Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Khadija Saye, Again

This young woman keeps popping up with people doing vigils and remembering her in this way and that, so she remains in my consciousness. I went and looked at the tintypes that were her last project before she was killed in the Grenfell Tower fire.

With the ideas of Orientalism fresh in my mind, I took a slightly different perspective on these pictures, which you can review yourself over here.

Edward Said gives us this idea, echoed widely and now essentially standard thinking, that the people best able to tell us about anything that is different from our own experience are those people who have lived that life. In this model, Khadija Saye is the perfect spokesperson for the immigrant Gambian community. Born in London of a Gambian-born mother, she has lived exactly the life that informs the tintypes that have been so breathlessly praised.

The point of this way of thinking is that when the wrong people speak on behalf of others, they get it wrong. Specifically in the case of Africa, white people are prone to cast the continent as a dark and mysterious place, beyond normal human comprehension, filled with savagery and war. Or, you know, something like that. Which white people most certainly do. There is a practically unbroken history of this, while I do not pretend to know Africa even slightly, I do know that this picture of the continent cannot be anything like complete or usefully similar to "accurate." While I suppose that all these things occur here and there, Africa is a big place, and I dare say that quite a lot other happens there.

So what's going on with these bloody tintypes?

My first thought upon looking at them, I will admit, is "this is staged bullshit, she's just making up mysterious-looking nonsense" which is, of course, wildly uncharitable of me. There's no evidence that these pictures are anything other than what she describes them as, as we should accept her statement as entirely factual.

Dwelling: in this space we breathe is a series of wet plate collodion tintypes that explores the migration of traditional Gambian spiritual practices and the deep rooted urge to find solace within a higher power.

According to the official model, Saye is properly empowered to speak to us, to characterize these things for us. But what has she done? This work is not revealing, it is not communicative. It is a view through a tiny pinhole, which serves almost exclusively to emphasize the wall between us (Europeans, Americans) and the African Immigrant Experience.

I cannot speak to the actual motivations of the artists, but the use of the tintype seems to support an other-worldliness. The lack of explanation, the murkiness of the pictures themselves, creates a complete opacity. These are not even things one can google up, the religious practices of Gambia are in broad strokes Sunni Muslim, but we don't even know if Saye's pictures are the Gambian Immigrant variant of the islamic rituals, or if they're based in one of the minority religious groups in Gambia. The rituals we are looking at are not even the Gambian variant which we might have a hope of discovering, but are the migrated versions of them.

In short, the source material is something we're extremely unlikely, as people outside Saye's religious community, to be able to make sense of without specific help from someone like Saye. Her pictures could hardly be better designed to support and enhance this opacity, this complete mysteriousness.

I think a strong argument could be made that, deliberate or not, there pictures support a distinctly unhealthy narrative, one of a mysterious and unknowable continent, a community beyond our understanding. An unhealthy narrative that Said would remind us is designed to support an idea of Africa as a continent we can legitimately colonize, dominate, exploit. One can contest the thesis the the design is deliberate, but the result seems to be unquestionable. The fact that we now do our colonizing through charitable aid organizations and whatnot doesn't really change that picture much.

I think then that a further argument could be made that it is not at all surprising that the Euro Art community fell over themselves to laud these pictures, but ignored the rather more accessible work that preceded it.

These pictures for instance are recognizable as islamic prayer rituals, which a roughly judeo-christian person like me can grasp in relationship to our own prayer rituals. The colors of the people and the fabrics tell us that this is something not quite the same as the islamic prayers we have perhaps seen from the Arab nations, but we can follow the breadcrumbs and make some sense of it. We have a path that leads us into the work. We gain a little insight into the Gambian Immigrant Religious practices because we have that path into this new place. Yes, it's superfical "like that Arab business, only more colorful" is pretty lame, but it's something. It's a start.

The tintypes seem to deliberately deny us any path of access.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Shooting Scripts

Lewis Bush recently asked the world if anyone still used shooting scripts, which I kind of do, and it raised in my mind what I considered an interesting philosophical point.

