The Whispering Game

by Peter Howe

I was born in England in the era that preceded currency decimalization. In those days, that seem almost Dickensian now, Britain operated an arcane monetary system in which the basic currency unit, the pound, was divided into units of twenty shillings that were further subdivided into twelve pennies. Even the pennies had sub-units of two halfpennies (pronounced hapennies) and four farthings. A halfpenny was the equivalent of two farthings. (Are you still with me?) It was common to purchase an item that was priced at four pounds, fifteen shillings and sevenpence three farthings. If this wasn't complicated enough there was also the guinea that was one pound and one shilling, and was used almost exclusively for paying winnings to racehorses and articles purchased at auctions. The final piece of numismatic insanity was the threepenny piece (pronounced thrupenny) that unsurprisingly was the equivalent of three pennies. The reason for its existence had disappeared into the mists of time long before my arrival on the planet. Like cricket the whole system could only be fully understood if you were born into it. It drove foreigners crazy, which is probably the only reason that the British held on to it for so long.

By now you're probably wondering why I'm offering you this lesson in British monetary history. It's a necessity in order for you to understand the next part of this column if you're still in the mood to carry on. During this time there was another game that was even more fun than irritating foreigners. It was called the whispering game. I believe its American equivalent is known as telephone. In it a line of people (preferably not foreigners, speaking English being a necessary ability) are given a message at one end which is whispered to the next person down the line until it gets to the other. The final recipient then announces the phrase that he or she has heard, and it is compared to the original. The classic example of this is said to be: "Send reinforcements. We're going to advance" that ends up as "Send three and fourpence. We're going to a dance." (You can relax now. We finally got there.)

I have been reminded of this game during the course of the year as I have read postings in the various photographer Internet groups that have flourished during 2000. I want to clearly and unequivocally state that I am a big supporter of these services. During my time behind the camera the easiest worker to divide and conquer was the photographer, simply because none of us knew what the others were doing or thinking. It was only at photographic gangbangs such as a Day In the Life book or one of the political conventions when you worked with a large group of your peers that you were able to discover that you were being paid fifty percent less for the same work than your closest friend. I think that the only reason any of us worked the conventions at all was this desperate need to communicate, there being only a limited amount of artistic satisfaction in taking pictures of people in silly hats. Clearly reversing this situation was a good thing, and the Internet is the perfect way of achieving a united front among a peripatetic group such as photographers. (I use the word "united" in the loosest possible sense given the fact that unity among such a stubbornly independent crowd will only ever be relative.)

Even though I don't think you can ever have too much communication I have been disturbed by the frequent inaccuracies that I have read in these postings, especially (of course) those concerning actions, intentions or words that have been attributed to me. This was mostly during the recent antichrist period of my career. It seemed that I went from antichrist to Christ in about a twenty-four hour period when I left Corbis. It's amazing what quitting a job can do for your image. I have assume that if there have been postings attributing to me actions or intentions that are absolutely untrue, then probably this has happened to other people as well.

The problem is that almost anything displayed in this environment seems to take on the aura of incontrovertible truth, and to the best of my knowledge there are no controls over the accuracy of anything that appears in a posting. I'm not an especially sensitive soul, and I have been both Christ and antichrist enough times in my career to be used to suffering the slings and arrows of outraged photographers. The problem and the danger is that it renders these sites vulnerable to manipulation by people whose agendas are often personal and not necessarily conducive to the good of photography. It also can and I think has created an environment of hostility and animosity that is often an exaggeration of reality.

I'm not na•ve enough to believe that Getty and Corbis are operating not-for-profit institutions set up solely for the benefit of photographers, nor that Time Inc and Conde Nast want all those extra rights solely to bring free education and entertainment to the underprivileged masses. But on the other hand neither am I na•ve enough to believe that every situation is black or white, that every picture editor is a distant relative of the devil, or that every agency director has a Swiss bank account.

I was a journalist for almost twenty seven years, both as a photographer and editor, and during that time the mantra that I heard time and time again was: "Check your sources, and then check them again." I'm married to a woman who cut her journalistic teeth working the tabloids of Fleet Street, and even they went to extreme lengths to establish the accuracy of the statements that they printed. (Well maybe "extreme" is a bit extreme, but most of the time they did try.) Obviously avoiding libel lawsuits is a strong incentive for this practice, but there is another powerful reason that has a higher motivation. Miscommunication is worse than no communication at all, and a distorted fact is worse than a lie. The trouble with the whispering game is that because the distortions that occur often have some basis in fact they are believable, even thought the misrepresentation has so altered the reality that the fact has become fiction.

Honest communication with your peers is one of the most powerful tools that you the photographers have to advance the quality of your craft and the workings of our industry. I firmly believe that what you don't know can't help you, and the more knowledge we all have about the events and circumstances that affect our daily lives the less likely we are to be the victims of those events and circumstances. But if rumor and speculation is presented as fact it will increase our sense of frustration and alienation and achieve exactly the opposite effect that we are seeking.

I've just realized that I never told you about the half crown. That was the equivalent of two shillings and sixpence. Why it was a half crown I have no idea since there wasn't a denomination called a crown. I've also just realized that the vagaries of British culture, both past and present, are probably only fascinating to the Brits so I should probably end here. I wouldn't want to bore any readers, assuming of course that I have any left at this stage. Well you're reading this, so I know I have at least one. Don't leave me now; I need you for next month.

Have a happy and optimistic 2001.

Peter Howe

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