Consider this: a starlet is photographed with a musician, at a hockey game; she is smiling.
One week later, she is photographed with her boyfriend, on vacation; she is frowning.
And based on these two photographs, we get a tabloid story suggesting she’s about to split with the boyfriend and take up with the musician.
Can these pictures be telling us the truth?
Let’s make the assumption that these photos were taken at 1/250 second.
Each minute contains 15,000 exposures of 1/250 second.
Each hour contains 900,000.
How likely is it that said starlet also frowned with the musician, and smiled with the boyfriend, in some of those millions of 1/250 second exposures they spent in each other’s company?
Photographs don’t contain stories; we make up stories about them. Andre Kertesz said that photographs cannot lie, but liars can take photographs. And we can also arrange and discuss photographs to support any story we want to tell.
This is not exclusive to the tabloids and the papparazi, although they provide the most dishonest examples.
Consider Doug Ball’s famous shot of Robert Stanfield fumbling a football. Newspapers chose to run this photo over all the shots of him throwing, catching, smiling and whatever else. And this choice may have cost Stanfield the election.
Or consider Eddie Adams’s Saigon execution. The limits of the frame and of the exposure time conceal the fact that the victim of this execution was no civilian; he was a known VietCong fighter. But with that context removed, the photograph shows a soldier executing a civilian.
Or, for a more recent example, consider the crowds pulling down Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad. Shots from a more distant vantage showed how small those crowds actually were, suggesting a different story entirely.
In our much-ballyhooed digital age, we assume that the major ethical issues in photojournalism revolve around Photoshop. But they don’t, and they never have.
1/900,000 of an hour can’t really tell the truth about anything. If you need Photoshop to lie with a camera, you just aren’t trying very hard.
I have been failing to follow the whole Belle du Jour/Brooke Magnanti story, out of disinterest — which, given the subject of my novel, might be surprising, but really isn’t. At some point, you realize that following the unreliable and probably self-serving stories of former prostitutes, strippers, and porn actresses isn’t likely to lead you to any kind of understanding, so you stop reading them.
And at some other point, you read this stuff anyway. So I found myself today considering the statement that the former Belle du Jour “misses being a prostitute,” because apparently this empowering experience was good for her self-esteem; her alter ego “had a confidence she has never enjoyed.”
That might lead you to believe that prostitution, for today’s empowered call girl, really isn’t so bad. Or it might lead you to believe that slipping into a phone booth to become Supercallgirl actually would be hard for Clara Kent to leave behind — if only she was sufficiently messed up.
Or it might lead you to believe neither of the above; you might instead wonder how big the advance will be for her inevitable memoir.
You might well wonder at our fascination with these stories. But Elizabeth Renzetti in the Globe has the answer to that: “the call girl with a brain of pure titanium” is simply the latest iteration of the good old hooker with a heart of gold.
It’s what we want to believe — which is why Steinbeck’s treatment of prostitution in Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday is ultimately sentimental, where the same in East of Eden is not. But what we want to believe most, we can trust least.
Which is my problem with the notion that any of this is “empowering”: it’s too convenient, too self-serving — and too well aligned with everyone’s interest. I suspect the producers of Girls Gone Wild enjoy the notion that removing your clothes for money is empowering. But there’s a reason strip joints have to import dancers from overseas when the economy is booming: people don’t do these jobs when they feel they have a choice.
Work takes me up to the Big Smoke for two days; the upside is that this will take me to Wednesday’s Biblioasis Poetry Hoohah (although I believe they have some other name for it), where I hope one Zachariah Wells will scribble in my copy of his book, Track & Trace, which I have been thoroughly enjoying.
If you’re squeamish, don’t click on the links.
Battlespace: Unrealities of War is an online exhibition of photography from the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that purports to give us an unfiltered view of reality; purports to, I say, because every photograph you see passes through numerous filters, beginning with the mental filter of the photographer composing the frame. What they mean, of course, is that the work is unfiltered by mainstream media or censorship.
It’s worth a look. Here we see both the best side of this kind of work, and the worst.
