Photography, alcohol, college, facebook, and privacy

Somewhere, on the campus of a high-caliber north-eastern liberal arts college that will remain nameless, lurks a budding Martin Parr. Parr is the extraordinarily talented British photographer best known for moments seized in the street. He takes colorful, revelatory frames that skewer the gentility and decorum of his subjects, peeling back the veneer of contemporary civilization to expose, when he is at his most cruel, a kind of lowest-common-denominator of humanity. In the context of elite American institutions of higher learning, to judge by the photographs on this page, that lowest common denominator is the use and abuse of alcohol. But these images are not by Parr; I idly came across them, in a facebook photo album. To be fair to Martin, these are not quite up to his standard, but the photographer is, after all, only a college student.

The pictures, by a photographer or photographers who shall also remain nameless, raise a few intriguing, and perhaps even disturbing questions: How crucial is context to the interpretation of a photograph? If the intention of the photographer is not, like Martin Parr, to capture the defining moment, but rather simply to document one's friends enjoying themselves, does that diminish the artistic worth of the image? Is it possible that the spring-time ambiance of life on today's college campus is so beer-soaked that it is difficult not to obtain Martin Parr-like results whenever one snaps the shutter? And, do I have too much free time? What am I doing on facebook, paging through pictures of people I don't know, at some distant bacchanal?

"I hear Goldman is hiring."

There is a debate raging around facebook, centered on the question of privacy. It is essentially the result of facebook's ham-handed efforts to "monetize" their "product." The facebook "service" or "social-networking site" currently has something like 400 million "subscribers," "members," "clients," "participants," or whatever it is that we are, none of whom pay even one thin dime to share their thoughts, aphorisms, photographs and affiliations with their self-selected group of "friends." Mark Zuckerberg and the other inventor-creator controllers of facebook believe that having 400 million users ought to translate into untold riches, but while everyone understands that this gigantic number somehow represents power and potential marketing muscle, there is no obvious "revenue stream" gushing out of the website. Facebook collects vast amounts of data, and it seems increasingly to be looking for ways to sell that data along to whomever might find it useful. Recently, they made unilateral adjustments to the visibility of their users, making more data publicly accessible. Although these changes can be reversed after navigating and tweaking facebook's opaque and byzantine privacy settings, Zuckerberg and Co. rightly believe that most users either won't manage or won't bother. Savvy users are outraged. Facebook says "if you don't want to share, don't share," and their service is, after all, optional and free. But I have been using the optional and free web-based email services of Yahoo and Google exclusively for more than a decade, and while I understand that email is intrinsically insecure, I presume a certain level of privacy in my communications.

These photographs illustrate some of the issues of the facebook privacy debate, in that I stole them from the page of someone I don't know, not even a facebook friend, but the friend of a friend. This friend had been "tagged" in a picture in this series, and therefore it appeared in my "news feed," and I clicked through to the complete album. Even my "friend," in the way of facebook, is more of a glancing acquaintance, a person from whom I am separated both by generations and zip codes of socio-economic status. We encountered one another in my work environment a few years ago, have not seen each other since, and quite probably will never meet again. Yet countless drunken pictures of this friend's "friends," the country's future investment bankers and civic leaders, are available for my perusal, download, and subsequent exploitation here.

My presumption is that the intent of these photographs is purely commemorative; they are interesting to non-participants in the scene they document only once stripped of identity, becoming in their ensemble a portrait, and even possibly a condemnation, of a collegiate culture of kegs and cans. Note also that the two images above, handed over to a skillful copy-writer and given a line or two of text in an alluring font, might make excellent alcohol advertisements, but that in the context of the rest of the pictures they take on a quite different meaning.

So, anonymous photographer, you leave me mulling over a few paradoxes. And I apologize. I've violated your copyright, but only to draw attention to how interesting your images are. Your compositions are stunning and your thematic unity impressive, but I'm concerned that it's all inadvertent. I'll not reveal your name, because I believe you need to rethink your facebook security settings.


Kanaval, by Leah Gordon

Haiti has been firmly associated with grim news in the public imagination for so long that to announce that the country has a public relations problem is such an understatement as to seem almost beside the point. While most of the rest of the Caribbean survives, and some of it even thrives, on tourism, Haiti has been deprived of this lynchpin of the regional economy since the 1970s. Whatever fame its beaches and sophisticated franco-colonial nightlife might once have had has been long since eclipsed by a cyclical litany of political and environmental tragedies. Brutal dictatorships, coups d'etat, unrest, gang violence, organized crime, kidnapping, flooding, deforestation and now earthquake are all more likely associations conjured by the word "Haiti" than, for instance, the vision of sipping a perfectly mixed rum punch beneath a palm tree on a sunset beach.

