship (e.g., [1] [2] [3] [4]). I suspect all propriety will now fall by the wayside.


Ironies of Boycotts (Again)

I have repeatedly expressed my opposition to those who advocate a cultural and academic as well as an economic boycott of Israel [1] [2] [3] [4]. I think such calls cast us as consumers rather than citizens. And I think there are other, better, political alternatives - like pressuring the U.S. government to cease supporting Israeli aggression or offering direct support to Israeli peace activists [5] [6] [7] [8]. But there are other ways too. For instance direct, critical engagement with the Israelis.

At the 24th Jerusalem International Book Fair last week Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami was awarded this year's Jerusalem Prize. According to the organizers: "Since 1963 the Jerusalem Prize has been awarded within the framework of the International Book Fair to authors whose writings have expressed the idea of the individual’s freedom in society. It is regarded as one of the most prestigious of international literary awards." Murakami took the opportunity to speak directly and quite critically to his Israeli hosts. In so doing he offers a standing alternative to the sorts of boycott that many on the left are pushing.

Always on the side of the egg*
By Haruki Murakami
(22 February 09)

"I have come to Jerusalem today as a novelist, which is to say as a professional spinner of lies.

Of course, novelists are not the only ones who tell lies. Politicians do it, too, as we all know. Diplomats and military men tell their own kinds of lies on occasion, as do used car salesmen, butchers and builders. The lies of novelists differ from others, however, in that no one criticizes the novelist as immoral for telling them. Indeed, the bigger and better his lies and the more ingeniously he creates them, the more he is likely to be praised by the public and the critics. Why should that be?

My answer would be this: Namely, that by telling skillful lies - which is to say, by making up fictions that appear to be true - the novelist can bring a truth out to a new location and shine a new light on it. In most cases, it is virtually impossible to grasp a truth in its original form and depict it accurately. This is why we try to grab its tail by luring the truth from its hiding place, transferring it to a fictional location, and replacing it with a fictional form. In order to accomplish this, however, we first have to clarify where the truth lies within us. This is an important qualification for making up good lies.

Today, however, I have no intention of lying. I will try to be as honest as I can. There are a few days in the year when I do not engage in telling lies, and today happens to be one of them.

So let me tell you the truth. A fair number of people advised me not to come here to accept the Jerusalem Prize. Some even warned me they would instigate a boycott of my books if I came.

The reason for this, of course, was the fierce battle that was raging in Gaza. The UN reported that more than a thousand people had lost their lives in the blockaded Gaza City, many of them unarmed citizens - children and old people.

Any number of times after receiving notice of the award, I asked myself whether traveling to Israel at a time like this and accepting a literary prize was the proper thing to do, whether this would create the impression that I supported one side in the conflict, that I endorsed the policies of a nation that chose to unleash its overwhelming military power. This is an impression, of course, that I would not wish to give. I do not approve of any war, and I do not support any nation. Neither, of course, do I wish to see my books subjected to a boycott.

Finally, however, after careful consideration, I made up my mind to come here. One reason for my decision was that all too many people advised me not to do it. Perhaps, like many other novelists, I tend to do the exact opposite of what I am told. If people are telling me - and especially if they are warning me - "don't go there," "don't do that," I tend to want to "go there" and "do that." It's in my nature, you might say, as a novelist. Novelists are a special breed. They cannot genuinely trust anything they have not seen with their own eyes or touched with their own hands.

And that is why I am here. I chose to come here rather than stay away. I chose to see for myself rather than not to see. I chose to speak to you rather than to say nothing.

This is not to say that I am here to deliver a political message. To make judgments about right and wrong is one of the novelist's most important duties, of course.

It is left to each writer, however, to decide upon the form in which he or she will convey those judgments to others. I myself prefer to transform them into stories - stories that tend toward the surreal. Which is why I do not intend to stand before you today delivering a direct political message.

Please do, however, allow me to deliver one very personal message. It is something that I always keep in mind while I am writing fiction. I have never gone so far as to write it on a piece of paper and paste it to the wall: Rather, it is carved into the wall of my mind, and it goes something like this:

"Between a high, solid wall and an egg that breaks against it, I will always stand on the side of the egg."

Yes, no matter how right the wall may be and how wrong the egg, I will stand with the egg. Someone else will have to decide what is right and what is wrong; perhaps time or history will decide. If there were a novelist who, for whatever reason, wrote works standing with the wall, of what value would such works be?

What is the meaning of this metaphor? In some cases, it is all too simple and clear. Bombers and tanks and rockets and white phosphorus shells are that high, solid wall. The eggs are the unarmed civilians who are crushed and burned and shot by them. This is one meaning of the metaphor.

