Saturday, July 09, 2011

A Facebook Experiment

If you want to experience the WORST of the Internet that doesn't involve death or deviant sex, check out two pages that have popped up recently. There's the Boycott the Macsyna King Book page,and the Break the Kahui Code of Silence: Support the Book page. Obviously these pages are at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of their aim. But in terms of their execution, they are remarkably similar. And in terms of their success, they are both abject failures.

Ian Wishart has written a book. Apparently - we don't know yet because it isn't published and Wishart is keeping mum - the book is a tell-all of Macsyna King's life. And by all accounts it won't be pretty reading. There's no doubt she has had a horrific life of abuse and mistreatment.

But I guess that doesn't excuse her alleged neglect of her children - 3 month old twins Chris and Cru Kahui - and any role she may have had in their deaths. It has to be said that she has never been charged with a crime. But she remains (one of) the "most hated woman in New Zealand."

But if you want to really know what hate is, just check out either of these Facebook pages. O.M.G. I cannot believe how petty and childish and downright hateful some of the posts are on these pages. I cannot believe they are adults, and adults who claim to be rational, intelligent, and "passionate." That's a good one. "Passionate." Apparently being "passionate" excuses using some of the most demeaning, belittling, insulting name-calling you can think of. All in the name of the cause.

A little back and forth is perfectly fine between adults who are at two ends of a spectrum on a significant issue. Some repartee, a little thrust and parry, a few, good-hearted, even clever, humorous jibes here and there.

But these people are ruthless. 

They seem to have forgotten what the original argument was about. The "boycotters" as they have become known have hijacked the original issue, which was freedom of speech, with emotional pleas about child abuse. And the supporters of the book being published and sold are chasing their tails, spending more time quelling rumour and misinformation, responding to the bitter hateful comments, and defending their own reputations.

What I can't get over is how childish many of them are. Don't get me wrong. There are some clever people who are trying to be voices of reason in the wind on both pages. But by and large those voices are drowned in the waves of vitriol and deeply personal attack. 

The purpose of the page, especially the support the book page, has been completely forgotten. Nobody talks about freedom of speech anymore. It's now all about defending Ian Wishart and our right to read said book, or crowing about which page has more numbers or more committed members or less childish threads or more intelligent definitions of words we ALL know the meaning of.

The latest vein of comment has to do with who has been blocked and why, or who has blocked who and why. It seems to be a particular badge of honour to be blocked by the "other side". Indeed, it seems a fun game to go over to the other page and make comments obnoxious enough to GET blocked.

Check out this screenshot from the support the book page.

And lest you be deceived, be aware that one of those people, despite the attempt at civility in this post, is one of the worst offenders. Her self-righteousness is unprecedented.  And one other (above), although a relative new-comer to the drivel, is just plain nasty.

Strangely, the thread (screenshot above) seems to have disappeared. Which is another feature of these pages. Threads and comments disappear, which in itself is not that sinister, but it is a regular suggestion that people from the "other side" are hacking the site, there are faux-profiles designed to infiltrate the depths of the other page/s, and that identities are frequently "blown" only to require retractions which more often than not lead to more recrimination and ridicule. And a whole new round of abuse and childish name-calling.

Apparently, the originator of the Boycott page set it up as a bit of an experiment. So he seemed to be saying on RadioLive. He's the same guy who was in the middle of the KFC double-down debate. I think he was arguing that particular treat should not be banned. Hmmm...let's allow greasy heart-threatening food to be sold to minors, but let's not allow an informative book to be sold in bookshops to adults. Can't quite see that logic there, but who am I to judge?

In true Lord of the Flies fashion, both pages have descended into cesspools of bitterness and backbiting. Occasionally a rational comment pops up, and even some meaningful responses. But more often that not every post is hijacked by some bitter or smartarse comment or bite.

How pathetic. Somehow I thought adults could disagree, even on significant issues, issues one has the right to be "passionate" about, without resorting to name-calling, petty personal slurs, pedantic grammar critiques and puerile "I know you are, but what am I"s. 