Set aside the entire universe of pictures that are obviously constructed: still lifes, much studio work, and so on.

Contemporary thinking, I think, suggests that the photographer should first go out and photograph, in order to learn what is there. One might think up a project "The Oil Industry in South America" based on some notions and some research, but then one sets those notions aside and goes to learn what is truly there, with the camera. A great number of photographs are taken, and the artist returns home. Then the truth, or a truth, or the story, is gleaned out of the photographs and distilled into a show, or a book, or a portfolio of some sort.

We see this reflected here and there. Most recently I saw it in Colberg's book on Photobooks, in which he proposes that the normal path, the correct path, is to start with a completed project and then to go to work on the book. Shoot first, build the narrative, the project later.

The shooting script, at least in its full form, suggests that the photographer is approaching the work of taking the pictures with preconceived ideas, with the story already in place. Roy Stryker supplied his FSA photographers with shooting scripts, because he did have a story in mind. He probably thought it was a true story, but he was a propagandist, and there is no doubt that his scripts sometimes led his photographers to, well, less true stories. At best, other stories that might have been told were not told, at worst stories were simply fabricated from parts.

My life constrains me. I am the primary caregiver, as the kids say these days, to two small children. I cart them to and from school, and I cook, I clean, I pack lunches, I walk the dog, and so forth. I don't have time to go out and discover the truth with the camera. I don't have time to take 10,000 frames of something or other, and then sift that down to the 37 pictures that encapsulate The Truth about the something or other. Wish I could. Can't.

Shooting scripts make the photographer vastly more efficient. I needn't hunt around trying to discover what I am trying to say, I already know. I've spent a lot of time observing as I go about the minutiae of my life, I have spent a lot of time thinking as I wash dishes and whatnot. As a consequence, I have a clear idea of what I want to say, sometimes before I take a single picture. Sometimes I fool about taking some random snaps until something occurs to me, but I have a clear notion in mind before the real work starts.

Whatever it is that I am doing, whether I am telling lies, suppressing stories, or telling some kind of truth; whatever the nature of the thing I am saying is, I am not discovering it with the camera. I am discovering my work through observation and thinking.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Orientalism, Revolution, And All That

I am reading Edward Said's book Orientalism and finding it almost infinitely irritating. Of course, it specifically sets out to irritate people like me, so I suppose that's a success of sorts. Leaving aside the many criticisms I could offer (and recognizing that it's rather heavy sledding and I am, accordingly, not very far into it), he's got at least one very good idea. My intention is to grab hold of this idea, and to run with it.

Said is interested in the "large structure" of cultural thought, that gestalt of literature, poetry, scholarship, art, politics, and so on. He remarks that it's all interconnected, it all supports itself in a vast self-referential structure. Any individual item, let us say a poem, is simultaneously a symptom of the intellectual system of which it partakes, and a supporting part of that system. Said is largely interested in the ways Euros say mean things about Islam, and points out that things like a speech made by a British Colonial administrator both help to construct the system of thought, as well as being a natural product of that system.

This is, if not purely a restatement of remarks I have made in the past, at any rate related. I have talked about the gradual drip of change, the continuous stream of say, photographs out of Vietnam which helped to but did not ultimately generate the political shifts that ended the US involvement in that conflict. These photographs were simultaneously a symptom of political change in progress, and supported, fueled, that change. History seems to select a more or less random collection of iconic points to identify as "the causes" of the change, but this is, I feel, in error.

With this framework in mind, I have reconsidered my occasional forays in to "foreign" photography. I was disappointed with the Archive of Malian Photography, but I see now (I think) that I was foolish to hope for some instantly recognizable Malian-ness to the pictures. Of course the pictures look vaguely western, photography originated in the west and was extensively practiced in the west before it got to Mali. Of course the Malian photographers and subjects will follow, roughly, the model available to them. After all, to them no less than to us, this is what photography is. It looks like that.