This is not all, though. It carries a deeper meaning. Think of it this way. Each of us is, more or less, an egg. Each of us is a unique, irreplaceable soul enclosed in a fragile shell. This is true of me, and it is true of each of you. And each of us, to a greater or lesser degree, is confronting a high, solid wall. The wall has a name: It is The System. The System is supposed to protect us, but sometimes it takes on a life of its own, and then it begins to kill us and cause us to kill others - coldly, efficiently, systematically.

I have only one reason to write novels, and that is to bring the dignity of the individual soul to the surface and shine a light upon it. The purpose of a story is to sound an alarm, to keep a light trained on The System in order to prevent it from tangling our souls in its web and demeaning them. I fully believe it is the novelist's job to keep trying to clarify the uniqueness of each individual soul by writing stories - stories of life and death, stories of love, stories that make people cry and quake with fear and shake with laughter. This is why we go on, day after day, concocting fictions with utter seriousness.

My father died last year at the age of 90. He was a retired teacher and a part-time Buddhist priest. When he was in graduate school, he was drafted into the army and sent to fight in China. As a child born after the war, I used to see him every morning before breakfast offering up long, deeply-felt prayers at the Buddhist altar in our house. One time I asked him why he did this, and he told me he was praying for the people who had died in the war.

He was praying for all the people who died, he said, both ally and enemy alike. Staring at his back as he knelt at the altar, I seemed to feel the shadow of death hovering around him.

My father died, and with him he took his memories, memories that I can never know. But the presence of death that lurked about him remains in my own memory. It is one of the few things I carry on from him, and one of the most important.

I have only one thing I hope to convey to you today. We are all human beings, individuals transcending nationality and race and religion, fragile eggs faced with a solid wall called The System. To all appearances, we have no hope of winning. The wall is too high, too strong - and too cold. If we have any hope of victory at all, it will have to come from our believing in the utter uniqueness and irreplaceability of our own and others' souls and from the warmth we gain by joining souls together.

Take a moment to think about this. Each of us possesses a tangible, living soul. The System has no such thing. We must not allow The System to exploit us. We must not allow The System to take on a life of its own. The System did not make us: We made The System.

That is all I have to say to you.

I am grateful to have been awarded the Jerusalem Prize. I am grateful that my books are being read by people in many parts of the world. And I am glad to have had the opportunity to speak to you here today.
Had Murakami heeded the calls to boycott Israel, we'd not have this forthright statement. It raises the question of effectiveness and of what counts as political success. But that is something about which I have written here also. Look it up.
* The essay is published under a different title - "The Novelist in Wartime" - here at Salon.com.

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23 February 2009

Annals of Fair Use ~ Stephen Colbert Sorts Things Out

I missed this when it played a couple of weeks ago. Two things struck me: (1) that David Ross the curator from the Whitney insisted that "Art" is a matter of intent, and (2) the frank, wholly un-ironic way Ed Colbert, the lawyer, admits to being totally for sale.

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21 February 2009

Local Event: Ethnic Heritage Ensemble

Rochester is off the beaten path musically. Sunday night Tom Kohn proprietor of The Bop Shop is hosting another in his series of events that make the town a bit less desolate.

$10 donation requested
274 N Goodman St. In Village Gate

I highly recommend the show. EHE is among my favorite bands. Hope to see you there.

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Spectre of Hope

“There are only two services that images can offer the afflicted. One
is to find the story that expresses the truth of their affliction. The
second is to find the words that can give resonance, through the crust
of external circumstances, to the cry that is always inaudible:
‘Why am I being hurt?’” ~ Simone Weil

Earlier this week I watched Spectre of Hope a relatively short film that was released in 2001. It consists of a conversation between Sebastião Salgado and John Berger and is set primarily in the kitchen of Berger's house in the French countryside. They are talking about Salgado's Migrations project. In the course of the conversation Berger reads passages from various writers including the one from Simone Weil above. The two men are pretty remarkable. There is not much else to say. However, one comment that Salgado makes barely half-way through the course of the conversation is extremely provocative. He has just noted that the displaced people he has photographed are in transition ~ having been forced out of a more or less stable life, they are actively seeking another stable existence. Then he says:
"And I don't believe they need any compassion. If the person looking at my pictures only feels compassion, I will believe that I have failed completely.”
What he hopes to do, instead, is prompt viewers to think, to understand that there may be solutions to, remedies for, the dire circumstances the people he depicts inhabit. And that, of course, is not a matter of compassion and the gestures it prompts, but of politics.
You can find a partial transcript of the conversation here: “A Tragedy the Size of the Planet,” The Guardian (G2), 28 May 2001.