It has to be said, and I'm employing one of my special talents here - objectivity - that the Supporters page members have overall been more well behaved. They started out with a genuine attempt to lay out the issues and what facts were available, and to search for more (facts). But the page was soon hijacked by people who thought the book should be boycotted, which turned into an effective ban. Sure, boycott the book, but threaten bookstore owners, publish their names, and threaten violence against them (okay, there have only been a few, non-distinct threats of violence) and you start to force what looks more like a ban.

But so much of the page space was dedicated to arguing about whether or not it was a boycott or a ban.

Now, all of this wouldn't amount to a hill o' beans if it wasn't such an insight into the human spirit. This self-confessed social network experiment has been a raging success in that from the first posts, both pages were like two trains heading towards each other on the same track. And when they collided, instead of a natural atrophying of the momentum, it seemed to gather steam, as if most of the members of both pages were just itching for the collision so the real chaos could start. Some people get off on that. Indeed, that's not a phenomenon unique to this particular rivalry, or to Facebook. 

I wonder if this was a precedent, of sorts. I don't remember two opposing groups facing off like this on separate Facebook pages.

I'm sure it's been done before, somehow. I wonder if those efforts were any more noble, or intelligent, or polite.

The back-biting and name-calling and childish back and forth continues. These are two very recent from each page.

Apparently one of the above is proving to be as obnoxious and bitter as any that have graced the pages so far. There are a few who are so obviously just out to make some sort of name for themselves, hence the spin-off pages and websites, and impending "events" (charity and awareness drives, etc.).

It's been a fascinating insight into mob mentality. The Boycott page grew to nearly 50000 LIKEs in a few days. Which, of course, in Facebook terms that's like the new version of a petition you sign in the street - sure it sounds like a really good idea to sign, the "cause" sounds vaguley worthwhile, but of the 50000 people signed up, only a very small number actually give a shit about, or even know what "the cause" actually was. The same could be said for the Support page, but with such lower numbers, the Boycott page looks MUCH more like some odd wagon a whole bunch of do-gooders jumped on for ten seconds and then jumped off again because they didn't really care about....what was "the cause" again?

Saturday, July 02, 2011

In search of the perfect image

I’ve avoided posting on matters photographic, partly because I will show myself up as a newbie, partly because I don’t want to be seen to be jumping on the latest band-wagon (it annoys me that everyone seems to be a “photographer” these days), and partly because I’m still deciding what I want to be when I grow up.

Photography is like any of the arts. It’s hard to compare, but it’s the same as abstract painting, sculpture, or dance. It’s a method of expression. And often, the “artist” is driven by a simple yet elusive goal: to create that perfect piece of art, whether it’s a painting, and clay shape, a pirouette, or an image of a moment captured in time or one beautifully constructed.

With regard to photography, there are hundreds of millions, probably hundreds of billions of photographs in existence. Probably millions/billions more are blood on the floor.

How, then, can one (such as me) ever hope to create something perfect. If it hasn’t been done already, it’s never going to happen.

But the subjectivity of art allows for some room to move. I’ve been cruising Flickr since shortly after it began. I’ve probably viewed a million photos. Very possibly more. I might say that much of the viewing has been to catch a glimpse of the perfect photograph, wondering if it really exiasts. 50% of Flickr photos are really good; 20% of those are excellent; 5% of those are exceptional; 1% of those are “perfect”. And then there are millions more photos online that are not on Flickr.

It became obvious quite quickly that “perfect” is probably an impossible notion, in that there is no one “perfect” photo. There are many many exceptionally excellent beautiful photos.

Which is at the same time inspiring and depressing.

Art is selfish. So it is easier to ascribe perfection to something that I, and perhaps only I, find alluring. That photograph I consider “perfect” may have others thinking huh?

The first photo I remember being mesmerised by was this one.

Eddie Adams - Execution of a Viet Cong Guerrilla (1968)

I have no idea where or when I saw it, but I was quite young. I don’t think it inspired me to want to be a photographer, but I do remember it having a significant impact on me.

The desire to take photographs kind of evolved. I remember my dad had an old box brownie in the wardrobe that I knew was something special. When I finally got hold of an Instamatic (126 I think, in the early 70s?), the first photo I ever took was of some condensation gathered on my bedroom window.

Ever since, I’ve dabbled in photography.

Jump forward to 2011 and the proverbial search for the perfect photo has evolved into taking the perfect photo.

