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April 2007 Archives
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April 22, 2007
STILL AWAITING MEMORIAL DAY
This week, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg made a significant declaration: the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation had reached a key benchmark -- $300 million in donations raised for the eventual memorial.
It's about time, certainly. Six years of politics, pain, contentiousness, misstarts, and reluctance to compromise have delayed the site's construction and hampered the healing. When my wife, daughter, and I stayed at the Millennium Hotel for two nights last month, our room peered down onto the maddening hollow of the reconstruction site. I was left with a sense of profound helplessness and, as I feel every time I venture downtown, a visceral, barely suppressed rage toward the attackers, even now, six years on.
Next week, the TriBeCa Film Festival opens. For five years, it has been a beacon of revitalization for the area. But as the festival's co-producer Jane Rosenthal asserted in the Times on Friday, "We're still living with a pit."
If you would like to help donate to the WTC Memorial Fund, CLICK HERE.
THE CLAMOR FOR THE CLIP
Videoclips, especially those devoted to news coverage, continue their domination over our Internet viewing habits. Only a year or two ago, it seems, the Web watch-words were wiki and citizen journalism, blog indexing (Technorati, Snap, Blogdex) and social networking (MySpace, Facebook). But today, as YouTube reaches its terrible twos (the company was founded in hoary old February 2005!), it is evident that the public’s ravenous thirst for short-form video files continues unslaked. Like an amputee with phantom-leg syndrome, I still find myself aching for a television set every weeknight at 6:30 p.m., so accustomed am I to having spent three decades religiously tuning in to the old, reliable news anchors as they delivered the day’s headline stories. Nowadays, I’ve managed to cut my weekly intake down to one or two nights, tops. My wife, in contrast, never watches the evening news. She merely logs onto AOL or ABC News and hits the play button on the news-summary videoclips. Then she trawls the gossip blogs for celebrity updates, often delivered as video files.
I was reminded of this relatively newfound clamor for the clip when reading photographer-cum-videographer-cum-Web-editor Dirck Halstead’s quote from the new issue of The Digital Journalist. Canon’s Dave Metz, Halstead said, had presciently predicted that “the shift from still to video photojournalism would come five times faster than the shift from film to digital.” And so it has – especially on the Web. The explosion of videotaped news content, proliferating over the Internet, on cellular phones and hand-held devices, on network, cable, and satellite television, was everywhere in evidence in the past week or two, most dramatically in the saturation coverage of the Virginia Tech massacre. Yet I was unaware of the sheer number of news feeds available at any one time until I read a short piece in the current edition of the British journal Television, (a publication of the Royal Television Society), by Stephen Claypole, a BBC veteran and eminence in the international video news business, whom I interviewed extensively for Watching the World Change.
Claypole, focusing on the two largest video news agencies in Great Britain, hints at the tip of the iceberg in terms of the glut of content available from professional TV news teams, worldwide, at any given instant:
“[Reuters TV (formerly Visnews) and APTN (Associated Press Television news)] claim to be the biggest and the best [news services in Britain]. Each has between 75 and 80 bureaux, deploying between 500 and 600 staff or stringers every day. They jointly supply a ‘universe’ of about 500 broadcasting companies that in turn transmit about a 1,000 channels. Agency activity grows literally week-by-week. Reuters says that it distributes from its Canary Wharf HQ 7,500 news stories a month and streams one million video clips of its images over the internet. APTN’s master control room at Camden Lock handles 6,000 satellite transmissions and 900 ‘feeds’ monthly via the internet. It too is putting enormous emphasis on streaming.
“In the USA, the homeland of the AP co-operative’s ‘membership,’ the agency uses its video content to provide a tailored news service on a video player to 1,500 newspaper, radio and TV websites in a joint venture with Microsoft.
“There are many people who now believe that moving images will dominate the internet and existing and emerging multi-media platforms. ‘Last year saw the “tipping point” when video finally caught on as the vital medium of the internet,’ said Nigel Baker [executive director of APTN]. The world’s news agencies began to scramble to have a credible video component – and looked at envy to AP and Reuters whose earlier investment had paid off. ‘While broadcasters are still the main customers of the TV news agencies, the digital revolution means that portals, newspaper websites and wireless networks are hungry for their pictures.’
“Tony Donovan [COO of Reuters Telvesion] confirms the trend: ‘It’s a fascinating time for video news. Newspapers are competing with TV channels, broadcasters are becoming agencies and selling their content to others including newspaper websites they compete with, broadcasters want to sell their content and the agency content that sits within it and the agencies want to protect themselves from cannibalisation. It is a video jungle out there.’”