Additionally, of course, photographs look like pictures of whatever's in front of the camera, and there will be a certain sameness built in there. It's not like photography uses uniquely Malian pigments or brushwork. It's all indexical representations of whatever was in front of the lens.

Anything essentially Malian about this body of work will have to emerge from the gestalt. Those structures of thought, of culture, that make up whatever it is that is essentially Mali (insofar as that even makes sense) will not reveal themselves in a single gesture, a single picture. It is a basic human fallacy to imagine that a foreign culture is revealed in a handful of colorful costumes, a poem or two, and perhaps a charming dance. It is not more sensible to imagine that a handful of photographs will reveal Mali, somehow. Indeed, because photography is so imbued with western-ness, such an idea is even sillier. If I want to find Mali, or South Africa, or Vietnam, or Poverty, or Swing Dance in photographs, I will need to look at a bunch of them and I will need to take time with the context that wraps around them.

This photograph:

by Alfonso Iannelli was presented in a forum as "not needing words" to grasp. My response was that it is easy to grasp precisely because we're seen an enormous number of these pictures, accompanied by a lot of words. The picture is, transparently, an execution of the FSA style, and as such is trivially read as American Poverty, Depression Era, Southern. This is, it happens, more or less correct. But we can read it as such only because it exists in the shadow of an enormous body of propagandist work created under the direction of Roy Stryker, specifically to create that big structure, that Idea of America, that would support the FSA's mission. This photograph is a consequence of (a symptom) of the labors of the FSA photographers, and it also supports and expands that same Idea of America.

Walker Evans would never have printed this one, he'd have used another frame where the dog is more fortuitously positioned, but it is clear that Fons Iannalli was copying Evans and the FSA work. ETA: Dog? What dog? Good lord, what was I thinking? The child in the middle ground, half-lying, hiding her face (note the reference to Migrant Mother here) looks sort of like a dog, and she is by golly really badly positioned, but she's not a dog despite the accidental resemblance of certain features.

The FSA's photographic work is, in small, much like the system of thought Said names as "Orientalism", in that it is a self-consistent, self-referential, body of work that represents an idea of something. Said's point is that the map is not the territory, and that the idea represented is not the thing itself (again, this is the sort of thing that excites the undergraduate mind omg the thing and the reference to the thing are different omg omg).

To grasp an Idea of Mali, one needs not a handful of pictures, but a complete body of work. But even that will not be Mali, it will be merely an Idea of Mali. Alas, this is about as good as it gets. It turns out that we can no more fit Mali physically inside of our heads than we can The Orient, so there it is.

Which leads around finally to the Revolution promised in the title.

I am currently engaged in a long term project, the same long term project many of us "lefties" are engaged in. We perceive a problem with global wealth, with capitalism as it exists today, and so on. We're unhappy with the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few, and we feel that it is doing a great deal of harm. There's a lot of stuff going on, lots of unhappy people grumbling in one way or another.

People tend to seek the single big push, the one action of set or actions that will produce victory. Go on this one protest march! Impeach Trump! Write your congressmen!

There is no decisive battle. Indeed, it's not clear that victory is even a meaningful concept here. All of these actions are symptoms as well as supporting structures of a set of ideas, a system of thought, an intellectual construct which involves less capitalism, more social justice, etcetera and so on. A gestalt of ideas, roughly (but only roughly) agreed upon across the board. This construct is in competition with others, we can speak of the alt-right Idea of The World, or the Neoliberal Idea of The World, and so forth. Paradoxically, all these competing structures are themselves part of a larger structure, at least the total structure of human thought, and probably something quite a bit smaller. All of these ideas are probably rooted in, are merely branches of, Euro/American exceptionalism, say.

My contribution, I have decided, is to write books and take pictures. My goal is simply to add, in another medium, to that large intellectual structure which is the rough set of ideas I roughly agree with. The idea of capitalism controlled, contained. The idea that people's sexuality is perhaps not the government's business. The idea that skin color might be irrelevant to anything except how to light a portrait. Hence, my little book on San Francisco, and perhaps other similar little booklets in future.

