Tiempos Curiosos
March 2009

by Beverly Spicer

photo by Eli Reed

Time is a curious thing. Sometimes when writing the date and year my first impulse is to put 1997 or 1999. It strikes me immediately as ridiculous and wrong, but 10 years have zipped by so fast the '90s seem like last week. Wasn't the year 2000 only yesterday?—yet almost a whole decade of the new millennium has gone by in the blink of an eye. In my mind, 10 years ago was the last time anything seemed to move at a reasonable pace. I don't see anything slowing down, so it seems that we have to grab our reflection on the run.

Is it really possible the whole world is in paralyzing crisis that a short while ago would have been thought impossible? If almost a decade of war weren’t enough, on one metaphorical day gas prices double; the next day, there are food riots in multiple countries. Along the way someone reports the bees are dead, and two days later the ice caps melt. The housing bubble bursts and 25 million people lose their homes. Shortly thereafter, the stock market crashes, all the banks are broke, newspapers are dying and the entire globe is in the grip of something we've never seen and cannot imagine. A million more people lose their jobs every time you check and island nations are preparing to drown.

Sounds like science fiction, doesn’t it?

Here's something that sounds like sci-fi, but is real. I introduce to you the nanotube radio, 10,000 times thinner than the width of a human hair. This electron microscope image shows a nanotube receiver protruding from an electrode (the waves are added for effect), courtesy of Zettl Research Group, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory at the University of California at Berkeley. Click on the image to learn more and to watch and hear a nanotube radio tune in to "Good Vibrations."

At the same time fantastical technologies are emerging, businesses big and small are dropping like flies. The homeless are everywhere, yet in my city there are so many multi-story skyscraper condominiums under construction that I've lost count. The nearby auto megaplex turned into a dusty parking lot overnight, but Smart Cars and electronic gadgets such as iPods, iPhones and GPS devices are more popular than ever. Oh, and have you seen the Google phone? I discovered it yesterday standing in the grocery checkout line next to a young man who was watching a TV show in the palm of his hand. He said he's going to terminate his Internet, phone and cable services. "Why have them?" he said. His Google phone "does everything."

At a time when we have high-tech stem cell research, wind towers, solar energy, nanotube radios and Yes-We-Can, we also have economic depression, raging war, environmental collapse, homelessness and No-You-Can't. One war winds down and another ramps up. In your own city, homes whose owners have been evicted sit next to ones under construction. Just when the restaurant you thought would be there forever closes, a new one you hadn't heard of teems with excited young people who seem to perceive absolutely nothing amiss in their world.

Hollywood is cranking out movies like "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" that titillate the imagination and encourage escapism through fantasy, while at the same time social historians, journalists, and theorists are developing an increasing retrospective interest in '30s' Depression era documentation. At Austin's Zachary Scott Theater I picked up a brochure for a production of John Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath." Featured on the cover was Dorothea Lange's famous image, Migrant Mother. We are seeing iconic images and film clips from the Great Depression everywhere these days as stories from the '30s are revived and scrutinized for hints from the past as to what is coming up. Here is Pare Lorentz's 1936 film "The Plow That Broke the Plains," about uncontrolled agricultural excesses that led to the Dust Bowl crisis.

As we see rumor turn into hard evidence of the newspaper industry collapse and as venues for publication become uncertain, photojournalists and social commentators are documenting what promises to be the biggest social crisis the world has ever known. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, author, blogger and New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof regularly uses multimedia to report on human-rights abuses such as sex slavery, human trafficking and genocide in Asia and Africa. Kristof, who partners with multimedia editor and producer Naka Nathaniel, will be much in demand even if the paper version of The New York Times fails.

Whether members of the photojournalism community are still formally employed or cut loose from publications like the homeless from shelter, I suspect nothing can kill the impulse to document the world as it evolves/devolves around us. Visual journalist David Leeson, formerly of The Dallas Morning News is a perfect example of a long-time newspaper photojournalist suddenly and unexpectedly turned freelancer. Also a Pulitzer Prize winner for breaking news photography, Leeson is producing a series of video documentaries on homelessness for the AARP Bulletin. Watch "Apartment on Wheels," his video portrait of David Robbie, who articulates what it is like to be homeless and using his station wagon for living quarters.

The Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting is funding photojournalist Sean Gallagher for an upcoming project on desertification, environmental refugees, disappearing oases, and abandoned cities. He will have a blog on the Pulitzer Web site to enter running commentary and images from the project, scheduled to start in April. Currently living in China, Gallagher specializes in social and environmental issues in Asia.

The revolution that we keep hearing about and have been waiting for has already begun. It is going on around us at this very moment. I heard a statement that technology favors totalitarianism, which certainly seems true, and yet, nobody seems to be in control of the epiphenomena that are emerging from a cascade of events that are largely unpredictable. We are seeing collapse and emergence at the same time. Death and birth, decay and creativity, tragedy and comedy, homelessness and opulence—these opposites in phenomena are side by side and happening concurrently.

For social documentarians and journalists—as it was for my family's funeral business in the Depression era—there is no scarcity of material. Finding a formal venue and salary for one's work may be a significant challenge for those who've not won the Pulitzer Prize, yet there is in the Internet endless opportunity for publication and exposure of significant, meaningful work.

How to survive economically while documenting is another thing, but humans are endlessly creative at finding a way. I imagine we will see the emergence of both literary and visual self-documentation by the homeless, desperate and dispossessed, not unlike Lars Eighner's "Travels with Lizbeth: Three Years on the Road and on the Streets," the remarkable autobiography of a homeless man and his dog published in 1994.

Self-described hoboartist Dan Price, former publisher of Shots Magazine and photojournalist, is not homeless, but he lives in a Hobbit Hole in a meadow in Joseph, Oregon. He currently prefers homesteading in his dugout to living in the riverside teepee he built and lived in years ago. Upon beginning to draw, Price morphed into a low-tech, Thoreau-inspired, roving, illustrating diarist. He has turned the simple act of creatively journaling his observations into an often-sponsored, sustainable career. Read more about him on his site, and see what his Moonlight Chronicles are about.

It's not easy to sum up my thoughts at the moment, but I think this unsettled feeling parallels the state of shock we're all experiencing. These are profoundly untethered times, a lot is going on, and it's hard to keep our wits about us or know what we really think. What is here today may be irrevocably gone tomorrow. Nobody knows what is going to happen, nor do they know to whom, where, when nor how. The why of it may be the biggest mystery of all. These are the fundamental questions all journalists ask and will continue to ask whether formally employed or not.

Because irrepressible curiosity and the need to know is what drives writers, journalists, chroniclers, diarists, and documentarians of all sorts, those in the industry are perhaps among the most psychically unsettled of all—compelled to stare wide-eyed into the face of sweeping crisis they are not only witnessing but also experiencing as a personal reality. These are times that are very curious indeed.

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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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