But the country, like most places in the Americas deeply impacted by slavery, has a grand carnival tradition. Even if outside visitors have been few and far between for the last thirty years, Haiti's many calamities have done nothing to diminish local enthusiasm for an annual bacchanal on the order of New Orlean's Mardi gras, or the samba madness of Rio de Janeiro. There may be a silver lining to the neglect of kanaval by the outside world, in that, especially in the smaller regional celebrations of Jakmel, Haiti's artistic and cultural heart on the south coast, carnival has not been turned into a corporate spectacle of sponsored, motorized floats and grand orchestras. In Jakmel, carnival is a diffuse, multi-day pageant of impromptu street theater and neighborhood marching bands. Old carnival traditions, costumes, and characters are well-preserved there, and each year the same archetypal representations of local history and myth come out into the city and seize control of the streets. There just haven't been many visitors there, documenting.

My dear friend Leah Gordon, however, has been photographing Jakmel's carnival for more than fifteen years; I met her in Port-au-Prince on my first trip there, in 1993, and she had already begun taking the pictures that have now, finally, become a spectacular photo book, Kanaval: Vodou, Politics and Revolution on the Streets of Haiti, from the book publishing arm of Soul Jazz Recordings. I've been looking at Leah's images for years, wondering when some canny publisher was going to get it together to gather them together into a volume, and I can't recommend this work highly enough. I was particularly flattered to be asked to contribute an accompanying essay. The book is full of some of the most unique portraits I've ever come across, and you should immediately procure yourself a copy. (Don't let the misinformation in Amazon's listing put you off; the book comes out in June, in a couple of weeks, not February 28th, 2010--the earthquake inspired a slight delay in publication--and will be shipping shortly, not "in 2 to 5 months." I recommend "pre-ordering" it, as I've just done, since the $22 tag makes this such a fabulous bargain that the price must be another bit of incorrect Amazon data, one which I suspect they are legally obliged to make good on!)

All images: Leah Gordon


Your message here...

Who's gonna work, make the economy grow, if we all hang out in the street?
Well, I don't know, and I don't care, just as long as it ain't me!
Hangin' out with the street people, they got it down,
Hangin' out with the street people, just driftin' from town to town.
I wouldn't trade places with no one I know, I'm happy where I'm at...
Some people would rather work; we need people like that….
                                                         -- Bobby Charles

Nothing says "ongoing economic downturn" with quite the same forceful poignancy as a disused billboard. Gowanus is full of them, towering rectangles of dull gray tin spotted with the patchy remnants of abandoned advertising campaigns. At the moment the only message they are sharing with the motorists of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway is one of empty failure. If there is a particular stage of global slump in which advertising is abandoned altogether, surely we have reached it.

Don't get me wrong, it's not that I wish these mute slabs were still decorated with glossy promotions for soft drinks and home improvement stores. I hate the damn things, and consider them an unconstitutional infringement on my right to enjoy unobstructed views and breezes, and to be free of unwanted visual clutter as I make my way along the roadways my tax dollars pay for. Billboards are nothing less than a form of pollution, and they should be banned nationwide, just as they are in Vermont. But in Brooklyn we have them, so for now I'll settle for finding them more evocative, meaningful, and even beautiful, in their messageless state. With their museum-quality enameled steel frames, these huge erased canvases make for a kind of vast outdoor art exhibition; in a different context the people with all the money might be drooling over them and writing fat checks.

But in light of the current economic crisis I think it is also useful to consider these empty billboards as metaphors for not spending. We live in a country where consumer spending makes up more than 70% of GDP. Our economy would be worse than completely stagnant if we were to stop consuming enormous amounts of stuff all the time. This is what prompted Rudy Giuliani's silly remark in the wake of 9/11 that city residents should "go shopping," to prove that not even terrorists can keep them from their comforting, habitual activities. It is also why real efforts at environmentalism are perennially marginalized and disparaged. "Green" living isn't about whether your coffee filters are made from recycled materials, it has to be about radical constraint on buying and using and replacing, and therefore, radical constriction of the economy. Rampant consumption is essential to the current economic model.

Consumer spending, except for the sliver of it that can truly be said to be spent on absolute necessities, is essentially marketing driven. Absolute necessities are what they call in Latin America the canasta basica, the "basic basket" of so many grains of rice and loaves of bread and tablespoons of oil required for minimal survival; I'm not talking about iPhones.