My goal is not to provide the seminal work that changes everything, the prime mover, the ur-cause. There will be no such thing, in the first place, and in the second place that title will be granted after the fact more or less at random by those who write the histories. The work is done bit by bit, with a little book here, a picture there, a poem over here, a stirring graduation speech from that podium. I just want to do a bit here, a bit there. My books are a symptom as well as a support.

Victory isn't really a possibility in play here. There will be battles and wars, people will die, people will be broken to poverty and raised up to vast wealth, but the edifice of human thought, of human culture, these Ideas of Who We Are, these merely evolve and change, never dying, never holding quite still. One general theme is ascendant, and then another. I merely want to nudge my pet notions upwards for the nonce.

Still, let us hope that the good guys win!

Sunday, August 13, 2017

I Cannot Resist - Off Topic

I don't know anything about high end watches, and I assume that they're all priced in absurd ways. Still, I cannot resist a remark.

Ming is selling a watch.

As noted, I have no idea if the $900 price tag is reasonable or absurd, but I do know that the movement in it is a clone of a swatch movement.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Art! Fame! Culture!

Two largely unrelated things have touched my consciousness recently, and per my usual methods I intend to place them next to one another to see what illumination might be cast one upon the other.

The first is the news that Cindy Sherman is on Instagram, together with the associated backlash. Apparently some elements of the media are cooing rather too loudly for some of the more precious critics out there, who are tweeting angry tweets.

The second item is that I am starting in on Edward Said's book, Orientalism. So far I have read the introduction, but I have a day at the beach today!

I must admit that I am finding Said tedious. He's spent an immense number of words to tell us that literature, politics, ideas, culture, and so on are all intermingled, interconnected, and cannot reasonably be understood separately. Further, almost all of what we think and believe is mediated through this mess. This strikes me as so obvious that one hardly need to even say it, let alone expend thousands of words of turgid prose. Still, it is just the sort of thing that galvanizes the undergraduate mind, and is also the exact opposite of much the 20th century's more abstruse academic thought (cf. Derrida). It is possible I find Said tedious because his ideas are so embedded as to be (now) obvious.


What about Sherman's Instagram? Well, to me it just looks like she's having fun. There is no denying that some people think she's doing something Important or Astonishing, and it's not at all obvious to me that she is, but see below. The refrain from the precious critics on Twitter might be if it wasn't Sherman, nobody would care about these pictures which is probably true.

This is to quite miss the point, which is that Sherman did make these things. Her fame is part of the rich cultural stew in which all works of art live. You cannot discard her fame, any more than you can discard a caption or the left half of the frame.

George Bush's paintings would be utterly uninteresting if he were not a former president, but to try to push them aside as uninteresting is wrongheaded. I'm not advocating hanging these things in the MOMA but his fame, his former role, do lend the pictures some interest. If nothing else, they gain a little historical weight, they speak, or might speak, to the nature of the man who was president.

How much more weight do Sherman's selfies on Instagram have?! Sherman is, after all, widely recognized as the JS Bach of the selfie. He didn't invent the fugue, she didn't invent the self portrait, but both mightily thrust their forms forward and up. The fact the Sherman is making these pictures, now, is inherently interesting. Who cares if they're "good" or "new" or "cutting edge"? That's irrelevant, or at best secondary.

If Bach in his dotage had written a series of 24 suites for kazoo, we might legitimately re-examine the kazoo, we might legitimately ask what on earth did the old bastard see in the kazoo here at the end?

Maybe nothing. Maybe Sherman is just playing around and there's nothing really to be read here. Maybe it just means that Sherman, the selfie queen, thinks that Instagram is jolly good fun. That right there is worth noting, though.