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20 February 2009

How Not to Write Criticism ~ Sevigny on Rio Branco

As I have noted here and here I quite like Miguel Rio Branco's work. There is a brief homage to him by John Sevigny at the blog run by the folks Guernica. Sevigny apparently got out of the bed on the wrong side the day he jotted down this post. His essay displays a bit of more or less strained free association, comparing Rio Branco's work to Eggleston and Koudelka. OK, maybe. He rightly pushes the point that Rio Branco's work tramples more or less indiscriminately across the conventional documentary-art divide into which too many folks try to push photography; but that is neither new (. . . if I have noted it before, which I have, how profound can that be!?!) nor is it unique to Rio Branco. Finally, having started by taking more or less gratuitous swipes at a half-a-handful of other photographers, Sevigny ends his comments by complaining about David Levi Strauss who contributed an essay to one collection of Rio Branco's photographs. I happen to think quite highly of Levi Strauss's writing (including the essay that draws Sevigny's ire) and have provided some reasons here. John seems to have his knickers in a knot because Levi Strauss actually treats his readers as literate - he (gasp!) refers to writers and thinkers and assumes we might know who they are and what they've done! I guess I don't find that a problem. My point? Sevigny has some modestly insightful things to say about Rio Branco. I'd much rather have had him develop those than listen to him take pot shots. If he'd re-calibrated the post it might've been interesting.


19 February 2009

Why is Nobody Talking About Inequality?

I've just watched this presentation by economist Joseph Stiglitz, broadcast live from Columbia Business School. The topic? Our economic crisis. Interestingly, Stiglitz begins by stating quite baldly that the underlying problem with our economy stemmed from the massive increase in income and wealth inequality in the U.S. and elsewhere. As he stated it, you dramatically shift resources from those with a higher higher propensity to spend to those with a lower marginal propensity to spend. Consequence? Inadequate aggregate demand. Stiglitz then traces the fiasco with the financial and real estate markets to that underlying factor.

In the bulk of his talk, Stiglitz discusses the three aspects of he Obama economic recovery program: stimulus package, housing recovery program, and financial market remedies. All are, on his account, at best, inadequate and ill-designed. He talks at the end about the prospect of nationalizing the banks in one or another way. And he thinks that is likely the right course of action.

I think Stiglitz is more or less on the money on the topics he actually addresses. But what he never really talks about is how we might remedy the underlying problem: political-economic inequality. Our real problem is that no one is actually talking about the real problem!

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Emergency ~ Shaman Drum Books

I have a longstanding connection to the city of Ann Arbor, Michigan. My first wife went to graduate school there at the University of Michigan. So I have memories of the city in the early 1980s. Like today, that was a time of real economic hardship in Michigan. But the town was not yet overrun by homogenizing chain stores and eateries. This was before Borders Books, which started in Ann Arbor, matured into an anti-union, least common denominator, medium-sized-box national chain.

For the past decade I have spent part of each summer teaching at the ICPSR Summer Program which is affiliated with the University of Michigan. So, I have witnessed the slow creep of homogenization as chains fill every commercial nook & cranny in Ann Arbor. A while back I mentioned the demise of Schoolkids Records where I had been buying - actually discovering - music since even before it was driven into into exile. Now another invaluable cultural resource - Shaman Drum Books - is under severe stress. You can read about the problems over at Isak, a really terrific blog that Anna Clark keeps. I highly recommend Isak. In any case, Anna has written this post about ways you might help save this bookstore; she has run another more recent post by Karl Pohrt who founded Shaman Drum in which he sketches the current situation, how it came to pass and what he is trying to do to remedy it. Independent purveyors of books and music are crucial to our cultural ecology. If Shaman Drum goes belly up, Ann Arbor will be much the worse for the loss.

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Best Shots (60) ~ Jem Southam

(86) Jem Southam ~ A Cornish Familiar? (19 February '09).


17 February 2009

"Enough is Enough" ~ Evictions and Politics

Eviction Notices Warning and final eviction notices are lined
up in the office of the Cuyahoga County Sheriff's Department.
Photograph © Anthony Suau/Time Magazine.

It is interesting that, as I noted here, Anthony Suau has just won the 2008 "Photo of he Year" Award from World Press Photo for one of a series of images on the financial crisis.* The winning image shows a law enforcement officer in Cleveland entering, with his weapon drawn, a house from which residents have been evicted.

Today The New York Times ran this very interesting story about an incipient grass-roots political movement to support and defend people being threatened with eviction. In a sense, what the people - individuals, families, groups - involved in this movement are up to is working to shift the terms of debate, transforming what largely has been discussed in the press and policy circles as a crisis in real estate or mortgage markets into a political problem revolving around housing security and the importance of shelter for ordinary citizens. And these people are not just advocating but coordinating civil disobedience in the face of evictions.

According to The Times some local political and law enforcement officials are attempting to keep evictions in abeyance. But, if you believe this report from Chris Hedges, there are those who anticipate that the emergence widespread political resistance will require a coordinated, severely repressive response.**
* If you are familiar with Suau's work you might find this story at PDN interesting.
** And you might well believe it since I just heard a preview of a story on this matter that is scheduled to run, of all places, on npr tomorrow morning. In other words, it is not just coming from people like Hedges who are frequently and unfairly discounted as cranks just because they take a critical approach to reporting.