Except for the vast masses of the poor, people in general have lost sight of the once meaningful distinction between want and need. We have created a culture and an infrastructure in which what were once luxuries are now thought essentials. Given the chronic starving of public transportation in the United States, and the pattern of one hundred years of urban and suburban development, for instance, most now accept the personal automobile as a necessity. So, too, the cellphone. How absurd. Such things are pillars of our consumer society, but we prospered just fine without them. Worse, in order to justify ourselves and support this environmentally catastrophic model, we have very successfully exported (one of our last major exports) this aspirational, consumptive mode of life across the globe. 

Advertising would have ceased to exist long ago if it were not effective. But because advertising is so loathsome, and because the creators of goods and services are naturally biased to believe that the market will recognize the superiority of their offerings without the intercession of anything so crass as promotion, many businesses ironically still look at it as a luxury, even as they use it to convey the idea that what they manufacture is a necessity. Given that consumer spending is in large part a creation of the advertising industry, the direct result of a marketing and media machine, what does a breakdown in the communication apparatus like the blighted billboards of Gowanus mean?

Is there a glimmer of hope reflecting off these dull gray surfaces?

Blank slate for a new way of thinking.

An advertisement for nothing. I'll have some of that, please.


La Onda Verde

Few people in the United States seem to be as charged up about the Antanas Mockus presidential campaign as I am, although there was a Simon Romero story in the New York Times a few days ago. By and large I suspect that the major media here is going to stand on the sidelines scratching their heads until he is elected later this month, and then react in confusion and dismay. Mockus will again be described as "the formerly eccentric mayor of Bogotá," since once you are the president of a country, or even become a major candidate, you are apparently no longer eligible to be "eccentric," unless perhaps your country is in Africa. Mockus will be compared to Chavez and Evo Morales by journalists unable to conceive of a Latin American politics that defies the left versus right duality.

Few, in short, will get the story right. The story I hope people will write is about a green tidal wave of emboldened and motivated youth abandoning their generation's justifiably cynical view of electoral politics to rally their friends and families around a candidate offering change and vision, via a viral new media campaign beyond the understanding or control of the existing structures of power. If that sounds to you anything like the way Obama got into the White House, it isn't a coincidence; the reason I'm comfortable going out on a limb and predicting a Mockus victory is that, just as in that campaign, in Colombia the young graphic designers, facebookers, filmmakers, muralists and deejays have already chosen.

I believe none of the propaganda on this page to be the official creation of the Mockus campaign, although "Evolución" might be, but, like Shepherd Fairey's iconic high-contrast Obama poster (the only relevant and powerful work that artist has ever come up with, in my opinion, but at least he got one big one right), it doesn't matter, as it's all part of an unstoppable message that is spreading faster than bird flu in migration season.

"Old Green Sea Turtles with Antanas Mockus"

"Antanas Simpson"

"Join the Mockus Evolution"

I don't need pollsters to tell me whether Mockus is looking good; you want an unrefutable, unscientific sampling? Searching the "fan" pages (now apparently the "like" pages) for "Antanas Mockus" on facebook reveals 361 results, led by Mockus' official page, which is liked by 597,887 people. Juan Manuel Santos' page, on which the only viable rival candidate looks like an airbrushed Botox victim, is liked by a mere 135,669. Far more telling, however, is the nature of the subsequent unofficial facebook pages. The next four of the top five Santos groups are all actually anti-Santos pages, including "No to the politics of war, I'm NOT voting for Juan Manuel Santos" (with 38,642 likers), "Those of us who do not want Santos for president, WE ARE MORE!" (22,995), "We will not let Santos rise on the basis of FALSE polling" (9,143), and "This inert lump of coal can get more fans than Santos" (10,830). In contrast, I could find only one anti-Mockus page among the first fifty pages devoted to that candidate, on the second page of search results, with a mere 3,328 subscribers. The many, many pro-Mockus pages include "Creatives for Mockus," "People who want their parents to vote for Mockus," "I'm voting for Mockus, ask me why," and "Colombians living in Sweden for Antanas Mockus." See you on May 30th.


Coming soon to a dentist's office near you...


There is a genre of photography often referred to as "inspirational kitten poster." Found hanging on the walls of doctor's offices waiting rooms and second grade classrooms, such art features rays of sun piercing through mystical, cloudy skies, downy, goofy babies, or small, furry animals delightedly nuzzling at their mother's nipple, accompanied with a a textual platitude of staggering flatness, a saccharine biblical verse, or an excruciating pun. "Hang in there" is a classic example, with its cuddly, nervous kitten dangling from a precarious twig.

I took these photographs in Ilum, in the Guatemalan highlands, a couple of weeks ago. The best caption submitted by a reader wins a smoky one pound slab of premium Polish bacon from Eagle Provisions.