This is not to say that what famous people do is automatically "good". It is often important, influential, in a sense. If we wish to understand our world, we need to be attentive to the famous, however idiotic they may seem, for they do shape our world. It's all interconnected, and it is through all of this that we see, we grasp, our world. Sherman's presence on Instagram has changed that medium, it has changed photography, it has changed Art. Subtly to be sure, perhaps infinitesimally. But the change, the impact, is there.

Warhol was a sharp fellow.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Digital vs. Analog

I alluded to some of these ideas in the previous remarks, but I'll expand on them here. This is, in part, me taking another swing at "everyone is wrong about digital photography."

There's a strong current of belief that digital photography is in a fundamental way different from analog photography, in its bones, its DNA, or something. I assert, every now and then, and now once again, that this simply is not so. The new observation I have made recently explains why:

Digital photographic technology deliberately copies analog photography's model. How shall we make a digital camera? Well, replace the small flat rectangle of light sensitive film with a small flat rectangle of light sensitive silicon, and we're done, right? Whatever we read out of the chip is the single first generation object, a direct analog of the negative. Then you process that in ways that are very much analogous to film.

Lightroom (the dominant tool for handling those first generation files) even calls it developing! Photo editors have tools called "burn" and "dodge" for crying out loud.

Everything is easier, more plastic, and you can undo a lot of it and do it over. You can "develop" the same "film" over and over in different ways. You can undo your "dodging" and do it again. And you can do it all easily, sitting on your increasingly broad behind, rather than sweating over trays of chemicals.

The only substantive differences, though, are those. The speed, the ease, the plasticity, the undo. All the normal stuff that happens when you translate something analog into the digital domain.

These things do generate cultural change. It's not that digital is somehow different in a magical way, it's that it's the same thing only super easy, which has led to the current state of things. Pictures are ephemeral, disposable, lightweight, trivial. Or at any rate more than they were. Polaroids were never that serious or permanent an object in our cultural consciousness, to be sure. But the digital picture is moreso.

Since taking, editing, and sharing a picture is so easy, that part is now the simplest part of a larger process of promoting a false image of your own life. Literally every other aspect of faking your life or anything else you want to present disingenuously is more difficult. The plasticity, the editablity, of the digital picture hardly comes into it. The girl who wakes up, showers, puts on makeup, blowdries her hair, and gets back into bed for the #wokeuplikethis selfie is literally a cliche. If you look particularly happy, relaxed, luxurious, people assume that you're faking it.

They still kind of trust the picture. Sure, it's got a filter, it probably wasn't that sunny out, and you're probably not as happy as you look, and you probably borrowed that cute bikini, and you cropped out your tummy for a reason, dintcha? But the picture itself is probably pretty much honest as far as it goes.

The big changes are coming. As computational photography comes along (and it is coming, make no mistake) we're finally dropping the analog model. The "negative" is no longer to be simple indexical capture of the image cast on a flat surface by a lens. It will be a fused, computed, result from multiple lenses, from multiple sensors, of data from various sources. The "negative" will be interpolated, annotated, guessed-at, filled in from here and there. It won't be indexical. It will be rich, literally three dimensional, filled with data and cues that will make it far more malleable than today's pictures.

The plasticity of the new "negative" will astound us. Dropping out the background will be a one-click operation.

"Here we are in front of the Eiffel Tower."
"Sweetie, can we make all the other people go away?"
"Sure!" <click>
"And maybe move us in closer?"
"Ha ha! Can you put us at the pyramids?"

And so on.

People already distrust photographs. Computational photography is going to take that to a whole 'nother level, as the editability leaps to new heights. We now treat the look of the picture as untrustworthy, because you can apply filters trivially. With computational photography the content becomes just as malleable. Now the indexicality of the picture, never truly present in a computed photo anyways, becomes discardable utterly.

Not only do we make the gloomy day look a bit warm and sunny, we can change the sailboat we're standing on to a much larger one.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Colberg on Pictures

I do so like it when people actually take a credible swing at "what's it all about then?" sorts of questions in photograph. Colberg has written a piece, The Perfect Imperfect Picture. Don't misunderstand me, he's all wrong, and I am about to talk about why, but I appreciate the effort, and I appreciate that people are thinking about this kind of thing.

