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I have made a decision to keep this blog virus free from this point forward, at least until the smoke clears. This is not a judgement about ...

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

That Ole Authoritarian Tango

If you pay attention to mainstream photography media, social and otherwise, you will notice pretty often calls to remove the verb "to shoot" from the photographer's vocabulary. The association with firearms is harmful and unnecessary, and photographers are already just so exploitive, we should remove this and use "capture" or something.

This oft repeated platitude is often repeated by vaguely amiable fairly nice people who simply want the world to be a better place.

It originates, though, in a much less healthy impulse: the urge to force people to bend the knee and submit to demands. It doesn't matter what demands. As Orwell noted, the point of power is power, and this applies even to the most venal and trivial situations.

It is also, of course, deeply stupid. The verb "to shoot" is ubiquitous in sport, but somehow nobody seems willing to tell soccer (football, <cough>) players to stop "shooting" at the goal. Nobody tells someone facing a challenge to avoid terminology like "best shot" or "shoot the moon." Nobody suggests that fountains do not shoot water into the air ("consider less loaded options like 'ejaculate.'")

It turns out, once you start looking around, photography is absolutely wall-to-wall with these kinds of trivial demands that one kneel.

These days it's popular to dress it up in an ethical/social-justice framework. Informed consent is so necessary but at the same time, somehow, no degree of informing is ever quite enough. No practical, real, degree of consent is actually satisfactory. We see it also, though, in aesthetic demands. Your pictures should be in focus, or not, the colors should be accurate, nor not, or whatever. Sequence this way, not that way. How can you expect to be properly derivative of <name> unless you slavishly copy and submit to my program?

Everyone wants to tell you what you're doing wrong, everyone wants you to submit to their program.

The broadest form of this I have noted is people who are constantly angling for the role of curator and/or critic, based on little more than a kind of dopey personal taste. I can name any number of names of people who have been beavering away trying with more or less success to build a kind of authority, invariably without actually doing much work developing a basis for that desired authority. They skim Barthes and Benjamin, and then they spend years banging away conflating their personal taste with some objective notion of quality, marketing the shit out of themselves.

I dare say this impulse is universal, but from where I sit this morning, it strikes me that photography seems especially full of know-nothing idiots striving against all the other know-nothing idiots to be put "in charge" of some nebulous something or other, to become the boss, to be granted the authority to direct Photography writ large.

Honestly, ignore all these fucking people. Ignore me too.

Or rather, read or listen to what seems useful, and sort it carefully. Throw away anything that's just a demand that you kneel, whether first-hand or tenth, and take away the bits and pieces that you can actually use.

In the end, it's just rectangles full of blobs of tone and color. As long as you don't wind up outing some rat to a mob assassin, nothing you do is going to cause any actual harm, no matter how badly you do it.

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Agency, Identity and our Response to a Photo

There has been a mild social media shitstorm generated by the usual tiny cadre, featuring among other pictures the one I talked about in these remarks earlier.

One of the oft-repeated claims in these things is "you'd never see white people photographed this way" which is sometimes true, but often not. Therein lies an interesting observation.

In this case, for instance, we're talking about rape survivors. We would, we are told, never see pictures of white rape survivors. The pictures of dark skinned rape survivors are, we are told, inherently exploitive. We are told that the subjects lack the necessary visual literacy and understanding of media to truly give informed consent. Not everyone says all these things, but these things have all been said.

Put all together, though, these remarks paint a remarkable picture of the attitudes of these warriors for justice, and their attitude toward the people in Africa.

Africa, I have been informed by trusted sources, is not just a gigantic jungle thinly populated by naked savages. It has cities, culture, civilization. It even has media, gasp. The idea that someone with brown skin lacks visual literacy and an understanding of media isn't just wildly racist, it's completely fucking insane.

In reality, we see tons of pictures of white rape survivors. We literally have books by rape survivors with jacket photos right on the book. This is totally a thing. The survivor bravely testifies to her struggles etc etc. This is also precisely the theme of the controversial photos, that these survivors are voluntarily and with courage testifying to their trauma, their struggle, etc, in order to serve a greater good.

I think that what is going on is a pretty nasty dive into our human psyches.

The truth is that I, and many others, are far more willing to accept a narrative of exploitation, of lack of agency, of ignorance, when we see a photo of a brown person than when we see a white person.

I don't know which of the Justice Warriors, if any, are consciously exploiting this, but it is certainly their method: present a photo of a person of color, essentially without context, and then simply state as a bald fact that the subject was exploited by the photographer, is ignorant of media, and lacks agency. Broadly, people will accept this as simply true.

Seeing functionally the same photo of a white person, we're much less willing to accept this story, and will tend to apply a story of agency, of knowledge, of informed consent.