Why? I have no idea. And deep down, whether it’s my psychology or my intuition, I despair that such a notion is pie-in-the-sky.

Robert Capa - Death of a Loyalist Soldier
Surely the perfect photo will be a number of things. It may or may not be technically correct. There is much debate about technically correct photos. I tend to think technical aspects are subordinate to content. What many consider to be the most influential photograph of all time is far from what might be called technically perfect today.

It seems to me, then, that content is king. But it also seems that content is evolving and, like in so many things, the boundaries are being continually extended as to what is possible. And acceptable.

The perfect photo will be of something never before done. The virgin in a condom was new. Edgy. Controversial. It wasn’t a photograph, and some would deny it was art. But it had never been done before, at least in concept.

Piss Christ was a photograph and it contained several similar aspects. It was edgy, raw, offensive (to many), and conceptually had never been done before. But can you just piss in a jar, put a crucifix in it and call it ground-breaking?


Is that all it takes? Sounds easy. But that’s the way it is with so much art. It may be something incredibly simple, but if nobody’s ever thought of sticking a frame round it and calling it art, it suddenly becomes incredibly complex and deep.

Some may stand in the gallery and say: “Umm…it’s just a circle.” Or: “It’s a what? A toilet that brays like a donkey? I don’t get it.”

So the challenge in my mind is to take a photograph of something that has never been photographed before. Of course, it could be argued that every photograph is one that has never been taken before. But that doesn’t make it “unique”. There are a billion photos of cute children in some pose; models sprawled across a bed or couch; or bridges silhouetted against a sunset. They may be good photos, but… yawn.

In a world where everyone is now a photographer, perhaps many many really good photos are being overshadowed by what is simply popular. Stanley Greene railed against the popularity of photos of Britney’s crotch while photos of the conflict in Chechnya are rejected by the mainstream media because they believe nobody wants to see those sorts of photos.

My inspiration lately has come from Walker Evans. His FSA photos are as iconic as any of that period, but when he stepped into the New York subway with a camera hidden in his coat he pushed the notion of candid photography up a notch. Maybe it had been done before (who knows), but he was the first to publish it as art (I think).

Part of the allure may have been the anonymity of both photographer and subject. Is all photography voyeurism?

You don’t have to look far before under the banner of “photography” you find naked bodies. Of course, photography didn’t invent “the nude”, but it’s certainly advanced its cause. Many of the unrivalled greatest works of art involve nudity. Most photographers sooner or later get around to taking nudes. They distinguish it from “porn” by calling it “fine art” (if such distinctions are desirable). Fine indeed.

And in the spirit of pushing boundaries, photos that would make Larry Flint blush are commonplace now. Sure, they’re edgy, controversial, raw and offensive. But are they art? You have to say they are, or else if you start drawing lines what’s to stop the Christian right from drawing lines, the feminist oligarchy from drawing lines, or, god forbid, the judiciary from drawing lines - even though they’re all trying really hard to.

So does the perfect photo need to be controversial, offensive, sexually deviant, and a pusher of ever-expanding boundaries? Geez I hope not. Though it’d be pretty easy to stick a blunted carving knife into some willing model’s vagina, sprinkle some menstrual blood around, take a photo, put “jesus” in the title and call it ground-breaking. Art.

Maybe just taking a photograph I can look at and say “that looks good” would suffice. For now. As with so many things, often it’s the least constructed shots that appeal. I love this photo of Josh. It was snapped one day while in a McDonalds. I’m not saying it’s perfect, but it’s one I can look at and think it’s a good photo.

It’s one of about three such photos in my library.

So the quest goes on. I don’t know where the essence of the perfect photo lies. I’m almost certain it will involve a person. But not a portrait. And not just anybody. The perfect person. But who is that? Male? Female? Nude? Clothed? It will have to be edgy

I judged a photo competition recently. And three other judges and I by and large come up with the same entries that made up the top 5. To be fair, none of the photos inspired me. But in order to get to my decision I set up some criteria, which must have been somewhere in the ballpark given the similarity in our choices.

Hence, I feel I’m able to walk that fine line between objective and subjective. And perhaps tomorrow I will feel differently, but for now it may or may not be surprising that, according to a detailed set of criteria, I think this may be the most perfect photo I’ve yet to see. Sadly, it’s not one of mine.