16 February 2009

Annals of Fair Use ~ Expert Testimony

I have posted a number of times on Shepard Fairey [1] [2] and some of his recent legal . . . well, depending on your perspective, either travails or shenanigans [3] [4]. Setting aside the quality of his work, which I have all along considered distinctly underwhelming, I still am not persuaded that his appropriation of photographs violates 'fair use.'

I am given some pause though, by this remark from a recent interview with graphics guru Milton Glaser: "For myself—this is subjective—I find the relationship between Fairey’s work and his sources discomforting. Nothing substantial has been added. . . . I think unless you’re modifying it and making it your own, you’re on very tenuous ground." If AP were to call Glaser to testify as an expert witness, old Shepard might have a tough go defending his claim to have creatively transformed Mannie Garcia's photograph of Obama.

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Expiration Notice

A while back I mentioned the imminent appearance of a new blog called Expiration Notice. The idea is to showcase the work of photographers of advanced age (over 35). Well, last week, the inaugural installment - featuring Alan George, John Darwell, David Wolff & George Georgiou - appeared in fact not just anticipation. Go have a look.


15 February 2009

Robert Frank

I missed this story on npr yesterday, marking the opening of the retrospective at the National Gallery of Art of Robert Frank's The Americans. The book, originally published by Grove Press in 1958, has recently been re-issued by Steidl. I bought a copy last summer and it is terrific. Now yet another version has been produced as an exhibition catalogue - complete with reproductions of the contact sheets from which Frank selected the 83 images in the original volume.


On Torture: Inquiring Minds Want to Know

And it is not just pinkos like me, either. According to this poll by USA Today/Gallup, nearly two thirds of Americans would like to see some form of inquiry into the "alleged" use of torture by the Bush administration. The report from USA Today is here.

The Obama mantra is that we should simply "look forward." But a pragmatist wants to learn from the past in order to avoid doing things in the future that are illegal, morally and politically reprehensible, and practically counter-productive. So, from a pragmatist perspective an inquiry is arguably necessary. (Of course, in order to asses the consequences of mounting such an inquiry one would want to account for the howls of opposition that would come from the right.)

And since the Obama crowd are oh-so concerned with bi-partisanship, they should look at these numbers and notice that many more people seem to support some sort of inquiry than, say, voted for Obama in the election.

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14 February 2009

World Press Photo Awards

Following an eviction, detective Robert Kole must ensure
residents have moved out of their home in Cleveland, Ohio,
26 March 2008. Photograph © Anthony Suau/Time Magazine.

And the winner is ... Anthony Suau. World Press Photo has announced the winners of its 2008 photo contest. The image I've lifted here was selected as "Photo of the Year." You can find the 'winners gallery' here.

I want to note, in particular, that Brenda Ann Kenneally, about whose harrowing portrait of how the poor live in upstate New York I have posted here before, won 1st Prize in the Daily Life "Stories" category. The only troubling thing is that her depiction apparently is not "news," seemingly because it is not an event like a war or a famine or an epidemic. Actually her subject is an epidemic. The lives Kenneally shows us are no less calamitous for not being newsworthy.

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Happy Birthday My Sweet Boy

Today my son August turns three. Time flies! I miss you every day August! To celebrate I am going to watch your brother Doug play lacrosse - the first scrimmage of the year. Papa loves August.

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Defend the "Democratic Right to Take a Photograph in a Public Place": Invitation to a Protest ~ London, 16 February

"Documenting political dissent in Britain is under
and just in time for the political and
industrial fall out from
the recession."
~ Marc Vallée, The Guardian

Vallée is talking about the Terrorism Act of 2008 which goes into effect on Monday and, as I noted here recently, tightly constrains the ability of photographers in Britain to take pictures in public and especially of the police. He goes on: "This is why I will be outside New Scotland Yard at 11am on Monday 16 February 2009 with hundreds of other photographers, filmmakers and the wonderful Mark Thomas to exercise my democratic right to take a photograph in a public place. Feel free to come along and join us, and remember to bring your camera." This protest is being coordinated in part by the National Union of Journalists. If I lived in London, I'd be there too.

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13 February 2009


What we've seen is socialization of risk and failure, shifting the burden from the corporate types onto the public. There is nothing new in that. The rich and responsible have been getting relief (or at least efforts toward relief) while the rest of the country is getting ... what? Hardly socialism.

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Kick Bi-Partisanship to the Curb!

Given the way the folks in Washington D.C. fetshize "bi-partisanship" I want to call attention to a couple of comments Paul Krugman makes in his column today:

One might have expected Republicans to act at least slightly chastened in these early days of the Obama administration, given both their drubbing in the last two elections and the economic debacle of the past eight years.