We tend to see the photos of African woman literally as in a different category as functionally identical photos of white women. We believe the story that we would never see "these" photos of a white woman. In a sense it is true, because when we see the white woman, we do not experience it as one of "these" photos but rather as one of "those" photos, which photos we consider as completely different. The difference, though, lies within us not in the blobs of color and tone that we see on the page or screen.

This is a real effect, I think, but it's not clear what the photographer is supposed to do about it.

Thursday, May 5, 2022

Award Winning!

I am an award-winning photographer now. I can no longer talk to you unless you have also won an award I'm afraid. It's a cruel but necessary rule.

Here's the proof: Jolt Awards

You may admire the Award Winning Photos here.

Snappy Kraken is a marketing company, and they really really like off-beat stuff. Which, it turns out, is kind of what I am good at. I've done an ongoing campaign in the form of a long series of photos for my wife's business blog, which Snappy Kraken noticed, and they gave me an award. So there. As part of this, I wrote up something of a discussion of "muh pro-cess" and here it is.

When my wife launched her financial planning practice in 2016, I offered to supply her with at least some of the photography. Since I am not a professional as such, she used (with great effect) an actual professional to create the pictures for her main web site. I ended up making pictures for the blog portion, which is to a degree a separate little world of its own. Being generally around, I am conveniently available to make these pictures!

We began with a LEGO minfig, a whimsical and charming miniature female character that seemed to suit the mood of the blog pretty well. Rapidly, though, we realized that this would lead to copyright problems. The LEGO Group is generous, but likely not that generous. I had read within the last few years a book by Molly Bang, Picture This: How Pictures Work, in which she uses a little red triangle to tell the story of Little Red Riding Hood, and to illustrate how emotion and story can be carried with simple graphical shapes. I was pretty sure that a pink triangular block was unlikely to trigger anyone's copyright rights, and so I painted an appropriate scrap of wood, a scrap about 2 inches high.

I'd like to pretend that the concept fell into place fully formed at that point, but that wouldn't be true. What is today a pretty well fleshed out set of ideas has grown fairly organically, by fits and starts, over several years. Rather than try to reconstruct those half-remembered twists and turns, I will instead tell you where we are today, the complete concept. Not every photo succeeds, but I think that en masse and occasionally even one-by-one, the photos hit all or more of the marks.

Block woman, the little pink triangle, is deliberately intended as the avatar of the blog reader, in a sense the ideal customer of Flow Financial Planning, LLC. Pink, despite all efforts, remains resolutely feminine in the modern West. Block woman struggles with the kinds of decisions which that reader might also struggle with; she triumphs likewise in the same ways. The intent is that she should be relatable. She connects the reader to the problem in the blog post.

Using the ideas from Bang's book, I try to create simple scenes which capture some essential idea from the accompanying blog post, ideally some moment of confusion or difficulty or triumph. To be honest, often that's simply too hard to represent visually (how does one photograph a Donor Advised Fund?) and we end up with some silly visual pun, which may or may not even read. Nevertheless, ideally we see block woman palpably struggling with, or solving, exactly the problem the blog post is trying to shed some light on.

At the same time, the pictures try to connect with the Flow brand. Block woman herself is more or less the pink color from the corporate logo, and I will sometimes work in the green or the gold color as well. Every photo has a largely imperceptible vignette applied which is done with the Flow logo's blue. I honestly have no idea if the vignette "reads" but at the very least it helps bolster the common "look" that the blog photos have.

I remind myself regularly of the notion that 50% of marketing doesn't work, we just don't know which 50%, so we do all of it anyway.

Normally, but not always, I try to create an airy, open, warm sensation in the photo. Technically, I lighten up the middle tones a trifle, and render the color palette a little on the warm (yellow/red) side. This openness and warmth, combined with the slightly whacky vibe of an anthropomorphized little-pink-triangle, is aimed at creating an overall vibe of optimism and comfort. The goal is something like "she struggles just as you do, but it's going to be ok, it's a sunny day in block-land!"

To create the emotional content, such as it is, I spend a surprising amount of time getting block woman positioned and/or tilted just so. She leans in to listen, she jumps back in surprise, she hunkers down in worry. Props lean in to threaten, are distant and out of focus to be inaccessible, or loom over the little pink triangle who, we hope, tends to glare back with confidence.

In the ideal blog photo, we have an avatar that the reader can relate to, in an optimistic situation relative to some problem that the reader has or can imagine having, which is also subtly connected to the Flow brand through the use of color.

If the result is funny too, well, so much the better.

If you are one of the little group of shitweasels who are now thinking "I should send a vaguely threatening email about How Problematic Molitor Is to someone" know this: a) I will find out b) I will publish your email and c) I will relentlessly mock you for being so attentive to someone you loudly claim to pay no attention to, ya weird little stalker.