John Oliver got this right last week: "When fake groups hire fake experts and fake crowds to shape the outcome of real events, it can cause real damage."
He wasn't talking about the "fake news" meme, and at the time of the taping, Reality TV star, Omorosa's SCUD missiles hadn't hit their mark at the West Wing. He was talking about Astroturfing, which is a form of live trolling that is effective in building fake public support for causes that the real public usually doesn't want. Astroturfing is a kind of propaganda led by phony special interest groups stood up by unseen corporate interests, "experts" who are actors paid to read specific talk points, and fake crowds which are hired, wardrobed and rehearsed to look like concerned citizens who support a given cause. The worst part is that it actually works. It shapes city ordinances, pushes bills through legislatures, gives tax breaks to the powerful and is yet another polarizing force that sets us against each other.
Astroturfing works because it gives us a sense of belonging and fuels our outrage against "the other." We want to believe. We seem to have a collective itch that only public adulation and constant acknowledgement can scratch, which makes us vulnerable to every con that comes down the pike. Narcissism, vanity, and self-interest have always been a nasty part of the human condition and probably existed when we lived in caves. But amplified by second-by-second universal, free access to a global audience, these are the only things that seem to matter, so we're an easy mark, easily stampeded. Which partially explains why we have the leadership we have in D.C.
Those of us who are following our politics minute-by-minute are living on the knife edge of a helpless cognitive dissonance. It's excruciating. I can't turn it off because I have to stay vigilant and aware. It's the most patriotic thing I think I can do--stay aware, be informed, and try to be a force against the institutional gaslighting that turns black to white, freedom to slavery, and peace to war--which left unchecked, could ultimately result in another civil war or turn America into the next "shithole country."
At the same time, it's poisoning my art, my photography and my general outlook on life. My series, "Fraught" was so-named because of it represented what I saw as the collective anxieties of others confronting the subconsciously stressful situation of air travel. Turns out, it's not my subjects that are fraught these days. It's me.
Whereas the original set of images flowed from an organic, authentic place, the ones I've developed over the past 18 months are much more tortured and difficult. They can't seem to be nasty enough. They're artificial and contrived, not because they contain a hard truth, but because I don't think they're finished until they're truly monstrous. Before, I knew when to stop and when the story was complete. Now an image isn't done until it's uncomfortable and horrifying.
I've never shot for peaceful beauty--that's not in my DNA. I've sought some glimmer of human truth in everything I've tried to do, which means my work is among the least likely to end up in a dentist's office (nothing wrong with beautiful, calm images, BTW!). But if my images are the mirror to my soul, I need different input, not just a vector to my mounting rage and sorrow for where we seem to be headed.
I'm stuck in ugly.
So I'm swearing off "he who shall not be named" for a while. I'll stay vigilant, but I'm done writing even tangentially about him and the effect he's had on the decline of our experiment in democracy. Not that he cares or will miss it. He gets enough ink, after all. My bet is that when Mueller and the NY District Attorney's office get close to his money, which they inevitably will, he'll declare his presidency, "the best in American History" and resign. He'll take his "base," which is essentially a target audience of about 10 million fools and fascists, ring up his buddy, Steve Bannon and start the most noxious media network since Goebbels and Leni Riefenstahl. Then it's truly "game on," and I'll have to hit the streets again.
Until then, I just can't.
Ten dead in Texas today. Shock. Grief. Outrage. The handwringing sanctimony, sobbing parents and the earnest pleadings of jowly law enforcement officials will fade into the gauzy glaze of Harry and Meghan. It won't last 36 hours. And the sickness of whateverthefuck America has become will just shrug and wait for the next dozen kids to be gunned down in their US History Class or 3rd Period Geometry. If you talk to these kids as I did at the March for Life in San Francisco a couple of months ago, you'll find out that "live shooter" drills are as much of a fact of life as their Instagram pages. They're certain it's going to happen to them. They'll even tell you they have some probable suspects. The guy who's just not right, who no one really knows or wants to know. "It's a matter of time," they'll tell you. Helluva a way to grow up.
I recently worked for a marketing firm headquartered in Las Vegas, and was at a company meeting about 10-12 days after the shooting on the Strip that killed and injured hundreds of concert goers, their final moments spent enjoying a breezy evening listening to their country music favorites. I remember that night last October. What you heard first were the horrendous numbers. Then body camera and iPhone footage of people scrambling over bodies, not sure which way the bullets were coming or which escape route was safe. The footage of the hospitals and shaken reporters who had no words for the horror they'd seen. Then the analysis, the experts, and finally the decline into the entropy of the gun issue: Nothing will happen. Owning firepower is a God-given right. It's the price of freedom. Shit happens--bar your doors and get a gun so you can be the one of the good guys the next time. It's become as formulaic as episodes of The Batchelor.
Except that in real-time, human reality, it isn't. I went to the memorial on the Strip to pay my respects. A woman was there who visited her friend's marker three times a day. It was nearly two weeks after the tragedy but her wailing anguish was as fresh as the day she first heard about it. There are no words. The shooter was more than a 1/4 mile away from his victims. He shot from the Mandalay Bay, over Las Vegas Blvd. into a crowd of thousands. It's impossible to fathom how powerful his weapons were and how incomprehensible this whole event was until you stand there, look up at the hotel and see the sheer distance between the shooter's window and the killing field. There are no words.