This photograph, by Gaith Abdul Ahad, is an example of the latter: it bullies its audience with blood and gore, but tells us nothing significant beyond the fact that people bleed. The framing is inept; we see plenty of foreground pavement, but miss the facial expressions and reactions of the bystanders, which, one suspects, would be far more interesting than the bodies. And there’s no context; we need a caption to explain what has happened here.
You may object that this concern for composition is inappropriate, that war photography is exempt from such concerns. Nonsense; good photojournalism lies in photos that explain themselves to the greatest extent possible. With modern cameras, more than ever, the technical aspects of photography are reduced to f/8 and be there. Skill is in the eye. This is simply a weak picture, the kind of thing that can be produced by anyone who can keep his lunch down and his hands steady.
Composition counts. Compare that weak shot with this one, by Christoph Bangert. Bangert makes clear what a human life is worth in this environment, by making sure we can tell it was thrown out with the garbage. Note, also, how careful he is with the power lines, not to let them distract.
But Gaith is not inept; far from it. His second image here is much stronger, in that it provides thecontext (the burning M113) that explains the bodies. And if you look at his work in Unembedded, it’s clear that this man has an excellent eye.
Don’t blame Gaith; blame the organizers of this exhibition, who decided that it was more important to show you “unsanitized” and “unfiltered” photos than to show you effective ones. Ironically, this goal is itself a filter, a filter that often selects pictures that speak loudly, but to little effect.
Ultimately, when you’ve seen enough war photographs, blood and dismembered bodies lose their ability to shock. How people die in war is no longer interesting; what matters is how people live. And this is where much conflict photojournalism fails. What was needed to make a case for intervention in Bosnia was not more pictures of the dead, but pictures to document the terrible living conditions in the besieged Sarajevo: how people found food, how people found water, how people got through their days.
In that light, consider the photos of Yuri Kozylev, which make a more powerful statement, if a quieter one, than any heap of bodies. This is where the power of still photos lies: in their ability to freeze a moment so that we can consider all of the facial expressions and all of the body language of the people trapped within the frame.
Or consider this shot by Luke Wolagiewicz.
These are the pictures that need to get past the filters.
I: In your own life, what circumstances entirely unrelated to writing have made you a better writer?
RR: I think having a job helps so much. Just to be in the world for me is really important, which is what I didn’t like about freelancing.
Of course, freelancing is a job; it’s just one of those jobs that lets you crawl into a corner and ignore the world outside your own imagination. Which is precisely the problem.
An excellent interview with Zach Wells (whose Track & Trace I’m now enjoying) at Maisonneuve:
“My first relationship with literature was as an untrained reader and the defining feature of that relationship was pleasure.”
He’s on to something. Actually, lots of things.
A certain fuss has erupted concerning historical fiction, dominance thereof in the Canlit landscape, following Steven Beattie’s reaction to a Globe & Mail essay that wasn’t even concerned with historical fiction; in fact, I missed the offending sentence entirely because my eyes had glazed over by that point. I was considering another question instead: why the essay pretends that “YA fiction” isn’t actually a category created to encourage teenagers to punch below their intellectual weight. Consequently, I failed to sputter on cue.
In any case, much commentary ensued, culminating in B. Glen Rotchkin’s insightful observation that historical fiction reflects an interest in research over experience, which may have something to do with the professionalization of creative writing.
And this, I think, intersects with something I complained of earlier, the hazards of giving up a day job in the real world to retreat into the creative writing department. If a novel is the product of research over experience, then you would indeed expect every noun in the book to sound like it came off Google; perhaps, in fact, it did.
Beattie suggested that there are perils in engaging the here and now, “since it leaves one open to criticism from vested interests on the right or left of the political spectrum,” and he’s probably right.
Suppose you have a stripper as a character; suppose you portray her as a victim of exploitation. Now you risk arousing those third wave feminists who insist she should be empowered. Empower her, on the other hand, and you’re open to accusations that you’re candy-coating reality.
It’s important to understand at the outset that you can’t win.
It’s also important to understand at the outset that people who make such charges can’t read, and should stick to YA fiction. Your character is one character, one possible experience, not the embodiment of an archetype.
But it’s important to understand, before making that argument, that you still can’t win.
