Reporters document reality. Even really unpleasant realities that involve violence, crime, and general decrepitude. Photojournalist Rob Finch understands that perfectly. He recently took a series of unflinching pictures of a Portland drug addict, Leasa Sherman, who had given him permission to follow her around for a couple of days. Finch snapped photos of, among other things, Sherman selling drugs, smoking crack, and shooting up heroin. "I'm doing this whether you're here or not," he says she told him. In other words, he didn't egg her on in pursuit of dramatic pictures.
Nonetheless, Finch's shots earned him the enmity of some of his colleagues at The Oregonian newspaper, which published the story and the photo series. Ombudsman Mike Arrieta-Walden explained that the staff voiced some grave concerns: Should a newspaper allow journalists to take photos of illegal activities? And should a newspaper publish photographs of life-threatening actions?
Say what? From Weegee to James Nachtwey, the annals of photojournalism are filled with shocking, moving, seared-in-our-memory images of war crimes, murders, and other bloody mayhem. Are some newsrooms now truly so osteoporotic — so internally weakened by a gaggle of namby-pamby hand-wringers — that they seek to only show us photos that've been sanitized for our protection?
And what's with the sudden patronizing soul-searching about taking pictures of "life-threatening actions"? Are photographers and photo editors supposed to go through spasms of self-criticism over shots of, let's say, cigarette smokers? Bungee-jumpers? Firefighters? Bomb squad members? Race car drivers? Soldiers in combat?
Who does The Oregonian prefer to hire these days — actual reporters, or sissified social workers?
In most Western countries, sexual mores change more or less permanently. Once a new freedom is established — from wearing short skirts to having abortion rights — it's there to stay. In the United States, however, such developments can be just temporary. In a few years, a right-shifting Supreme Court could well overturn Roe v. Wade. Somehow, modern-day puritans often manage to squeeze the toothpaste back into the tube.
I was musing about this after leaving a used-bookstore with a 1973 copy of "The Best of Life", a 300-page romp through the photo archives of the venerable Life magazine. A lot of the masters of the art are represented: Philippe Halsman, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Margaret Bourke-White, Robert Capa, Eugene Smith, and so on. But some of the most interesting pictures in the book were taken by Peter Stackpole, an unknown to me. Artistically, the shots aren't all that special (if anything, they're unsophisticated, even a bit schlumpy — a far cry from the impeccable finesse of Cartier-Bresson or the trompe-l'oeil genius of Halsman). No, Stackpole's photos stand out simply for their unusual subjects, and for the fact that a mass-market magazine dared print them them all the way back in the 1930s.
The first of his two series is a sequence of a baby's birth, the mother's nether regions carefully swathed in sheets so that not an inch of female flesh is visible. All we see is the infant's head protruding from the birth canal, and subsequently the little body pushing its way into the world. The second series is on the silly side: it aims to teach Life's female readers how to undress in front of their husband while looking appealing at every stage. Again, no nudity, although there may be a hint of a nipple in one photograph (it's hard to tell, and I'll be damned if, like a world-class perv, I get caught studying the picture with a magnifying glass).
Both productions had Life's editorial offices awash in protest letters. The magazine with the baby series was banned in Canada and in more than 30 U.S. cities, and it even got publisher Roy Larsen arrested.
If those seem like repressed, quaint times — if you think our current public mood is far more forgiving, that we'd all be indifferent to baby-birth pictures or stripping housewives — I don't quite agree. Ask yourself if any family-oriented magazine on our shores would dare print pictures like that today. (I'm obviously not talking about sex-obsessed publications like Cosmopolitan or Maxim. Think Family Circle or Reader's Digest.) In the sixties and seventies, a lot of editors could easily have gotten away with such shots, but not anymore, I think. Granted, no one would get arrested today. But that's about the extent of the progress we've made.
Even Lennart Nilsson's astonishing 1965 color pictures of a developing foetus (also published in Life, and in the photo anthology I bought) would not be considered suitable fare by any of today's mainstream magazines. After all, Nilsson photographed "embryos which had been surgically removed for medical reasons," according to the book. That would immediately throw the outer fringes of the so-called pro-life crowd into a tizzy, and their more moderate brethren would presumably nod along in agreement.
Elsewhere in the West, progress is mostly linear. In the U.S., it's often circular, meaning we end up back where we started.
Two additional thoughts after my previous post (below).
1. Europe already has big problems with its radical Muslim population. An E.U. membership for Turkey would likely send more Turkish believers pouring into the richer countries to the west.
2. Even apart from that influx, is Europe really prepared to deal with a predominantly Muslim member state right now? And such a huge one at that? With Germany's birth rate plummeting, and Turkey's climbing, the Mussulman nation, if it were allowed to join, could be the E.U.'s most populous country by 2025.
My hope is that the Eurocrats will sleep on whether to grant Turkey membership, and that they'll wisely decide to consider the matter again in, oh, 2020 or thereabouts. Really — no hurry.
It's likely that the European Union will soon begin negotiations about inviting Turkey to join the club. The country is an odd candidate in more ways than one. A cursory look at the map (courtesy Lonely Planet) shows a small area — perhaps one-twentieth of the entire nation — that's physically part of Europe. Then, across the Bosporus, to the East, is the rest of Turkey, sitting firmly on Asia's vast land mass. If an elementary-school pupil declared Turkey part of Europe, he or she would get an F. The E.U. bureaucrats, however, are willing to consider the case.