But it’s now clear that the party’s commitment to deep voodoo — enforced, in part, by pressure groups that stand ready to run primary challengers against heretics — is as strong as ever. In both the House and the Senate, the vast majority of Republicans rallied behind the idea that the appropriate response to the abject failure of the Bush administration’s tax cuts is more Bush-style tax cuts.

And the rhetorical response of conservatives to the stimulus plan — which will, it’s worth bearing in mind, cost substantially less than either the Bush administration’s $2 trillion in tax cuts or the $1 trillion and counting spent in Iraq — has bordered on the deranged.

[. . . ]

And the ugliness of the political debate matters because it raises doubts about the Obama administration’s ability to come back for more if, as seems likely, the stimulus bill proves inadequate.

[. . .]

The best may not lack all conviction, but they seem alarmingly willing to settle for half-measures. And the worst are, as ever, full of passionate intensity, oblivious to the grotesque failure of their doctrine in practice.
Why would you want to deal with the Republicans if (as I think is the case) Krugman's portrait is accurate?

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How Bad is It? Pass the Meatballs, Please

Nationalize the Banks! We're all Swedes Now
Matthew Richardson and Nouriel Roubini
Washington Post
Sunday, February 15, 2009; B03

The U.S. banking system is close to being insolvent, and unless we want to become like Japan in the 1990s -- or the United States in the 1930s -- the only way to save it is nationalization.

As free-market economists teaching at a business school in the heart of the world's financial capital, we feel downright blasphemous proposing an all-out government takeover of the banking system. But the U.S. financial system has reached such a dangerous tipping point that little choice remains. And while Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner's recent plan to save it has many of the right elements, it's basically too late.

The subprime mortgage mess alone does not force our hand; the $1.2 trillion it involves is just the beginning of the problem. Another $7 trillion -- including commercial real estate loans, consumer credit-card debt and high-yield bonds and leveraged loans -- is at risk of losing much of its value. Then there are trillions more in high-grade corporate bonds and loans and jumbo prime mortgages, whose worth will also drop precipitously as the recession deepens and more firms and households default on their loans and mortgages.

Last year we predicted that losses by U.S. financial institutions would hit $1 trillion and possibly go as high as $2 trillion. We were accused of exaggerating. But since then, write-downs by U.S. banks have passed the $1 trillion mark, and now institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and Goldman Sachs predict losses of more than $2 trillion.

But if you think that $2 trillion is high, consider our latest estimates at RGE Monitor, the financial Web site that we run: Those estimates suggest that total losses on loans made by U.S. banks and the fall in the market value of the assets they are holding will reach about $3.6 trillion. The U.S. banking sector is exposed to half of that figure, or $1.8 trillion. Even with the original federal bailout funds from last fall, the capital backing the banks' assets was only $1.4 trillion, leaving the U.S. banking system about $400 billion in the hole.

Two important parts of Geithner's plan are (i) "stress testing" banks to separate viable institutions from bankrupt ones and (ii) establishing an investment fund with private and public money to purchase bad assets. These are necessary steps towards a healthy financial sector.

But, unfortunately, the plan won't solve our financial woes because it assumes that the system is solvent. If implemented fairly for current taxpayers (i.e., no more freebies in the form of underpriced equity, preferred shares, loan guarantees or insurance on assets), it will just confirm how bad things really are.

Nationalization is the only option that would permit us to solve the problem of toxic assets in an orderly fashion and allow lending finally to resume. Of course, the economy would still stink, but the death spiral we are in would stop.

Nationalization -- call it "receivership" if that sounds more palatable -- won't be easy, but here is a set of principles for the government to go by:

First, and this is by far the toughest step, determine which banks are insolvent. Geithner's stress test would be helpful here. The government should start with the big banks that have outside debt, and it must determine which are solvent and which aren't in one fell swoop to avoid panic. Otherwise, bringing down one big bank will start an immediate run on the equity and long-term debt of the others. It will be a rough ride, but the regulators must stay strong.

Second, immediately nationalize insolvent institutions. The equity-holders will be wiped out, and long-term debt-holders will have claims only after the depositors and other short-term creditors are paid off.

Third, once an institution is taken over, separate its assets into good and bad ones. The bad assets would be valued at current (albeit depressed) values. Again, as in Geithner's plan, private capital could purchase a fraction of those bad assets. As for the good assets, they would go private again, either through an IPO or a sale to a strategic buyer.

The proceeds from both these bad and good assets would first go to depositors and then to debt-holders, with some possible sharing with the government to cover administrative costs. If the depositors are paid off in full, then the government actually breaks even.

Fourth, merge all the remaining bad assets into one enterprise. The assets could be held to maturity or eventually sold off with the gains and risks accruing to the taxpayers.

The eventual outcome would be a healthy financial system with many new banks capitalized by good assets. Insolvent, too-big-to-fail banks would be broken up into smaller pieces less likely to threaten the whole financial system. Regulatory reforms also would be instituted to reduce the chances of costly future crises.