April 19, 2007
PRELUDE TO A SNUFF FILM
Yesterday we learned of a different sort of tally in the Virginia Tech tragedy: 27 videoclips, 29 stills, and a rambling manifesto. They were all part of a mixed-media Prelude to a Snuff Film created by a madman determined to further horrify his peers and the public, and hoping to leave a mark on Earth--through media, and from the grave--as he feared he couldn’t in real life.
So-called reality television and 24-7 news, along with the sheer pervasiveness of camcorders, picture-equipped cell phones, and digital cameras have made us accustomed to real-time views. We rather expected to see the remarkable on-the-scene footage, taken by a student and shown on CNN, in which distinct gunshots can be heard, each one punctuating another victim’s demise.
But what we hadn’t considered was that the killer also had access to new technologies, in fact had sought refuge in technology and media as his reliable friends. (He had shunned personal contact and preferred to communicate, if at all, by Instant Message. He viewed as his peers not his fellow students but the troubled student killers of Columbine, with whom he’d developed an affinity via television news and the Internet. And, judging by the paraphernalia he wore in the images released yesterday -- and sent not to a friend, but merely to "NBC" -- it appeared that he took his cues for his rampage, most likely, from violent films and video games.)
What’s more, he had apparently spent the good part of the week planning a post-mortem horror show, replete with home-movie QuickTime files showing his ramblings and tirades, and digital stills revealing a Travis Bickle/Rambo-wannabe, a Glock-to-the-noggin Mark David Chapman knock-off. As crazy as he was, he understood quite clearly that even though he had had difficulty expressing his personal woes to others, through his homicidal and suicidal writings, hinting of a history of abuse and mental illness, he would still be able to effectively communicate and to exact some retribution, of a kind, for all his mortal pains, through mass murder and mass media.
Many of us, as 24-7 news consumers, are addicted to the Rush of the Unfiltered Now. And one of the prices we pay for our voyeurism is: Collateral Image. We are required, amid the public parade, to also witness private, nightmarish horror. This is what the killer-videographer was counting on when creating his Last Picture Show. His warped logic: Through his rampage, he would get his revenge; through his videos, stills, and writings, he would gain some kind of understanding by having a platform for his motives and a medium for validating his sorry, vacant, unbearable existence.
When modern media meets violence and terrorism and war, unfortunately, it is not the victims we know, but the killers. We remember the warriors, not the fallen. We know the twisted inner world of Cho Seung-Hui, and only get glimpses of the lives of the humane and often heroic students at resilient Virginia Tech.
April 16, 2007
OF AMHERST... COLUMBINE... VIRGINIA TECH
BEECHER'S BOSWELL. Bravo! Hats off to Debby Applegate (Amherst class of 1989) who today won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Biography, for her study of Henry Ward Beecher (Amherst class of 1834): The Most Famous Man in America (Doubleday).
BEECHER STATUE, AT AMHERST COLLEGE
A profile of Applegate appears in the most recent issue of Amherst, the college alumni magazine, as does a profile of yours truly (in which the inimitable Frank Ward managed to fire off this shot, without totally embarrassing me...) Beecher, in fact, cuts a much more commanding figure. And has way better posture.... And dig that oxidation.
PHOTO BY FRANK WARD
TUESDAY'S CHILDREN. At a book-signing at the Jeffrey Amherst Bookshop last fall--the day I met Applegate, in fact--I encountered a woman from Long Island involved with Tuesday’s Children, who showed me snapshots of kids, all of whom had lost parents on September 11, as they benefited from interacting with other youngsters like themselves. The organization’s philosophy, in a nutshell: “Only another kid like me truly understands what I’ve gone through.”
According to its Web site, Tuesday’s Children is “a non-profit family service organization founded by family and friends of September 11th victims [that] has made a long term commitment to safeguard the health, happiness and future of both individual and family. With a focus on family resiliency and strength through community, Tuesday's Children, in partnership with recognized leaders in the fields of child development, family advocacy, and mentoring initiatives has developed an innovative platform of programs designed to address the ongoing needs of thousands of children coping with one of the worst tragedies in the history of our nation.” One can only applaud an organization like this on a day like today, when some 31 students were slain in a senseless attack at Virginia Tech.
HANDSCHUH INSPIRES US ALL. I'm reminded of the pronouncements of David Handschuh, staff photographer for the New York Daily News, who managed to escape with his life, even though he stood at the foot of the World Trade Center on September 11, shooting upwards, as the building cascaded down on top of him. Says Handschuh (pp. 353-4 of Watching the World Change),recalling his experiences covering the attacks at Colorado's Columbine High School in 1999:
"I'd seen thousands of homicides and nobody opened up. Journalists were keeping stuff in. Photographers rarely discussed feeling guilty for sticking their camera in people's faces. But with Columbine, it was like the sun and moon and stars lined up. Journalists started talking with each other about their emotions. It opened the floodgates.