First of all, he's more or less right that there is a great deal of variation in what we actually get to look in with a digital photograph, just as there was a certain amount of variation with analog. He does start right in with muddling things up, though. In the analog world he seems to be talking about frame-to-frame variation. This piece of film rendered this scene in one way, the next one rendered this other scene, this other picture in another way. In digital land, he's talking about how differently the same picture is rendered in various contexts.

Later, he revists this idea in a way that makes it clear that the first thing (different renderings of the same picture) is irrelevant, even to Colberg.

Next up, he jumps to a brief vignette on "what is a photograph anyways, where is the, you know, the actual thing itself?" which is a perfectly good question to ask, and one that doesn't have a good answer, but he fetishizes technology for a moment by saying "it must be the code, the code is the thing" which is a refrain I find numbingly tiresome. In the first place, "code" is the program, it's the app, it's the part that does calculation. "Data" is the passive stuff upon which calculations are done. What Colberg is talking about is, technically, "data" not "code", unless his phone encodes pictures as a FORTRAN program that, when executed, writes out a JPEG file. Which I can assure you is not the case.

To say "code" sounds cooler, though, so it's kind of in vogue.

Anyways, it's all irrelevant, because in the second place there's a clear and precise analog between the first generation file (JPEG, DNG, RAW, whatever) and the negative. It's the unique thing produced by the instrument, and if you must answer "what is the actual thing?" then that's as good an answer as any. And it's simply not very interesting (unless you're planning to fetishize technology, which apparently you must) to examine the differences between "negative" and "first generation data file", they're the same for all ontological purposes. And then, just as every print pulled from a negative is a little different, so every rendering of the file is. In digital land, surprise, everything happens a lot faster, a lot more frequently.

After a mysterious trip to the world of gratuitous and wrong-headed slams on Sontag, Colberg gets to to the meat of his thesis.

People, he asserts, like imperfections in their pictures.

The first problem here is that he's approaching this like an engineer and an amateur gearhead photographer. What on earth is an imperfection? He sounds like some douchebag on a forum bitching about "missed focus" or "white balance is wrong."

Colberg is now back to muddling up variations in renders of the same picture with variations in handling of different pictures, but here it is important.

Nobody cares much if colors look a little different on their phone and your screen. This is variation between different renders of the same picture, and most people consider it irrelevant unless the differences are enormous, and then they find it irritating. The important point here is that the renders remain indexical. It is important to note that an indexical representation of a scene, one that corresponds directly to the scene, is not unique. There can be many indexical representations of the same thing. There can be, in short, many photographs of the same thing, each exactly as "true" as the other, all different.

When people apply filters to their phone snaps, to make them look like vintage film, obviously they do care, and they like the look. This is handling different pictures differently, or sometimes making multiple different pictures from the same underlying first generation file. It doesn't actually have anything to do with the things Colberg started with, with this notion of different renderings.

Finally, Colberg gets around to something sensible and interesting.

So, people are smashing up their pictures with filters and whatnot. Somehow, this is not damaging the credibility of pictures (or is it?), and somehow, people seem to want to want the look of glitchy, weird, serendipitous accidents, and that does indeed have to mean something.

Unfortunately, he leaves it right there, just when it's about to get interesting.

He has an opportunity here to draw his two muddled things back together, to talk about something like the evidentiary properties of a photograph. We, collectively, will accept various renders of the same picture, as well as quite a lot of deliberate variation in the form of edits and filters, as evidence. You can smash a picture up fairly brutally, at least in technical terms, and we, your audience, will still treat it as proof that you were at that diner, that party, that beach. If my screen renders your picture with a weird green cast, or if Facebook's servers have made it all soft with overcompression, I still treat it as proof.

