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Thursday, December 27, 2018

The departure of James Mattis from the Trump Administration is not a good thing, but neither is it the end of the world.  The mindless rubbish being hurled around about this development by all who detest President Trump and all of those who worship The Donald is embarrassing in its’ absurd partisan blindness.  I feel that I understand the Secretary of Defense’s motivation here and confess that I share the emotions and feelings that I believe guided his decision.  The man spent much of himself in the battle against our enemies in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria and inevitably developed close relationships with many of the men and women that have been allied with us in those wars.  The policy that appears to be unfolding in Washington does not bode well for their future and he understandably feels that he is unable to implement it.  Being a principled American patriot, he chooses to step aside to permit the President to select someone else to implement his policy.  I am pretty sure that it is the most difficult thing that James Mattis has ever had to do and the most distasteful for a very long list of reasons.

Having said that, I am extremely concerned about what I think, repeat think, is guiding our President in his policy toward the Middle East.  Right now, subject to revision as more information becomes available, it looks to me that he may have made a deal on the telephone with President Erdogan of Turkey and President Putin of Russia regarding Syria.   I presume that President Assad of Syria is on board as well, but I very much doubt that he likes it one little bit.  If my suspicions are correct, Turkey will be permitted to establish a Kurdish free buffer zone inside Syrian territory along its’ eastern border in an effort to protect against future Syrian Kurdish support of the ethnic Kurdish discontent in Eastern Turkey.  In order for Turkey to accomplish this, we appear to be willing to support them logistically.  I presume that we have assurances from all concerned that they will not attempt to further degrade the Kurdish position in Syria.  My guess is that we will also attempt to turn over the mopping up operations against ISIS remnants to the Turks as well.  Assuming that occurs, and I repeat that it is all speculation at this point in time, we will abandon the Kurdish allies that were our ground force in the fight against ISIS and, overnight, start supporting one of their most ferocious, ancient, arch enemies - the Turk.  Politics is dirty business and diplomacy is worse.

Stepping back from the emotions, or at least attempting to do so, I see possible short term advantage to the policy shift in that we can reduce the exposure of American military personnel to the hostilities in the region.  We can also save a great deal of money.  We can reduce friction with Russia and improve relations with our superficial NATO partner - Turkey.  From President Trump’s point of view, domestically it might also look like he can garner support from those that have long held that we should not be as involved as we are currently in the Middle East.  Rand Paul is elated by the thought.  I am much more pessimistic - both domestically and internationally.  I doubt that any Democrat will give Trump anything but grief no matter what he does and I see the probable result of this policy as being the increase of radical influence throughout the region.  Hiding behind Erdogan in our fight against radicals is, in my mind, a risky, bet.  Erdogan is a crypto proponent of Muslim Brotherhood philosophy and that is a very slippery intellectual slope.  During his effort to unseat Assad in the Syrian civil war, Erdogan cooperated with virtually anyone who was opposed to Assad, including al Qaida and he continues to protect many Syrian radicals from the wrath of Moscow and Damascus, including al Qaida affiliates.

The reduction of forces in Afghanistan is a separate issue, but related in that it indicates that President Trump is uninterested in defeating the Taliban.  He appears to be saying to Kabul what Nixon said to Saigon.  America has been helping you long enough.  Now it is up to you to determine your own future.  I am not an expert in Afghani affairs, but my guess is that Kabul will be run by the Taliban in the relatively near future.  Washington, under Trump, is indicting that it is tired of supporting ineffective governments.  None of this, if, repeat if, it turns out to be true, is going to be encouraging in Jerusalem.  Israel is mesmerized by the increasingly powerful base of operations that Teheran already has in Syria and has seen the 2,000 some American troops inside Syria as being something of a bulwark against Iranian use of Syria as a launching pad for the final destruction of Israel that Teheran continues to promise at every opportunity.   My guess is that President Trump is confident enough in his ability to make a deal, that he is taking a number of world leaders verbal commitments to him as being sufficient to work through the possible pitfalls and he will be reassuring the Israelis that we will continue to ensure that no one actually attacks them fearing massive American retaliation.   Jerusalem will, among other obvious things, be worried about what happens after Trump.

