Archive for category: News Outta My Control

Avatar:a Reflection of Human Nature
When Will Homo Sapiens Stop Making Movies Like Avatar

03 Jan 2010
January 3, 2010

Glenn Beck as our species savior?

Annalee Newitz recently posed this question: “When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like ‘Avatar’?” And she followed it up with some interesting ideas on race and film making in America. While I would agree that Avatar and District 9 are Hollywood’s metaphors for racial relations, by limiting her piece to just race she missed a larger issue: the broad scope and brutal reality of human nature reflected in these films.

Avatar is James Cameron’s epic about the Na’vi of the moon Pandora. Humans are so interested in obtaining the element Unobtainium (talk about transparent Hollywood story development) they are willing to destroy the Na’vi’s habitat in order to do so. In District 9, the more straightforward racial metaphor of the two, non-humans have been strategically and brutality segregated from the population of Johannesburg. In both cases, as Newitz points out, white males are the saviors of these aliens. And I do agree with her to a point.

But I would go farther by saying that greed and fear, both prime motivators here, are human traits that go beyond America’s racial history. Earth has a long and sad history of intra-racial and sectarian genocide. The wars between Rwanda’s Tutsis and Hutu, the Sunni and Sh’ia, the Catholics and Protestants of Northern Ireland, and between Serbs, Bosnians, Croats, Albanians, and the Romani, are just a few recent tragic examples. In addition, as we’ve seen in the last year, the quest for riches right here on Wall Street have destroyed millions. This is not just a racial issue but a human malady.

Sadly, there are those, like Glenn Beck, who make it their business and their livelihood to foment these differences. According to a recent Gallup poll Americans admire Beck more than they admire the Pope, Billy Graham, Bill Gates, and Presidents Bill Clinton and George H. Bush. Hollywood isn’t the only industry willing to oversimplify our human condition for big bucks.

In another recent film, Up in the Air, George Clooney’s character is a good example of the disconnect we often feel for one another. In his case, compassion would have destroyed his life and robbed him of his precious frequent flyer miles. The redeeming part of this film is that it doesn’t convey a simplistic character development (like other Hollywood fare and Beck himself) but let’s us complete the picture of a human forced to reconsider and redefine his being. Things are not black and white here nor in the world, but filled with shades of gray.

“The Other” is a human construct. If it’s not race it’s something else. All of these are important parts of the discussion. And should we ever come in contact with real sentient non-humans we will feel the same fear, difference, and loathing we do now for those humans we see as different. And “speciest” will be able to sit comfortably next to “racist” in our human lexicon.

A Related Conversation: at David Weinberger’s JOHO the Blog.

One Day in East Berlin

08 Nov 2009
November 8, 2009
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, East Berlin, 1974

An East German Volkspolizei guards the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in East Berlin, 1974, © Jeff Gates. Click on image for a larger view.

I am slowly unearthing photographs and memories from my 1974–1975 trip to Europe. I took this image at East Germany’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I remember thinking the pomp and circumstance of the East German soldiers as they marched in front of the monument reminded me of ours at Arlington Cemetery.

While smoking was much more prevalent in both the East and West in the 1970s, I took notice of the large number of people in East Berlin with cigarettes in their hands. The man in the background on the left is striking a pose I often saw during my time in the eastern half of the city.

From here I went looking for a place to eat and found the cheapest dinner I had throughout my seven months in Europe. It was a full German meal, heavy on the wienerschnitzel with lots of heavy bread and vegetables, all for an astounding thirty cents American. I ate early to get back to West Berlin before dark.

For a young college student traveling on a budget that was the sweetest taste Communism could offer.

Related Post: Encountering the Berlin Wall (and its version on NPR)

Encountering the Berlin Wall

01 Nov 2009
November 1, 2009
Man at Berlin Wall

A family reunion at Checkpoint Charlie. Click image for a larger view. © Jeff Gates

In 1974, I was a fresh college graduate when I decided to embark on my first trip abroad. I spent seven months traveling in Western and Eastern Europe, exploring my longtime interest in borders. Even knowing a bit of history, they just seemed so arbitrary. To think there was a man-made demarcation line where one side abided by one set of rules and the other side by another was profoundly intriguing. The United States was so large and so relatively homogeneous it was hard for me to understand the weight of these lines.

My attraction to the epitome of borders, the Iron Curtain, was inevitable. Growing up in America in the 1950s and 1960s this border was emblematic of the line between light and dark, good and evil. And I wanted to experience it first hand to see just how black and white things really were.

I hitchhiked to Berlin in a bakery truck. Westerners could not stop in East Germany but had to transit non-stop to West Berlin — and the deliveryman was going the entire way. The life didn’t seem to change as we crossed that border. Nothing seemed out of place.

After arriving in the city I found a place to stay in the home of an old woman. I asked her if she had any relatives in East Berlin and told her of my plans to cross over. In a grandmotherly tone she gently warned me to be careful.

All Americans had to cross into East Berlin by foot, and there were only a few checkpoints we were allowed to use. I was herded into a small processing room at one of these crossings with many others, all of us crammed in wall-to-wall. But once on the other side, I still remember my initial reaction as I exited into the open sunlight: The sky was still blue, and the grass was still green. I looked for people “shackled by the chains of Communism,” but what I encountered didn’t match the stark differences I had been taught.

I spent the rest of my stay in the city following the wall on both sides of the border. When I got to Checkpoint Charlie, there was a platform we could walk up to that gave a good view at this ground zero of the Cold War. Except for a small family of West Berliners, I was alone. Suddenly, on the other side, a man appeared from around the corner. He stopped and stared at us. It hit me with a rush that he had come to see and be seen by the family standing next to me. They conversed in silence.