"I remember seeing a photographer covering one of the [Columbine] memorials. He started crying inconsolably. He was deeply religious, had two smaller kids, and was just broken down. I said to him, 'Man, you need to get yourself together now to take pictures, but when you get home you've got to talk to someone.'"
Soon thereafter, Handschuh, by then the president of the National Press Photographers association, became instrumental in establishing stress and trauma counseling programs for colleagues, through the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, not fully realizing how such assistance would become vital to his own career and recovery, after 9/11.
Prompted by my talks with Handschuh while researching Watching the World Change, I decided to donate a portion of the proceeds of the book to the Dart Center, which is affiliated with the University of Washington, Seattle.
April 15, 2007
MOB RULE BY VIDEOCLIP
Radio personality Don Imus has long been an equal-opportunity basher. And the comments that got him fired this week from CBS radio and MSNBC television, no matter how deplorable and hurtful and deserving of apology, were not significantly more venomous than other comments he has made in the past--or other comments made over the years by Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Al Sharpton, et. al., during their AM and FM and satellite screeds. On the radio, no one knows you're a junkyard dog.
What amplified Imus's troubles this time, however, was the fact that we live in the age of Mob Rule By Videoclip. In the past, such ill-conceived attempts at humor would have merely dissipated into the audio ether. But because of the ease with which bloggers can now post videoclips, the offending footage was simply lifted from the MSNBC video simulcast of Imus's broadcast and placed on a watchdog Web site, Media Matters. As a result, Imus's 15 seconds of shame were suddenly magnified, Magnavoxed, and made available for replay, ad infinitum, across the Net.
Here was yet another example of how video, in an Internet-fueled, pundit-primed, politico-posturing, 24/7 news culture triggers snap judgments--this time on the part of CBS, which, instead of yanking Imus from the air immediately and suspending him for a month or so and letting tempers settle before making its final determination about his fate, instead allowed him to continue his drive-time mea culpa for a full, excruciating week, then kowtowed to the critics clamoring at the gates of Black Rock (CBS headquarters). The cool medium of television has been replaced by the hot minute of the YouTube Era. We make snap judgments and vote with the clickers at our fingertips. We see someone Do The Wrong Thing and immediately demand public retribution. We take a Straw Poll By Appearances, not a vote by a jury of cool-headed peers. We leave no time for accepting apologies (Imus's contrition, while serially self-serving, long-winded, and hyperbolic, was nonetheless genuine) or for understanding context (meaning: CBS has sanctioned this sort of speech by Imus and others, for years, and was disingenuous and disproportionate and arbitrary in firing him for what has clearly been behavior it had long enabled and richly rewarded.)
I'm reminded of the "Two Minutes Hate" scene in Orwell's 1984, in which the faceless crowds, every day, were forced to gather under huge screens to hurl invective at images of "lean, Jewish face[s]" or "expressionless Asiatic faces." This was the State's way of keeping the masses focused not on the horrors of the State itself, but on a silver-screen parade of common enemies. Today we just do our "Two Minutes Hate" from the privacy of our own cars, as we commute into work, or from the privacy of our PC's, as we pass holier-than-thou judgments on what we think is truly "P.C.," ricocheting from videoclip to videoclip.
April 12, 2007
GOOGLE, CAMERAS, AND A CAUSE
The Huffington Post's "Eat the Press" department has highlighted a remarkable new Google offering (which the L.A. Times covered yesterday), which uses photography to underscore the dire situation in Darfur. Every week, it seems, we read how the glut of imagery in our culture seems to be numbing media consumers, that "nothing shocks us any more." What's more, the photojournalism community often laments the fact that too little attention is paid to the continuing power of photography to affect change in the world. Here is a clear example of how a camera can highlight a cause.
Unfortunately, I cannot find the link within the Google site. Perhaps it's still in beta. If anyone can direct me to it, I'd appreciate it.
UPDATE FROM DONAGH BRENNAN, A READER IN IRELAND: CLICK HERE to go to the the proper Google site.
April 11, 2007
ACROSS THE POND, AND ELSEWHERE
ACROSS THE POND. At a recent appearance for the book, at the George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y., I was approached by a British photographer. In my talk, I had discussed the difference between the more “muted” imagery that had run on U.S. television screens on September 11 and the more graphic footage that aired across the world, particularly the sequences showing people plummeting from the towers. (The book discusses this dichotomy at length; see pages 127 through 132.)
The photographer made an insightful observation about American vs. foreign news coverage in general. “On the BBC,” he noted, “news is provided country by country: Today, this happened in France, this occurred in Sri Lanka, this in the United States. America is just another country, part of a global community. But in America” -- where this photographer now resides – “America is the world. American television rarely shows what’s going on in England, France, let alone Sri Lanka. The American perspective is isolationist, insular, a land onto itself.” Alas, this is not perspective, but myopia.
