Open letter

Dear Yann,

I hope these words find you in good health and high spirits. [to add: short funny and self deprecating story about myself]

cadburrys_guardianI write you to collect your thoughts on a puzzle that has bothered me in the last few days. Some of the newspaper websites that I visit regularly have called on their readers to send “images of the recession.” National Public Radio’s Planet Money has collected in bulk over 300 pictures in flickr. The UK Guardian has a recession monitor, also in flickr, introduced frantically “So it looks like we’re in a recession, or heading for one. Or are we? How do we know? We want to see your shots of how the recession is (or isn’t) affecting your area.” Finally, the New York Times has not outsourced and hosts “Picturing the Recession” with some cool flash enabled browsing. I recall our conversations about the FSA photographs and discussing Cara Finnegan’s book Picturing Poverty on that same topic. These are items of visual culture as you are fond of calling them, and I of echoing. I wondered if you had noticed this phenomena and if you see how one can speak meaningfully about it.

Cynically, I see these as mostly gimmicks to draw people to web content and give them a stake of ownership. The websites and the newspapers make no direct use of the readers’ photographs, I found no references to these besides the appeals for more. It does not help newsprint in imagining the economy as the FSA photographs did by design. What do you think we can draw from these? May they tell us something about popular culture? If these are clues, what is the mystery?

[to add: tangent about some of the photographs, and so cool down the letter]

With best regards,
[to add: my name]

P.S. [to add: joke about recipe of cod and fava beans…]

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3 thoughts on “Open letter

  1. Dear Tiago,
    I hope you’re doing well in Amsterdam [to add: joke about facial hair].
    I am not sure that I really understood what your inquiry is, precisely, but my answer would be that newsprint and newspaper-related websites are not the centre of visual culture anymore. We live in a time of DIY and it seems that Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and Photobucket are more and more the place where people think they will find some interesting information, about, well … everything ! The contrast with the 1930s is striking: thriving newspapers, the invention of journalism, the idea among left-wing thinkers that the (visual) diffusion of knowledge can change the world, the centralization of information, the (sometimes) conscious mix of art, information and propaganda … as Loic and I are expecting to demonstrate, the Roosevelt administration consciously took advantage of a richness of visualization that actually predated the Great Depression.
    I don’t know about today, but it seems that things are not that simple … newspapers are in the doldrums, they were in a bad situation even before the current crisis and it’s just getting worse. The Obama administration arrives at the beginning of the crisis after two decades of deregulation. I sincerely doubt that public opinion would accept that significant money be invested in a project comparable to that of the FSA Historical Section. In this context, it is no surprise that newspapers are just following the trend, without knowing precisely what it is all about (but who knows?).
    A rather intriguing question for me is the opinion people generally have about these community websites. You hear a lot of teachers and professors complaining about the unreliability of Wikipedia, major labels saying that MySpace does not provide good music, publishers criticizing bloggers and gallery managers despising these community websites as a degeneration of art. I really wonder how strong is the opinion that the increasing decentralization and dissemination of “knowledge” corresponds to a decline of its substance.
    I will write a post about it !
    Best wishes,
    Yann
    PS : [to add: joke about Alentejo pork with clams and chorizo]

  2. Given that the letter was indeed an open one, I feel I can poke my nose here despite of having not much to offer (not even a good joke!). Just two brief points.
    First, my sense is that there is a broad movement of newspapers on the web in moving toward a more “interactive” relation with their readers: there are examples of things like “become a reporter for a day” and “send us your picture with a brief comment” –these things tend not to go to the printed newspaper, as far as I can grasp.
    Second, with respect to the particular movement of picturing the current recession, I wonder how are people using this channel and participating in the overall “discussion”: how do they discern economic problems that result from the current recession from those problems (poverty, inequality, etc) that were already part of the American reality before the recession–ok, the recession can aggravate them, but I wonder how people understand the recession and its effects. And here I believe that the pictures can offer specific insights on such perception and understandings that you probably won’t get much from the “regular” products of the media.

  3. I also have hopes that one can see in these pictures more than a parroting of the icons of 1930s depression as seen by the FSA photographers. Is there a public imagination? or a public discourse about the crisis? Maybe there is, otherwise people are just pawns in the hellish chess game of elites – distopia, distopia!

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