It may be peevish of me to think of geography as a factor of any relevance here. Surely there are other things that would ensure a healthy bond between Turkey and Europe proper, such as shared values. Right? Freedom of speech and religion, for starters?
But Turkey's free-speech record of the last decade — when the country is said to have improved its human-rights compliance — contains hundreds of government attacks on the press, including wholesale newspaper shutdowns. Being critical of Kemal Ataturk, modern Turkey's founding father, can land you in jail. In 1996, the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists revealed that Turkey held more journalists behind bars than any other nation. Think all of that's changed? Actually, according to Amnesty International, not fundamentally. In February of this year, Amnesty's head honcho Irene Kahn, while politely acknowledging that Turkey had made progress, said that the Turkish people can still not "exercise their human rights without fear of harassment, intimidation, or prosecution." For instance, it's a crime to say or write anything that is deemed to "insult or deride" the state. That's not a toothless, irrelevant article that Turkish legislators have forgotten to scrap from dusty law books. Turks are imprisoned even today for such perceived insults.
The country doesn't fare much better when it comes to freedom of religion. Thousands of mosques have sprung up all over Western Europe in the past thirty years. By contrast, Turkey does what it can to thwart the opening of Christian churches within its borders, as Friday's Wall Street Journal article shows, and this piece too. The country is officially secular, but since 1920 and until this year, no new non-Muslim organization has been allowed to own a religious building, or construct a new one. Seeking to reassure the West, prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an Islamist in his younger years, now de-emphasizes the country's Muslim roots and says his government is committed to religious freedom for all.
Well, maybe so. But the facts "on the ground" are still less than impressive. Call me a cynic, but it seems doubtful that Turkey has — at its institutional core, and in its national psyche — truly adopted a Western commitment to liberty and tolerance. That just doesn't happen so soon. Some Turks may now wear their baseball caps backwards, but in the words of the old Steely Dan song, they're "never gonna do it without the fez on."
It's very thoughtful of George Bush to be so concerned about voter fraud in the Ukraine. "The validity of their elections is in doubt," he told reporters. Would that he were so vigilant about making sure every vote got counted at home, earlier this month.
If you doubt there's something seriously wrong with the U.S. election system — especially with the electronic voting machines that were so ubiquitous this time — you haven't seen this movie.
MSNBC's Keith Olbermann, bless him, is still going through the post-Election-Day pile of mishaps and mischief, critically examining everything that doesn't pass the sniff test. But most other newspeople who ought to be covering this story have apparently decided to stop asking questions (if they ever raised any in the first place).
I used to be proud to be a journalist. Now I often think I should have chosen a more honorable profession. Pimping and loansharking come to mind.
Leaving aside genocidal maniac Pol Pot for a moment, has there ever been a political leader whose name is both shorter and more memorable than that of Ben Bot? Dutch Foreign Minister Bot is a special E.U. envoy monitoring the post-election debacle in the Ukraine. He is now calling for new elections. Asked if that's the only solution to the current standoff, the blunt-spoken Bot said simply, "Yes." I like people who don't beat around the bush. And so it's worth pondering that Ben Bot's name, translated into English, means "Am Blunt."
One of the late, great Richard Avedon's final works is a characteristically extraordinary photo of a few Act Up members. His employer, the New Yorker, gave it pride of place in the November 1 issue. Of course, this was a terrible affront to people with an aversion to Act Up members' members. Yes, the subjects were in the buff, and as everyone knows, the sight of someone in his birthday suit is sure to make innocent children all over the nation wet their little pantaloons in distress.
Heroically speaking up for the young 'uns is Frank Laird of San Diego. In a letter published in the New Yorker's current issue, Mr. Laird argues that the Avedon photo, while admittedly masterly, should not have been printed "in a mass-circulation magazine that children can see in school libraries and medical offices and on their parents' coffee tables."
Since any publication of any redeeming value could conceivably show up in one or all of these places, it looks like Mr. Laird is saying the Avedon picture can only be published in magazines with no redeeming value at all.
His squeamishness is not all that surprising, perhaps, given how our leaders have set the tone. We've only just said goodbye to John Ashcroft, the Attorney General whose Justice Department spent 8,000 dollars of our tax money on drapes to cover up a semi-nude statue. Now that the so-called moral majority helped secure a second term for Dubya earlier this month, it's not a stretch to expect more of this. As Mr. Laird's letter illustrates, the nannies and ninnies are on the march again.
To be clear, I don't dispute for a moment his right to limit what his children can and cannot see. He just shouldn't attempt to make the same judgment for everybody else.
Years ago, Justice Harry Blackmun had this to say on the subject: "The level of discourse reaching a mailbox simply cannot be limited to that which would be suitable for a sandbox." Roger that.
Caution: Pedantic rant ahead. The word choice connotes the presence of two or more things to choose from. So it makes me want to bang a rusty spike into my forehead when I hear people talking about two choices when what they really mean is two options. Repeat after me: One choice, two options. (If you genuinely have two choices, you have at least four options — capisce?) I hear or read this particular piece of linguistic laziness easily five, ten times a week now, up from the occasional sighting just a few years ago. Looks like I'm going to have to stock up on rusty spikes.