Nationalizing banks is not without precedent. In 1992, the Swedish government took over its insolvent banks, cleaned them up and reprivatized them. Obviously, the Swedish banking system was much smaller than the U.S. system. Moreover, some of the current U.S. financial institutions are much larger and more complex, making analysis difficult. And today's global capital markets make gaming the system easier than in 1992. But we believe that, if applied correctly, the Swedish solution will work here.

Sweden's restructuring agency was not an out-of-control bureaucracy; it delegated all the details of the clean-up to private bankers and managers hired by the government. The process was remarkably smooth.

Basically, we're all Swedes now. We have used all our bullets, and the boogeyman is still coming. Let's pull out the bazooka and be done with it.

Matthew Richardson and Nouriel Roubini, professors at New York University's Stern School of Business, both contributed to the upcoming book "Restoring Financial Stability: How to Repair a Failed System."

My friend in Beijing Cui Zhiyuan periodically sends me essays and reports that catch his eye. This one landed in my in box this morning. Thanks Cui, hope all is well!


A Public Institution ~ No Questions Asked, No Judgements Made

I came across this Op-Ed in The Buffalo News in a roundabout way.* In any case, the author of the Op-Ed - Bridget Quinn-Carey - is pooh bah of the Erie County (NY) Public Library System. And her main point is to proclaim:
"As a public library, we welcome everyone who comes through our doors. The library is a public institution, and one of the only remaining educational and cultural institutions free and open to all regardless of age, gender, socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity — or housing situation. All have equal access to our treasures and knowledge, and to the facilities that house them."
Buffalo is very cold and very snowy this time of year - it is an extremely harsh climate in which to survive if you are poor or homeless. And it is inspiring to hear Quinn-Carey re-assert in so forthright a way what being a public institution implies. Her statement, however, reminds me of two things. First, it reminds me of how economically inhospitable the U.S. actually is for large numbers of people. Second, her statement reminds me of just how little public space actually remains. You will not be surprised to learn that I think the prevalence of economic hardship and the evisceration of public space are deeply political problems, each in a different way a threat to democracy.
* I won't try to reconstruct the path other than to say 'thanks V!'


12 February 2009

New Legal Threat to Photographers in U.K.

Bad news from Britain. Today The Guardian ran this story about a new 'anti- terrorism' statute coming into effect in the U.K. that looks likely to be used to constrain the rights of photograph- ers in serious ways. Would Don McPhee be allowed to make the photograph at right, which I've included in this earlier post, under the new law? It seems quite doubtful.

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Best Shots (59) ~ Eugene Richards

(85) Eugene Richards - Corinth, North Dakota, 30 Below
(12 February 09).


11 February 2009

Progressives & Obama

My paper copy of The Nation arrived today. I will call your attention to the terrifically smart column by Gary Younge. It's called "Beyond Hope." Since it is protected by a subscription wall you might not be able to access it. Here are the good bits:
"But it's time to let that new reality sink in. The transition is over. We have moved from aspiration to destination. Obama has arrived. Tempting though it may be to savor the lingering aftertaste of a sweet, sweet victory, progressives need to take the posters down and the buttons off. These are no longer the emblems of resistance but of power.

A movement that does not champion the cause of the powerless has no right to call itself progressive. And a movement that attaches itself unequivocally to power does not have the credibility or wherewithal to call itself progressive. That distinction is of course much easier in times when those in power attack us and our values with impunity. But it is no less necessary when they don't.

[. . .]

Our support for Obama has always been (or should always have been) contingent, as opposed to unconditional. That does not necessarily mean an antagonistic relationship but at the very least an independent one. So to remove his likeness from our walls, hats, chests and homes signals not a souring of the relationship between progressives and Obama but a maturing of it. For many this will be difficult.

[. . .]

The Obama signs, in all their various forms, came to represent a badge of belonging--particularly outside Democratic strongholds. In the small town of Roanoke in conservative southwest Virginia, where I spent much of the campaign, an Obama poster on a popcorn machine in an ice cream and soda store was the sign for some patrons that they could talk freely about their support for him without being harangued. It signaled that, regardless of Fox News talking points your family members, fellow parishioners or colleagues might have been spouting, there was a world out there in which you were not entirely crazy and your values had some value.

To some, bearing the sign marks a form of premature nostalgia for the days when all they dared do was hope. There is a place for that. But as Shepard Fairey's iconic poster of Obama goes up in the National Portrait Gallery, that place is rightfully in a museum. Along with the buttons calling to Free Angela Davis or Nelson Mandela, posters for the Poor People's March or placards to defend the Rosenbergs, they are important pieces of the nation's liberal history because they illustrate an important moment. But that moment has passed.

The T-shirts and buttons served as a shorthand for a makeshift progressive community that gathered around a candidate. That community--or at least that desire for community--still exists. But the moment it gathers around a president, it ceases to be progressive."