Monday, December 3, 2018

There were no photographs in the lives of our ancient ancestors.  People living before the camera obscura was invented had to scratch, paint or perhaps chisel images into some natural medium or another.  Those images were more clearly subjective impressions than is most modern photography.  Petroglyphs, cave paintings, works on wood and stone, all crude, all severely limited in their ability to communicate with others.  In that age, people knew that the scratchings were not the whole story and generally judged the world by what they saw, heard, smelled and felt physically and emotionally.  A person living in the Sahara knew nothing about the life of a person living in the Arctic and vice versa, but both understood their own world intimately.  The worlds that those persons knew were bounded by what they saw, heard, felt and experienced.  That is different today.  Today, we “learn” about other places not only by seeing them first hand, but more commonly, through words, recordings and pictures.  The experience is heightened by the introduction of video and movies.  We sit in our living room, flick on the television or fire up the tablet and watch hours of video complete with sound.  We feel as though we are there - wherever that particular there happens to be at that particular moment.

Video and photographs are without doubt powerful, important, and useful but they do not convey everything that first hand experience does.  Not only that, they can be edited to downplay or eliminate some selected subject matter while emphasizing other subjects.  No matter how carefully one puts photojournalism together, it is always, by definition, a reflection of what is in the editor’s head.  The same is true whether it is video or individual images captured by a still camera.  A wedding photographer sees a story that a bride wants told and chooses to exclude the drunken relative seen pestering the groom while emphasizing the little flower girls arranging the bride's dress.  An advertising executive sees a flaw in the product and chooses to photograph it from a different angle.  An architectural photographer waits for the exact time of day that the shadows strike correctly as seen from exactly the right direction. A war correspondent selectively chooses subject matter to reflect well on the side that he favors (and all war
Turkish Tanker
correspondents favor one side or the other no matter how altruistic their commentary).  Etc, etc, etc…  Photographers are story tellers and their photographs are but part of the story that is there to be told.  Perhaps accurate, perhaps not, but rarely, if ever, complete.  
I suggest that we are deluding ourselves as to exactly how smart we really are about what is going on around us.  Some are talking about distinguishing between fake news and real news, but I make the argument that everything that we think that we know from books and pictures is, to some extent or another, fake - or, at the very least, nuanced and incomplete.  How should a photographer deal with that situation?  Should we care?  Does it make any real difference?

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Everybody is a Photographer

Today, everybody is a photographer.  The camera in our phones has revolutionized photography.  It has also revolutionized the way in which we look at photography.  When I was a child, my family subscribed to Life Magazine.  I devoured the photography in that magnificent publication and came to love black & white images.  National Geographic was also in our home and I was drawn to it as well, but for different reasons primarily having to do with a burgeoning love of travel.  Eighty years ago there were far fewer images in our lives and they were smaller.  Some of the most important were framed and hung on the wall.  Billboards were out there when we traveled, of course, but they were novelties.  

Today, we are constantly surrounded by images and many of the most interesting of them move.  Technology has stimulated the revolution, of course, by giving us the internet, our phone and social media.  Today, early in the morning, we photograph our breakfast and send it proudly to friends and family.  Construction workers air drop images to one another as they discuss challenges at work.  Satellites and drones record every inch of the world around us.  Technicians photograph our innards during surgery.  Not only do we record images of everything in our lives, increasingly we communicate through images as exemplified by Facebook and Instagram.  We are on our phones and computers so much during the day that we track our screen time and ensure that we get enough steps in even if we have to do it at our standup desk.  We talk less and photograph more.  Memes and emojis fill in around the edges.

Technology is also improving the cameras that we use.  Today’s better cameras capture an amazing amount of information about the scene at which they are pointed.  Software has been developed that can manipulate that information to improve and or change the image as first recorded.  Mountains can be moved, light can be added or taken away, images can be combined and altered.  That software has gotten so capable that a photograph is no longer the proof of much of anything.  It is but an image - make of it what you will.  

A billboard in Oregon advertising the Gualala Arts Photography Club.

I am not a psychologist, but I suspect that all of this is impacting humanity in very fundamental ways.  One of the aspects of this explosion in photography that interests me a great deal is how it impacts our perception of reality and what that means with regard to our relationship one with another.