Friday, June 11, 2010

Pictures, Decisions, and Civilization

Below, a late draft of an introduction I'm working on for a poem by Portland poet David Cooke, 2009 winner of the Ruth Stone Poetry Prize, about Fernando Pereira, the photographer killed in the 1985 French bombing of Greenpeace's vessel Rainbow Warrior.

I post drafts here for a number of reasons, none of which I want to go into this moment. I don't include David's poem--it will be attached when we go to press with this item.

Pictures, Decisions, and Civilization
Cameron M. Smith
June 2010
444 words

Sixty-five million years of primate evolution have maintained vision as our primary sense. Artists of all kinds—from painters to wordsmiths—paint pictures in the mind to arouse feelings and evoke philosophies. The kinds of pictures we carry condition our decisions and our acts, and, more than any flag or document, these daily acts shape the true character of our civilization.

This logic is the reservoir from which photographers draw their significance. When the pictures we carry in mind differ from reality our actions depart from reality. As anthropologist William Rathje has pointed out, if we believe that our granola bar comes from a verdant Nature Valley because a packaging image tells us that, we are more likely to depart from reality. Advertisers, of course, know this, and have conditioned a great deal of departure from reality by creating false pictures which drive consumption regardless of the reality supplying the products.

But wonderful things have come from pictures as well: today, we put pictures of fish on manhole covers, reminding us that there are living things down-stream of our actions. Our civilization has only been doing this for about one generation, but, still, we adjust our actions according to those simple pictures. Archaeology tells us that civilizations don't normally go out with a dramatic crash, but a slow degradation. That degradation begins when our mental pictures differ from reality, destroying wisdom and eventually the valuation of wisdom.

Again; the photographer draws their meaning from all of this. A photograph can reconnect us with reality. Recently journalist Rikki Ott flew in the Gulf Coast region with a pilot who commented on BP's extension of no-fly zones: “There's only one reason for that," the pilot said. "BP doesn't want the media taking pictures of oil on the beaches. You should see the oil that's about six miles off the coast," he said grimly.”

You should see the oil, alright, because so long as civilization and conscience obtain, that seeing will condition your actions. When it no longer does, civilization does not end, but its character changes. Day by day, decision by decision, we degrade without pictures of reality.

Fernando Pereira, a 35-year old photographer, was killed when French commandos detonated explosives to sink Greenpeace's first vessel, Rainbow Warrior, in July 1985. While other crew escaped, Pereira—who had signed on for a six-month stint to photograph French nuclear testing in the South Pacific—returned belowdecks to retrieve his cameras. He drowned, entangled in the straps of his camera cases.

David Cooke's poem, Fixed, tells us more about the revolutionary potential of pictures and about Fernando Pereira.

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