Just so.

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Newsflash from The Independent ~ "Batwoman, the Red-Headed Lesbian, is Unleashed at Last"

According to this front-page story in The Independent, not only do the writer and illustrator at DC Comics think this new character is "exceptionally cool," but the reporter claims the her oine's appearance "represents a significant cultural landmark for the gay rights movement." I suppose. But what about the red haired minority? Is this not a giant step for that group as well? After all, the press pretty regularly publishes tales of discrimination (e.g., [1] [2] [3]) against redheads and even dire, but contested, predictions that redheads might be an endangered species (e.g., [4] [5]). I think The Independent owes the 'carrot-tops' an apology!

10 February 2009

The Fruits of Bi-Partisanship: The Collins-Grassley-Snowe Slide

When you bargain away a decent (if still inadequate) piece of legislation for your "moderate" votes, here is what you generate! Good job Senators! And Good job Democrats for not calling the Republicans' bluff. (The graphic is from The New York Times.)

As for our Hoper-in-Chief, this, from the Gawker, seems just about right:
"Obama's poor, beat-up stimulus bill is hated by the Republicans because, hey, it's government spending, and its hated by Democrats because it's not as big and substantial and country-saving as it should be. If Obama's philosophy is the art of the possible, well, he fucked up by thinking that a good-faith effort to make a bill palatable to moderate conservatives would actually work to appease any of them.

And so he's out there selling something he knows isn't actually that good, which is why he's forced to couch his pitch entirely in negative tones: if we don't pass this bill, if we do nothing, we are all seriously fucked. Not, like, "once we pass this bill things will get better," but just pure it's-better-than-nothing. Inspirational!"

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09 February 2009

Annals of Fair Use ~ The Best Defense is a Good Offense

The Associated Press objects to the use of a photo of Barack Obama
by Mannie
Garcia in a poster by Shepard Fairey.
Photograph © Mannie Garcia/AP.

A follow-up on this earlier post from The New York Times which reports (more here) that Shepard Fairey cut off talks with AP and went to court to protect his "fair use" of a photograph that AP may or may not own. I will stick by my bet that AP has a loser on this.

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NGOs as Mercenary: The Task is to Manipulate Emotions

I spend a lot of time here railing about the tendency of photographers to depoliticize the subjects they are addressing. For a good example see my recent post on Julio Bittencourt. But I usually also have tried to recognize that photographers do not work in a vacuum - they often are 'embedded' with this or that organization, agency or publication. And these sponsors typically have photo editors with agendas of their own, working within a set of conventional expectations. There is a short essay here at World Press Photo by Evelien Shotsman, photo editor at Oxfam Novib, who underscores this point in a succinct, troubling way. Essentially Shotsman is telling photographers that they ought to do precisely what I criticized Bittencourt for doing.*
"But I still think photography is a strong tool in advocating a world without poverty.

Not by trying to capture the big contemporary issues, like climate change and food crises in a general way.But by telling small stories of people trying to live a small but happy life. Not by tryng to show 'the truth,' but by showing that the truth has many faces.

Not by showing harsh images alone but trying to lure people into another reality by showing the love and beauty that exists, even in the most deprived situations. Showing the similarities between those viewing an image and the victims, rather than the huge differences.

We all love our children and good food. We all need a safe place to stay, reliable neighbors and friends. Focusing on the strength of the people, not as powerless victims but as capable individuals in need of support to gain control (again) of their own lives."
Shotsman's advice is clear. Treat aggregate catastrophes like genocide, famine, epidemic, war, and so forth, as well as the displacement, hardships and suffering they generate, as problems for remediation by charity. Treat the ensuing hardships as tasks for individuals to overcome provided, of course, they receive a philanthropic hand. Focus on our common human dignity even in the face of hardship and deprivation. Ignore, at least by implication, the political and economic forces that continuously create catastrophes. Neglect the political actions groups or communities take in hopes of addressing their shared predicament collectively, taking aim at what they see as its probable source. That would require that we acknowledge and strategize about collective problems and their structural sources. And that would distract us from giving alms.

And, of course, veracity can go too - so long as it is for a good cause!
"For people to become interested they need to be moved in an emotional and esthetical way.

So all techniques, manipulations and enhancements are allowed to highlight the emotional quality of the photo. In this sense I see the need for the photojournalist to become the photo artist of reality."
If Don Rumsfeld, or Dick Cheney or Karl Rove had uttered something like this in public, there would be an outcry. (I am confident they thought something very much like this!) And, of course, groups like Oxfam do important work trying to clean up large scale messes that trail in the wake of political and economic catastrophes. Yet, insofar as the work of photographers is shaped and constrained by the strictures Shotsman lays out, photography is disabled politically.
* I do not know if Bittencourt's work was underwritten directly or indirectly (see the essay by Simon Norfolk I note in the previous post) by an outside agency or organization. It seems, though, that his work adheres quite closely to the strictures Shotsman articulates. This suggests the points she is making function very much as the 'common knowledge' that animates standard practices.