There's nothing inherent about digital technologies here, to be sure. Commentators like Colberg and, and well everyone except me as far as I know, are obsessed with the idea that digital photographs are somehow, inherently, in their underlying nature, different. That is simply not true. There are direct analogs with every aspect of analog photography (of course they are, analog photography is the model the digital guys copied, and continue to copy). There are at least two different approaches to Adams's Moonrise over Hernandez photo out there, and many different prints. Nobody, however, denies that Adams was there on that road, at that time.

What is different is the pace, the amount, the numbers. Rather than 4 different prints, all subtly different, we have a thousand, a million, a billion different renders on different screens. We have different interpretations through filters and photoshop, 2, 5, 100, as many as you care to churn out, every one a click away. None of the individual instances is substantively different from what might have occurred in the bad old days of film.

But the sheer quantity is different, is new. It changes things, in ways we don't fully understand. Digital has changed things, it is different.

Commentators and critics like Colberg and Bush are, however, quite wrong about why.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Seeing, Objectivity, Etcetera

Ming Thein has a piece up over here that I disagree with, I think. To be honest, I have trouble wading through his prose these days, but I think he's talking about photography as documenting the novel, the changed, the differences. He seems to be, at least partly, espousing the usual rot of how going to somewhere new allows us to see new things, in new ways, and therefore the pictures get better.

This is the mentality that drives the workshop business, it drives a fair bit of travel in general, and I vigorously disagree with it.

The photographer's job is not to notice and photograph the novel, the new, the different. The photographer's job is orthogonal to that, it has nothing to do with novelty. It's about seeing what is truly there, in a way that is idiosyncratic, that is informed by the photographer's person-ness. If you're just looking for the novel, well, a robot will be able to do that in a couple of years. If you're just looking to document what is, a robot can do that now.

As a consequence of this, travel is contraindicated. You can't see what is truly there without spending some time, and you cannot see it in your own specific way without spending more time, and you need to do both. So, as I have said before, travel is fine as long as you spend a ton of time in-country. Indeed, Ming alludes to this in his post, remarking that he doesn't get good pictures until the end of a trip.

The problem so many would-be photographers face, though, is that they have never learned to see what is truly there. Our view of the world is mediated through our big fat brain, which has a big fat visual cortex, which is connected with everything else. It's hard to see what is truly there. But, well, that's the job, so you jolly well ought to learn how to do it. This is one reason, I think, that everyone advocates for taking 1000s of pictures of whatever. It's a half-assed method of learning to see what's actually there.

I advocate just sitting there and looking, until you are bored with looking, and then look some more. George Perec's An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (which I have not read) is probably a good model to follow.

You can actually observe the amateur photographer's inability to see online, when they "critique" one another's work, or attempt to help one another replicate some look they've seen on the web. They seem to almost always miss the forest for the trees, harping on about "missed focus" or "move the light" or whatever, and don't notice that the main thing is that the picture is dark and de-saturated. The critics are seeing photographs through their own preconceptions and ideas.

Once you know what is genuinely in front of your nose, then you can start to apply your own person-ness, to photograph what is truly there in your own way.

Of course, every photograph does this in a way. At worst you're selected what to take a picture of, although if you have no yet learned to see what is truly there you're just selecting preconceptions and illusions. Still, to really be a photographer, you should be applying your own idiosyncracies in an organized way, not at random.

Anyways, this all leads around to the final point which is an essential conflict in photojournalism, and something I have just realized.

Photography, at its core, is about an idiosyncratic world view. If the pictures are any damn good, if they're interesting to look at, it's because the photographer who took them has inserted a personal viewpoint, an opinion, some ideas, something. And yet, modern journalism insists that these things should be objective, pure document, just the facts, ma'am.

Purely factual photographs are possible, but terribly dull. A robot could, in theory, document much of what counts as news in a more or less objective fashion.

Arguably, robot journalism (we're seeing mentions now and then of systems for automatically writing short press articles, usually based on already extant data streams like auto-generated earthquake reports and whatnot) will lead to a brave new era of more objective journalism that absolutely nobody reads.