Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Changing the Narrative

This is the transcript of a talk given to First Alliance Photo Club on April 14, 2015. The theme of the evening was on photography in war. I expanded it to include our internal war.

The History Teacher
by Billy Collins

Trying to protect his students’ innocence
he told them the Ice Age was really just
the Chilly Age, a period of a million years
when everyone had to wear sweaters.

And the Stone Age became the Gravel Age,
named after the long driveways of the time.

The Spanish Inquisition was nothing more
than an outbreak of questions such as
“How far is it from here to Madrid?”
“What do you call the matador’s hat?”

The War of the Roses took place in a garden,
and the Enola Gay dropped one tiny atom on Japan.

The children would leave his classroom
for the playground to torment the weak
and the smart,
mussing up their hair and breaking their glasses,

while he gathered up his notes and walked home
past flower beds and white picket fences,
wondering if they would believe that soldiers
in the Boer War told long, rambling stories
designed to make the enemy nod off.

How often do we tell ourselves stories? Dumb down history?

There is always a narrative running in my head. And, by all accounts and observations, in your head too. For some of us, it sounds like the voices of those long dead or perhaps those who are still here. Father, mother, teacher, sibling, grandparent. And another voice, sounding much like our own has taken up the chant, or interjections like profanity, constantly speaking words of appraisal; judgments based on our actions or our output. The inner critic.

A chant that resounds as either an affirmation or a condemnation of who we are and what we have done now (or yesterday, or the day before). Sometimes the voice is a naysayer of what we will do tomorrow.

A sitting judge, this voice,
deciding on some sliding scale
whether we are a success or failure
good or bad,
smart or stupid,
athletic or klutz.

Stephen Pressfield, in his book, The War of Art, calls this Resistance. The scripture infers that this can sometimes be spiritual warfare. It can be negative self talk or neurosis. No matter the nature, complexity or volume of the voice, it can anything that keeps us bound from doing our best work.

Even when we think we are telling ourselves the truth, the inner voice can discourage us from finishing well, because to this judge, what is spoken is true. Like any referee can tell you, whatever call they make IS the offense that occurred, whether it actually happened or not. Once it is called, it is fact. So we take a photo and through post processing we make the photo look like what we saw. Once it is printed, it is fact.

A smile frozen forever on Facebook
says I have a happy life
A family gathering frozen over ice cream
says We all love each other
Dew drops in the new morning
may have placed on the leaf with a spray bottle
A landscape with brilliant blues and silky water
or stars that glow like diamonds under glass
stitched together over time, over space
but was boosted in PhotoShop…

Beauty exists for the taking.
Or the shaping.
Your call.

The earth is beautiful
My family is happy
My life is good
I have the pictures to prove it.

But what about the war in my head?
Or the argument we had yesterday?
Why do I never post pictures
of that ugly look I just gave him?
Why are there no pictures of the family
all heads bent over Xbox, iPads and cell phones

I don’t for a moment say we should
listen to the nagging voice
the accusing voice
and post only out of focus pictures
of the family laundry
of back alleys
and executions
men dying in the trenches
and the gas chamber

We are challenged in Philippians 4:8 to think about what is noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable—basically to contradict that negative or out-of-balance inner critic by thinking about things that are excellent or praiseworthy.

I’m not saying it is wrong to document the dark side of life. We see how photo-journalism and social media have transformed some very dark situations by shedding light on the truth of the injustices that are happening in the world.

On the home front, we’re not trying to be something we’re not when we post only our highlight reel: well-cropped, color balanced, rule-of-thirds, smiling faces and good news, or Photoshop our pictures so they pop. As photographers, artists, creative writers, we are doing our best to restore Eden. These happy moments and beautiful scenes ARE part of our life, even if they aren’t the reality 24/7.

Life is not one-dimensional. There are always things happening simultaneously in our lives and none of the pictures we share or poems we write or songs we sing can adequately portray that. Art is often about the ideal.

We have to be careful about assumptions we make when we look at pictures and status updates from others. Each of us seek beauty, seek to present our best possible self, our most excellent work.

These are the moments we live for:
The freeze-frame of beauty, motion, strength, excellence
This is a foretaste of heaven,
Thy kingdom come, a memory of paradise lost.
We are not rewriting history to make it palatable,
we are choosing to dwell on snippets of glory.

So when the voice in your head tells you
that you are a hack and your pictures are sub-par
Tell that voice to be quiet and find a new ruler.
Because Jesus is already ruling on the throne

And if you should be called or moved to social action
to document war, horror, injustice and darkness,
then in whatever genre you find yourself,
do your best work to show the truth of it

Then find a quiet space and dwell on what is worthy of praise.

Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse. Put into practice what you learned from me, what you heard and saw and realized. Do that, and God, who makes everything work together, will work you into his most excellent harmonies. 
~Philippians 4:8-9 (The Message)

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