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There is a Pretty Dire Assessment about How Photographers Will be Impacted by the Economic Crisis . . .

. . . from Simon Norfolk here at World Press Photo. The essay is short but far from sweet.

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08 February 2009

By Popular Demand ~ More on Icelandic Politics

Rebecca Solnit has written an Op-Ed - "Iceland is Steamed" - in today's Los Angeles Times and a longer version here at TomDispatch.com. I mention this not just as a follow up to this earlier post, but in hopes it will prompt yet another missive from my friend Gissur Ó Erlingsson!

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07 February 2009

Missed Opportunity ~ Julio Bittencourt

God forbid that photographers heave overboard the vacuous clichés about capturing 'human dignity' and actually engage with people and the politics they engage in on their own terms! And god forbid that reputable publications stop letting photographers get away with the diversionary tactics.

Today The Guardian ran this short piece on a new book by Brazilian photographer Julio Bittencourt entitled In A Window Of Prestes Maia 911 Building (Dewi Lewis). I've not seen the book. You can find some of Bittencourt's photographs here. I suppose the notice in The Guardian is what now passes for a review of this project. It certainly displays not a wit of critical judgment.

The building in question was an abandoned 22 story skyscraper in São Paulo. It was occupied by hundreds of families organized by the Homeless Movement of Central São Paulo. The residents coordinated their own community life in many ways and resisted the government's efforts to evict them. That sounds pretty political to me: a group of people get together and collectively pursue a solution that will meet their need for a basic necessity and then defend themselves against those who don't like what they've done. Why couldn't Bittencourt acknowledge any of that? Instead he diminishes the people and their achievement, seemingly transforming a vital political movement into a human interest story.

This becomes clear as Bittencourt recites the trite justifications of non-committal documentary work. Here is how The Guardian notice ends:
The squat was always intended as a protest as well as a place to live, and it succeeded. Most of the squatters have been rehoused or compensated by the government. For Bittencourt, however, it was never a political project: it was about the people he met. "I wanted to show them in a different way. Even though the walls are dingy, you see a lot of dignity from the people."
Instead of agents seeking to fend for themselves and their compatriots by making claims on resources and on the state, we instead get bearers of abstract human dignity. You might think this is simply another of my tired left-wing efforts to find some political dimension everywhere. But go ahead and google "homeless movement Brazil." You'll get a sense of just how far out of his way Bittencourt has to go in order to divert attention from the politics involved. You don't need to read about the ongoing movements among landless and homeless in Brazil in any of the links to wacky leftist publications (although you can - should - do that too). You can simply have a look here at the BBC News. Among the photographs accompanying that story you'll find this unattributed image:

The residents hang banners stating their human rights
on the outside of the building.

In order to make his photographs Bittencourt must've had to walk right under these banners or ones pretty much like them. As he tells The Guardian "I spent three months studying the interior and exterior, the light, the windows, and getting to know the residents." I wonder how he could've gotten to know the residents without really listening to what they were saying.

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What Insisting on Bi-Partisanship Gets You ~ Ineffectual Policy

". . . to appease the centrists, a plan that was already too small and too focused on ineffective tax cuts has been made significantly smaller, and even more focused on tax cuts. . . .

The real question now is whether Obama will be able to come back for more once it’s clear that the plan is way inadequate. My guess is no. This is really, really bad." ~ Paul Krugman
So much for post-partisanship. So much for "change." So much for leadership from the Democrats in Congress and the White House.

Update (8 February): Today Krigman published this polished and somewhat expanded version of this earlier post in The Times. The punchline? "But how did this happen? I blame President Obama’s belief that he can transcend the partisan divide — a belief that warped his economic strategy." I have said it repeatedly here before - bi-partisanship is bad for policy and for democracy.

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The Annals of Fair Use ~ AP Pressing On Against All Hope

Barack Obama, 2006. Photograph Mannie Garcia/AP.

At State of the Art there is a brief post suggesting that Associated Press is pressing Shepard Fairy for compensation, claiming that he based his now ubiquitous graphic of Obama/HOPE on this photograph taken by an AP photographer. You can read brief reports on the matter here in Time and here at AFP as well. On the 'curiouser and curiouser' dimension, it seems the photographer himself - Mannie Garcia - claims that he was not an AP employee when he took the photograph in question and that they do not own rights to it. This could get interesting. It seems to me that AP - if it owns the rights - has a loser on its hands legally.

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06 February 2009

Politics in Iceland ~ Two Views

The first is from Rebecca Solnit in this essay from Harper's last fall entitled "Iceland's Polite Dystopia."

The second is from the inimitable Stephen Colbert earlier this week:

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