Finding Henri
August 2009

by Beverly Spicer

photo by Eli Reed

You have a message from FACEBOOK: "Your friend recently became friends with Henri Cartier-Bresson and thinks you may know Henri too."

But, wait a minute. Henri Cartier-Bresson is deceased, right? Not on Facebook. So, how can a dead person live on Facebook? It's the same way that the Catholic Church keeps the mysterious inspirational force of a saint alive. The elders erect a shrine, collect relics, preserve memories, tell stories, and revere the holy one. In this case, we minions and protégés in the photo world revere St. Henri, the Secular Patron Saint of Photography. We look to him for guidance and he lives in the hearts and minds of all who know his story. We of the faithful look to his memory and miraculous body of work for inspiration.

Actually, to be technical and for those who want to know, the officially decreed Patron Saint of Photography is St. Veronica Giuliani, and similarly, St. Clare of Assisi is the Patron Saint of Television.

St. Veronica lived in the 1st century and purportedly gave a cloth to a supernatural being to wipe his forehead on the way to a crucifixion at Golgotha, and when she got the cloth back, it was left with the impression of his face on it. This preceded the somewhat equivalent accomplishment of Joseph Niépce's first photograph and heliography by about 1,825 years.

Now looking over TV people and videographers, St. Clare of Assisi was a clairvoyant who lived in the early 13th century. The reason she made it to sainthood in 1958 was because one time when she was too ill to attend mass, so the story goes, she was miraculously able to visualize the mass on the wall of her room like a projection or a slide show.

Not bad for 800 years ago, and she did it with no electronics. We must acknowledge that what she did displaces the 19th century accomplishments of Paul Nipkow and John Logie Baird, who separately patented the first television systems. As with great accomplishments that unfold through linear time, Baird built on Nipkow’s work, developing it further, and so did what he did by standing on the shoulders of Nipkow.

So, what is Facebook really about and what can it do for photographers, journalism, media—or for anybody else—and why do I think participating on Facebook is a spiritual experience complete with saints?

Well, for one thing, thank Facebook that St. Henri Cartier-Bresson has a venue for us to communicate with him even if abstractly, like prayer. The difference within the holy halls of Facebook is that Henri really can answer our attempts to communicate with him— he can send a message over e-mail if he wants to—and if he doesn't answer personally, he can and does make posts so that we can know him by his signs. Thus fortified, we can then go about our earthly lives comforted by his presence and, maybe for the photojournalistically ambitious, stand on his shoulders.

Thank you, Facebook, for giving us not only a memorial shrine to Henri, but also Henri himself. Thank you, Henri, for the memory, for the inspiration, and for your posts on Facebook. A word to the wise: you can be a friend or a fan of Henri Cartier-Bresson on Facebook, but if you are a foe, you will be reported, admonished, perhaps made to do penance, temporarily excommunicated or kicked off altogether.

Many in the photographic community—among 250 million people from around the world (70 percent outside the United States)—have become devotees of Facebook. Some of them, including myself, were dragged there kicking and screaming after wandering for months, lost on the outside.

Having heard of Facebook and joining while still skeptical was much like an unbeliever being dragged to a church, synagogue, temple or mosque. But enough of the religious analogy, even though I swear sometimes Facebook can offer something close to a religious experience. I prefer the word "spiritual" when it comes to Facebook, and the reason for that is that there is no physical body. It's all in the ether, in cyberspace. And it's all in the mind, the heart and ultimately, in spirit.

The conversion of the skeptic goes like this:

Over time, people you respect say they are on Facebook and you should be too. You get the sense that they are somehow being fortified in their lives. They seem happier, and less lonely. You hear them talking about this miraculous force in their lives, and though you don't believe it, really still, you become a little curious. You may get an e-mail inviting you to join or your friends tell you to go check it out yourself. Or maybe as a spiritual seeker you just find Facebook on your own.

But one day, you sign up on Facebook. When you first get there, you haven't the slightest idea what to do or how to use it, but all that can change pretty fast. You find yourself drawn to it, mysteriously, and you experience a new warmth and inspiration you had not felt before. As you find your friends, you feel connected to them in a way you've never known. You begin to reach out more to your loved ones and sometimes even raise people from the dead. At some point, you realize there really are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy—and a lot of them are on Facebook.

One reason to use Facebook besides personal revelation is to share information and interests with your community of friends, whoever they are. They may be the photographic community or anyone from any walk of life, who and whatever your preferences may be. There are a lot of disembodied entities you can encounter, befriend or decide to worship on Facebook, such as fan clubs, online publications, organizations, causes, and special communities. You also can do fun things like take quizzes, psychological and IQ tests, and you can find out, for instance, if you were a planet in outer space, which one you would be.

Each of these entities has a Facebook page, and you can search them by profile and become a fan, ask to be a friend or use the App. Once your request is accepted, which happens immediately for fans, you get updates in a news feed, which means that each time a friend, magazine, news site, or organization posts something, you get a notice in your own private news feed.

Facebook even calls out to you while you are away from the fold, sending you notices when you're logged out that someone has sent you a message. I remember the joy I felt when I received a note that Henri Cartier-Bresson, who like Elvis seems to be everywhere, accepted me not only as a fan but as a friend. I logged on and gushed immediately the stored up affection I had for Henri, my own personal Patron Saint of Photography. It's like laying flowers at the feet of a master.

However many friends, associations or subjects interest you, the news—fake, fun or serious—is constantly updating on Facebook, so there's always something going on, something new, curiosities to be explored, and much to learn if you are interested. And nothing is required of you—you participate when and only if you want to. But a regular or even intermittent visit to Facebook can whip you up into a photographic exhibition frenzy if you choose to explore what is there. There is something for everyone, in infinite variety, and there are astounding revelations to be had about friends and photos you only thought you knew before but had no idea.

Just look at some of the photography, visual journalism and related sites with which you can freely associate on Facebook. You needn't be bored, lost, or lonely—at least in a certain way—anymore. Facebook allows you to concentrate on your most esoteric concerns and find out for yourself how deep is your well. Click on each

Is Facebook fun? Yes. Can it be informative? Definitely. Is it useful? Absolutely. Is it more than social media and does the positive aspect outweigh the scary Big Brother concerns? I think so. We may yet be unable to comprehend the possibilities, because like cyberspace in general, the potential for creativity is enormous. Facebook is host to the Obi-Wan Kenobes and Luke Skywalkers of cyberspace, and is an organic, pulsating, living organism. Though many are trying to project what it will become, the best guess is only a guess because of the complexity. And it does enhance the positive. Darth Vaders need not apply, because they will be prosecuted.

It seems fortunate to be part of humanity at this moment in time, where we can take new inspiration from past masters, communicate mentally, spiritually, or literally with them and each other, explore a new frontier that is limitless, and even stand on each other's shoulders to do new and wondrous things. Facebook, like any other spiritual experience, seems to bring magic back into our lives.

Communication and invention are the up sides of the 21st century. Maybe we can do something about the down side that seems as vast and limitless as its opposite.

And I just heard recently that on Facebook, you may live forever. Like Henri.

© 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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