No sane person standing on the corner of Las Vegas Blvd. and Hacienda Avenue, seeing how much distance there was between crime and perpetrator, can rationalize the legality of weapons of that capability. No one. No sane person can rationalize looking through the sight of a semiautomatic weapon at 6-year olds and pulling the trigger. Yet these atrocities are normalized--not just by NRA money--but by us. Because as socially and intellectually aware as we might be, as much as we might march and protest, we still accept the narrative and the mini-series of tragedy every time this happens. There needs to be deeper connection than text and Tweet, than marathon coverage on CNN. There needs to be an angry rejection of thoughts and prayers over events that are 100% avoidable. Change has to happen one person at a time. Until we pull our heads away from the screen, even for a few moments a day, and have real conversations with real humans in real time over issues that really matter, there will continue to be fewer of us.
There are no other words for the state of our nation these days. No matter which ideological stripe you might happen to wear, unless you're an anarchist, every headline brings with it a sadness, a relentless sense of loss. America, as we know it was shot in the head about 40 years ago, and it has been flopping around, out of control, without reason, direction or a philosophical and moral center.
It's being laid to rest one outrage at a time. A wrecking crew of opportunists, led by one of the most venal human beings to take power since since Caligula, is dissolving not just the fabric of this country, but its foundations. The hatred, corruption, arrogance, incompetence and ignorance of an acidic non-ideological game show huckster puts us all at mortal risk. Literally.
I'm pretty sure this guy is owned lock, stock and barrel by Russian oligarchs, if, for no other reason, with six bankruptcies under his belt, no reputable, legitimate bank would fund his businesses. All of this might be capitalism's ultimate cosmic joke--the tragic backwash of a banal business deal, the consequences of which could truly be catastrophic.
But that's a conversation for another time and place.
I'm more interested in digging into the "why." Why we're so nonchalant as to not be outraged by a con artist who has decided unilaterally that it's right to deprive 23 million American of healthcare, threaten the viability of the planet, and transfer our life savings to an predatory class of corporate oligarchs. It's not that we've become a docile society. Polarities, passion and protest are at their highest point since the late '60s. It just doesn't seem to matter.
There are a multiplicity of villains here, too numerous to mention. And while it's convenient and true for the left to point their fingers at a concentrated power-grab by the right, fueled by the daily bile of Limbaugh and Fox News, fact-free fear, Koch money and gerrymandered districts, it's also convenient and true for the right to cite liberals' air-headed identity politics, finger-wagging academic complacency and perpetual economic entitlement,
But all of that seems to miss the much larger point. We're in the midst of a profound pivot. Our current state of being seems to be a confluence of technological "progress" on the one hand and of the stark, perhaps unconscious realization that this planet can't sustain all of us. This is truly an "adapt or die moment," not just for American democracy, but for the world.
There are no clear cut "winners and losers" in a game that is yet to be defined, despite our leader's proclivity to proclaim such designations. The Rust Belt voter who thought Trump would be a "man of action," got that right. It's just that his actions have no chance of solving their problems. Worse, his actions catastrophically cloud and delay our ability to truly address the real problems that underlie this mess to begin with.
Because the factory jobs Trumpsters lost weren't because of bad trade deals, or even global capitalism. They were lost to technology. To automation that increases productivity at the cost of peoples' families. To an Internet that not only connects once separate markets, but that eliminates physicality and geographic distance with every keystroke. Paper, pencils, heavy machinery, photographs, CDs, film, movies--thousands of everyday products are gone and with them, whole industries that capitalized on them like brick and mortar retail. Not to mention national and cultural borders that up to now, have defined who we are and how we're distinguished from "others."
Which leads to the ultimate question, "Who are we?"
It's one of the most difficult questions asked of us in virtually everything we do. Beyond the need to make a living and support ourselves and families, why do we work in the fields we've chosen? Why do we choose our friends, our life partners? Why do we choose the products we buy and political parties we support (these days, they're kind of the same)?
For photographers, the question is persistent. Why trip the shutter at that particular moment? Why choose to emphasize a particular person in a crowd as opposed to someone else? Why choose color instead of black and white? Why make photographs at all? Certainly, a quick flip through Flickr or Instagram will tell you that the world doesn't need more photos. The question of "why" is bottomless, particularly in a post-factual, image saturated world.
By profession, I'm a strategist helping companies, both for-profit and non-profit, navigate radical change. For more years than I'm going to admit, I've lived at the razor's edge of the most profound period of transformation in human history since the Industrial Revolution. As a "digital immigrant," I remember three TV networks and the "clicker." On my desk at my first job as a journalist was an IBM Selectric and carbon paper. Magazine type was set, put down on with wax and edited with X-Acto blades. My first mobile phone made Maxwell Smart's shoe phone seem petite. I shot bricks of Tri-X with a Nikon F2.
The journey from quaint analog to genomics and emerging A/I and Augmented Reality defines my life path. I've been personally digitized not out of jobs, but out of professions. At least three, to be precise. So I'm fascinated -- no, to be more accurate -- obsessed with trying to make sense of this consequential period of time. Welcome to the Anthropocene.
Which is driving what I'm choosing to photograph these days. Like many others, I'm overwhelmed by digital overload, and crave the ritual simplicity and handmade authenticity of less technologically infected cultures. I'm not alone in that, given the explosion of "adventure" travel and the crush of tourists in previously undisturbed places like the Mekong in Laos (ok, I'm guilty of Bourdain envy). At the same time, I'm drawn to the infusion of universal digital culture into every nook and cranny of our conscious lives. And when those two things cross in our politics or in places like New Orleans, Southeast Asia or Istanbul, the compulsion to make photos is overwhelming. To document an era that will clearly pass, as well as shooting the tension of what is and what will be.
So this space will be an attempt to add some color commentary and context to the images here. A way to work through at least some of the "why." And it might very well become a place to rage when circumstances dictate. Given the current state of affairs, probably more rage than commentary. Stay tuned.