This is, of course, assuming that anyone pays attention. And this is, I think, where Beattie is wrong: lots of novelists address the present, without any apparent fear. It’s just that they don’t get noticed.
Perhaps readers like historical fiction precisely because it doesn’t engage the here and now. Not that you can’t engage the present through the past, but the reader needn’t pay attention if you do. The reader can substitute “learning about another time period” for whatever other values the book may have — and many readers do cite learning about history or other cultures as one of the values of fiction.
Which makes no sense to me, but there it is. As usual, I’m baffled.
I strive to be an equal opportunity belittler of poorly written, philosophically vacant, socially inexcusable prose. But it’s hard when the market is flooded with SO MUCH of the crappy escapism this woman wants us to take seriously.
And ignites a minor firestorm in the comments. The upshot of which is that denigrating said genre is not just sexist, and not just snobby, but sexist and snobby. If it’s meaningful to women then we should accept it as being just as valid as any supposed “literary” efforts, etc.
Meanwhile, at The Literary Type, Melissa muses on why women’s magazines suck:
Who decided that women were so boring? I want to read about politics. I want to read engaging short fiction. I want to read about building my own biodiesel generator. And damnit, I want to read about flowers that can kill me, and not how to arrange them. Does this make me less of a woman?
I’m just guessing here, but I’m thinking that perhaps not all women actually like chick-lit. Maybe if we all stopped generalizing….
I was struck by the contradiction in these two discussions. Do womens’ magazines look the way they do because that’s what the audience wants? Or do they, and other media, create their own audience? The snake eats its own tail, thinking all the while that what it really wants is an egg; but if it eats the egg, will there ever be a chicken?
I’m reminded of John Steinbeck’s response to the endless questions of a grad student: “Look. This is too hard. I just write stories.”
I think I’m just gonna write stories, and not really worry about this stuff.
Something has been bugging me for a few days: before the type was even set on reports of Linden MacIntyre’s Giller win, the rumblings had begun, that men always win these things, that women have only a 31 percent chance of winning a Giller, and so on.
Yes, I’m aware we don’t actually set type these days. Bear with me.
To support this contention, people cite the numbers. The problem is, those people are writers, and writers aren’t generally good with numbers. That’s why they’re writers, instead of engineers or biochemists or statisticians.
First, the probability of women winning is not 50%. You can’t win unless you’re shortlisted, so the probability of a woman winning is a function of the rate at which women are shortlisted. That number is 47.6%.
Well, that’s close enough to fifty-fifty that we can assume the chance should be fifty-fifty. But books by women have won only 31.5% of the time — that is, in five of sixteen years.
Damning, huh? Just how likely is it that women could take only five of 16 prizes?
The probability of that outcome is 7%. There’s a formula for figuring that out.
Tut, tut. Seven percent? I wouldn’t bet on that — would you? If the chances really were fifty-fifty, I’d put my money on the safe bet, eight of 16.
And I’d still probably lose: the probability of eight of 16 wins, given a 50% chance of winning in any given year, is only 19.6%. That is to say, you’d lose your money eight out of ten times.
When you consider how unlikely parity is, the unlikely event of women winning only five of 16 prizes no longer seems so unlikely. Unlikely things happen all the time.
To prove that point to myself, I took a quarter out of my pocket. On one side of the quarter is a woman, the Queen. On the other, a male caribou.
Yes, I’m aware that both male and female caribou have antlers. Bear with me.
I tossed that coin, and threw six tails in a row. The probability of that event is 1.5 percent. Then there were a bunch of heads — seven of the next ten tosses.
Just for fun, I tried this exercise again and threw five tails in a row. Probability, 3.1 percent.
Yes, I have a strange notion of “fun.” But let me ask you, is my quarter sexist?
The point being, you can’t use the rate at which women win the Giller as evidence that the Giller favours men, because parity is an unlikely result even in a system without any bias at all.
This doesn’t demonstrate that the Giller doesn’t favour men, of course. That question remains open for debate. It simply shows that you can’t use these numbers as conclusive proof of anything — unless you’re talking to writers, who aren’t good with numbers.