Synchronicities, Chain Reactions and Magic Without Magic
June 2008

by Beverly Spicer

I've been thinking a lot lately about things like synchronicity, spontaneous combustion, chain reactions, gravitation, and other such phenomena in physics and chemistry but that also occur metaphorically on every level of existence. Change can happen on a physical, mental level, emotional or spiritual level. It can be social or geographical, ecological, biological, political, cultural or economic, ad infinitum. Since everything is interconnected in ways we can barely fathom, if a shift happens on one level, it usually affects others.

Our reality is made up of three dimensions of space—back and forth, side to side, up and down—and a fourth dimension that propels us forward in time. We are limited, measurably at least, to our 4-D space-time reality, but in theory there are as many as 11, maybe more. The titillating thought of more dimensions occupies the minds of many scientists and science fiction buffs around the world, even while every single one of us is experiencing a most phenomenal era right here, right now.

The world seemed to move slower and was relatively more static not so very long ago. When I was a child, I thought life would go on forever, and time seemed to stretch out into infinity. Rapid change has become the constant and our perception of time seems to have sped up. I am always taking polls, and nowadays even young kids think things are moving fast. Information is multiplying exponentially, and every day I hear someone say he or she can barely keep up. Arriving just beyond the midpoint in a university course today, the professor reports that only eight or 10 years ago, that was the end; and now, with half a semester left, there's not enough time to cover new discoveries.

What is not in flux? I cannot think of anything. Nothing really stands still—even on a subatomic level—but if there is perceived stasis it is because we are not sensitive enough to detect the movement, uncertainty, and ephemeral nature of everything. Even in photography, try taking a still shot of moving objects without using a flash or super fast shutter speed. It cannot be done. Personally, I prefer to see movement in a still photograph, because I think it reflects reality most accurately. It's true, the initial joy of photography was the ability to stop a sequence of events and examine reality as we had never seen it. And in some ways, it still is. But in reality, everything is always moving, shifting, and changing. Time marches forward, and everything affects everything else.

The Digital Journalist is devoted to helping visual journalists come to grips with the notion that the entire media, photo and journalism industry (and everything else) is quickly shifting and changing on a day-to-day basis. Hopefully, consistency in our magazine through changing times will aid in adopting the needed transitional attitude. Film and emulsion have finally given way to the digital world, and what's next is anybody’s guess. We really don't know where we're headed, but spontaneous and reactive changes are as simple as physics and chemistry, really, if only we can see it that way. Something happens in one area that affects another, and transformation happens whether we like it or not. New technology is invented, rendering the old obsolete. Adaptation is the key, and the best tactic may be to prepare as much as possible and let nature take its course, go with what flows, and stay on the crest, even ahead of the wave if we can. To help visual journalists prepare, Editor/Publisher Dirck Halstead teaches The Platypus Workshops, so named after the platypus because it is one of the oldest, most adaptive living animals, one that can survive under any set of circumstances.

A semi-aquatic mammal, the platypus lives on the land or in the water, preferring neither. It is one of five extant species of monotremes, the only mammals that lay eggs rather than giving birth to live young. Dirck calls his students Platypi, and urges them to be proficient in still and/or video photograpahy, to be flexible and adaptable visual multitaskers.

Another little-known fact about the platypus is that it locates its prey through electrolocation, by detecting electric fields generated by muscular contractions. Like photographers' ability to sense movement, nuance and light, the platypus' electroreceptors are the most sensitive of any monotreme. In humans, our electromagnetic radiation detectors are our eyes. I had a chemistry professor who joked that one would hardly get anywhere by saying, "oh, what beautiful electromagnetic radiation detectors you have." But it is said, though rarely in these terms, that the electromagnetic radiation detectors are the windows to the soul. I think so, and it goes both ways. For light coming in and light going out. The New York Times published an interesting article by John Noble Wilford entitled "Platypus Looks Strange on the Inside, Too." It does. You can read it by clicking on the beautiful, strangely blue platypus image by Peter Arnold/BIOS.