THE AUDIENCE GROWS. Speaking of the U.K., we’re close to a deal for publishing a British edition of Watching the World Change this fall. And I’m told that the book, already being taught on three campuses (Amherst, Columbia, and this fall at Trinity), will now be in the curriculum at either Purdue or Indiana University.
RE: THE RE-DEATH OF LIFE (MAGAZINE). This week the Digital Journalist Web site published my short essay, “The Re-Death of Life,” first posted here, in March.
Also, on The Digital Journalist, editor Dirck Halstead discusses the hyperspeed transition occurring as online-newsgathering/YouTube/digital-video, etc., continue to impact visual storytelling: "Dave Metz, the former director of Pro Markets for Canon, recently said that the shift from still to video photojournalism would come five times faster than the shift from film to digital. The best example of how radically this landscape is changing can be seen at The Dallas Morning News." Check out the cover-story take-out on the paper's use of new digital tools for connecting with readers, along with a piece by its director of photography, Leslie White.
April 9, 2007
NEFARIOUS DARKROOM DEEDS?
As part of an online essay called “Re-Imaging History,” Wired.com has engendered a provocative -- and inaccurate -- discussion thread about who might have doctored this famous John Filo photograph, which shows the tragic aftermath at Kent State University in Ohio in 1970, when National Guardsmen opened fire on a crowd protesting U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, killing four students.
In the original photograph, which earned Filo a Pulitzer Prize, a pole or post appears behind the head of Mary Vecchio, who crouches in shock over the body of a student, her friend Jeffrey Miller, one of the four slain that day. The image has been published for years in magazines and newspapers, with the pole readily visible.
In the mid-1990s, when I was LIFE’s director of photography, the magazine published this image, below – with the pole somehow magically removed.
Since I was also the editorial director of LIFE’s Web site at the time, having launched Lifemagazine.com around 1995, I was surprised when we started fielding e-mail traffic from readers who were incensed that a serious magazine of photojournalism had had the audacity to airbrush or Photoshop this classic picture so as to cosmetically extract the offending post behind Vecchio’s head. How dare we?, they asked.
Bewildered, I placed a call to what was then called the Time-Life Picture Collection and ordered up the existing image – not the digital scan but the actual print that the art and production teams had scanned for use in the magazine. The archive, in fact, delivered two photographs, vintage prints of both versions shown above.
The first photo, with the pole, had run in Time and LIFE on several occasions. I could easily determine its storied history in the pages of Time Inc. magazines because the back of the photo was imprinted with the stamp of each publication, including the issue date – a time-honored practice at the company, in those days, that gave a sort of thumbnail provenance for every published picture.
Then, I became truly bewildered. The second photograph, without the pole, was stamped with even more markings on the reverse side. This version had also run in Time and LIFE. And People magazine as well. Many times. More times, in fact, than its pole-toting partner. And it had been published repeatedly over the course of 25 years, without anyone seeming to notice the absence of the pole.
But who had taken the liberty of removing the post in the first place? And when had he or she done so? And why had no one ever complained about the seeming discrepancy between two distinct versions of a classic image, both re-published repeatedly, only to be returned safely and snugly to the photo archive?
I decided at the time to go to the source. I placed a call to the photographer, John Filo. And John admitted, quite candidly, that he had removed the pole, years previously, removing it either by retouching or through some darkroom sleight-of-hand. He didn’t like the pole. He said he found it distracting. It was his picture, and he simply removed it when he made the subsequent print.
Mystery solved. No Photoshop shenanigans. No editorial Botox. In the 1970s, two images had made their way into the photographic slipstream, courtesy of the photographer himself, and the pictures had lived out parallel lives in our collective visual unconscious.
Only in the age of the Internet, when people have time on their hands and the tools for making endless comparisons between different arrays of data, is it possible to notice such alterations. In some cases, these differences can prove significant, even newsworthy. It was computer-sleuthing pure and simple, for example, that raised questions about the authenticity of the documents upon which 60 Minutes II had based its story of George W. Bush’s deferred military service. Whether or not the documents were indeed forgeries, an army of latter-day Sherlock-Holmeses had posted perceived discrepancies on their blogs, poking holes in the underlying story itself, which soon began to unravel. After a protracted internal review, the documents were discounted (their provenance murky, at best), the reputation of CBS News was tarnished, and the careers of several of the network’s best journalists and top executives were irrevocably altered.
In most cases, however, such concentration on minutiae, such Inflation of The Innocuous, serves to divert our focus from more important matters -- and to squander hours, days, lifetimes. We devote too much of our attention to the poles behind the crouching women, too little to The Bigger Picture. In the case of the Filo photo: students were killed while protesting an unjust, unnecessary war. Today, it seems, very few are out there protesting an unjust, unnecessary war. We’re just sitting at our computers, safely whining to one another, or to no one at all, as a distant war drags on.