After about 10 minutes, the man turned and walked back around the corner. An East German police car followed him. The abandoned buildings along the wall blocked our view, and we waited. No one moved. No one spoke.

Fifteen minutes later, the man once again walked around the corner. This time, he turned in the other direction and gingerly skipped down the street, a sign that all was well. The tension on our platform broke, and the family began to talk and smile.

The grass was green and the sky was blue. But it was very black and white.

Update: This story and photograph have recently been published on the National Public Radio Web site and in Pictory magazine in their online feature 25 Stories of Culture Shock.

One Small Step for Man, One Giant Souvenir for Me

20 Jul 2009
July 20, 2009
LA Times: Men Land on Moon

Click on the image for a larger view.

As you get older your collection of chachkas increases exponentially. And, one day, you realize your whole attic is filled with the most “important” and “valuable” memories of your life. Well, not really. Most of it is junk that at various times you predicted would define your life. So much for prognostication. My track record isn’t the best and this is precisely why I rarely play the stock market.

However, every once and while the life event is so big you know the artifact is worth saving. Years later, if you can remember just where you filed it, you can pull it out on an anniversary just like this.

To be honest, I’d forgotten I’d even saved the front page from the L.A. Times from July 21, 1969. If it hadn’t been for brownpau’s tweet about rummaging through his grandmother’s basement this weekend, this headline would have remained filed away. As luck would have it, despite transporting this souvenir through five cities over the last forty years, I knew immediately where I’d stored it.

What a day that was. I’d been reading Issac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy that summer and was filled with interplanetary wanderlust. I immediately called Pan Am’s reservation desk to reserve my tickets to the moon. When the ticket agent asked how many seats I wanted I told her two, one for me and one for my wife. When she asked for my wife’s name I dutifully informed her I didn’t know yet. I wasn’t married but was sure I would be by the time the airline started its service to the Moon. She was not amused and told me she needed a name for the record. Without any hesitation I replied, “Mrs. Gates.” And that seemed to satisfy her.

I wasn’t good at predicting the future but somehow I knew this was one chance I was willing to bank on.

On Creating a New Stock Photo

25 Apr 2009
April 25, 2009
New York Stock Exchange

Commentary at the New York Stock Exchange

On a trip last week to New York for a series of meetings I suddenly discovered the New York Stock Exchange was located directly on the path between my hotel and meeting site. This “discovery” was hard to miss with a huge American flag draped across the front of the building and tourists holding up their cameras for a similar photo op (even at this early morning hour).

My time in Washington has trained me to look for initial signs of heightened security camouflaged as benign architectural flourishes. Bronze-colored “stones” subtly blocked would-be terrorists’ attempts to ram the front of the building. From there my senses noticed more overt measures: guard dogs sniffing along the front of the façade, stockbrokers showing their IDs to uniformed security, and the older gentleman, nicely dressed, loudly maligning the virtues of the new Obama Administration.

While tourist-photographers tended to document the huge flag, I, always looking to make a statement, went for the more ironic version of this snapshot. (The next day there was a new pic to take. Reports that advertising budgets are drying up must surely be premature.)

Celebrating with a Few Million Friends:
The Inauguration of Barack Obama

22 Jan 2009
January 22, 2009
Greetings from Washington, DC

A “postcard” view of the Inauguration taken from the top of the Washington Monument. The circle marks our spot on the Mall. Click image for larger view. (The original can be found here.)

My twelve year old daughter and I got up early to catch the Metro downtown to Barack Obama’s Inauguration. We didn’t know quite what to expect. No one did. There were numerous unknowns: how many millions would crowd the Mall that day, would the Metro be able to handle the heavy traffic, and where would the best vantage point be to witness the festivites. But I had to go and I wanted to bring my daughter. She’s at the age when she’s aware of cultural and political events and has started forming strong opinions about them. This would be something she would remember.

The Metro platform was full of people but the cars were relatively empty when we got on. As we moved towards downtown they quickly filled. The atmosphere was celebratory, like we were going to a homecoming football game. In the last few months we had all been rooting for the same team and this was our party.

We met friends at a Starbucks close to the Mall and walked the short distance towards the Washington Monument. After scouring all the printed Inaugural primers, this was part of the deployment plan my friend Randall and I devised a few days before. The stream of people moving towards the Monument was fairly light at 8 a.m. and surprisingly, we found no security checks at the perimeter, just a volunteer who welcomed us as we walked in. This was in stark contrast to our expectations (and the warnings of the Secret Service) and the experiences of those closer to the ceremony in the ticketed areas. We staked out our place on the eastern slope to the Monument in close proximity to a Jumbotron, facing the Capitol about a mile away.

With three hours until the kickoff, my daughter and I went exploring and photographing. The landscape was filling with people. And I was beginning to feel wrapped in a sea of left-of-center love. By the time we decided to return to our places we had to go against a human tsunami trying to get as close to the action as possible. Along this path I photographed some of the people, the law enforcement, and the media we encountered.

During huge events like this I like to photograph the periphery. That’s often where all the interesting visuals are happening. But unlike four years ago when I photographed George Bush’s second Inaugural, moving around, let alone finding those edges was impossible. Too large and too crowded. Instead, I focused on those in close proximity.

Different, too, from four years ago was the atmosphere of this event. Very few protests, it was more of a true celebration for change. I could feel that relief as I chatted with those around us. We clapped when various dignitaries were announced. And we began singing Steam’s song “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” when Bush arrived on the dais. Joy. After eight long years 01 20 09, Bush’s last day, had finally arrived.

When the moment for Obama’s swearing in came, rather than face forward, I turned around to capture the reaction of those behind me. And then I hugged my daughter.

Additional Images: You can see the rest of the photographs I took at the Inauguration here. I’m still culling my images for a few more gems.

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