Isn't it great when something stunningly mysterious or coincidental happens that is 100% authentic? There is so much in today's world that is contrived, manipulated, and engineered, that when something real happens, it's enough to give one pause. We become enured and numbed by flashy contrivances foisted upon us in commercials, advertising, persuasive rhetoric, spin and political campaigns. It seems there is a great competitive urge to force and shape reality by artificial means. Occasionally, though, something real, unforced and completely fantastic happens that it seems like magic, even though it is not. At the very least it is a moment worth remembering, if not a decisive one. The photojournalist lives to capture synchronistic images, where things come together in unplanned, unexpected ways. One has to be there, and to be aware.

As a matter of ethics and integrity, photojournalists do not engineer or manipulate their photos, though who can deny the beauty of an exquisite studio image by a talented photographer? But the photojournalist is a different breed, one that tries to stay completely out of the way of emerging reality yet capture the image at the same time, witnessing rather than participating. We know from physics that when something is observed, it changes. It's tricky to tread that razor's edge, to find Cartier-Bresson's "Decisive Moment"—the one he described as magic—when the observer and the observed synchronize, when intuitive recognition of meaning and the subject resonate, elements move into position, and in a split second, the image seems to create itself.

To borrow the title of late physicist John Wheeler's collected papers published on his 60th birthday, there is plenty of "Magic Without Magic" around, even if the subtle energies that cause phenomena are unfathomable, untraceable, inexplicable and last but not least, mind-boggling. Wheeler would agree that occasionally time can slow down, even stop, but it does not go backwards. Reality is sometimes beyond our comprehension, but we don't need to be a physicist or a mystic—or a photographer—to notice when something extraordinary happens. Jung would agree from another viewpoint that somehow, someway, fantastical synchronicities occur, and even if we tried to make them happen, we couldn't. What lies ahead, we don't know, but what is happening right now is so often completely amazing. Evolutionary biologist and geneticist J.B.S. Haldane said,

I have no doubt that in reality the future will be vastly more surprising than anything I can imagine. Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.

By now we've all seen the beautiful Honda commercial called "Cog," that took 609 takes and three months to complete, and cost $3,000,000 to make. It utilizes no computerized images or tricks, no manipulation or bogus graphic enhancement. It is all real, and it amazes. If you haven't seen it in a while, take a look again at a beautifully precise, physical chain reaction, where one event leads to another and the results are delightful. Given the position, the momentum, the interaction of the objects, the results are predictable, but the cost and time involved in the making suggests the designers employed much trial and error to get it right. Watch it again here, and thanks to Honda for allowing us to show it to our readers. Click on the photo to be entranced by the beauty of coordination and precision.

Here is another, obviously less expensive and I would guess painstakingly crafted series of events in a homemade chain reaction that delights me almost more than the formal, sexy Honda commercial. "The Contraption" was constructed by Cambridge-educated engineers Tom Baynham and Ben Tyers when they were students. Chose any one or all three video choices by clicking the images to see an amazing sequence of events. Here one thing leads to another, and I found myself trying to envision the creators putting it all together. I imagined them exclaiming with glee as each step proceeded successfully to the next.

I often hear people say, "Things happen for a reason." I'm not sure about the "for-a-reason" part, but it is true without a doubt that things do surely happen. Perhaps we realize in retrospect how a small thing made a difference—like the Butterfly Effect—or we feel caught in a time warp, or as if we've fallen down a rabbit hole where reality is suspended or becomes phantasmagoric. As I move forward in time, this sort of thing seems to occur more and more, and I have to say, I find odd happenings and strange synchronicities to be the fruit of accumulated experience and the spice of my life. In songwriter Jimmy Buffet's poetic tale of a man in the twilight of his life in "He Went to Paris," he says, "Jimmy, some of it's magic, and some of it's tragic, but I had a good life all the way." For whatever reason—maybe the arc of time or the precious nature of our elders—this song consistently brings a tear to my eye and has, ever since the very first time I heard Buffett perform it live in Austin, Texas, in 1973. You can listen to it HERE.

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© Beverly Spicer

Beverly Spicer is a writer, photojournalist, and cartoonist, who faithfully chronicled The International Photo Congresses in Rockport, Maine, from 1987 to 1991. Her book, THE KA'BAH: RHYTHMS OF CULTURE, FAITH AND PHYSIOLOGY, was published in 2003 by University Press of America. She lives in Austin.

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