Saturday, July 22, 2006

The neighbor of indifference

I was going through some of my photos from last year that I had half forgotten. It was Thanksgiving week and I was visiting family. In most ways, it is a very bad place, but on the positive side I can work on two of my ongoing photo projects while I’m there -- power plants and ancient Indian sites. There are hardly any patches of land back there where a power plant is not visible in the distance and major pre-columbian sites are all over the place. I’ve seen artifacts from within miles of my family’s properties in museums from Seattle to Brooklyn. The Smithsonian Indian museum currently has a two pots from there on display. Of course very few people back there other than relic hunters (that’s the polite term for grave robbers) know anything about it. Nothing is taught in the schools and there are no historical markers.

From a few spots I can frame Indian mounds in the foreground and a power plant in the background. But that kind of shot, unfortunately, is only interesting to me, and then only intellectually. Aesthetically I have yet to capture what I know about the scene with the camera. That’s not always the case at the ancient sites. Sometimes there is a palpable aura that remains manifest in the photograph even though there’s no outward clue, but not there, at least not on that day.

Anyway, this is not about power plants or ancient Indian sites. That morning I came across several isolated patches of forest that had been severely damaged by tornados that had passed through several nights before. So I snapped a few tourist-ish pictures of the damaged trees like the one above. About ten miles from there, one tornado had touched down in the obligatory trailer park and killed over twenty people.

At dinner that night my brother-in-law wanted to show us a movie he had helped make for his church. Bill is one of those salt of the earth types. He is a man of few words, a high school graduate who works low skilled blue collar jobs. He is currently driving a fork truck. Unlike most people of his class back there, he doesn’t drink, smoke, or shoot meth, He is hardworking and trustworthy and I’ve no doubt he’ll eventually manage a warehouse or small factory. He is a volunteer fireman, the type of guy you can count on him to help a stranger fix a flat or a friend or family member move or paint the house. He is a very active member of a fundamentalist Baptist church. It’s not quite a mega-church, but is moving in that direction.

So, being a movie buff as well as a student of human nature, I was interested to see this DVD. It was a record of the devastation in the trailer park. It started with scenes taken from a circling helicopter and then focused on the twisted metal and scattered debris and the people doing their best to salvage what they could. It also included interviews with government workers, Christian groups and other volunteers who were there to help. The soundtrack was an upbeat Christian pop song with a message of hope. The point seemed to be that God was good and merciful because people were helping the survivors.

I was very surprised by the quality of the work. It was professional. Not Hollywood professional or even the late local news, but it was technically in the realm of corporate videos. It was clear that the people working the cameras and doing the editing had some training.

And they did have some training. I learned that there is a movement within the fundamentalist churches to train their members in the video arts in order to take advantage of events such as the tornado to entertain the flock and bring in new members. His church had a little studio with lighting, several cameras and a couple editing stations and offered classes to members.

I found the video to be disgusting and ultimately scary. I think a lot about photojournalistic ethics and can argue many situations either way, but this was outright exploitation. Over twenty people were killed and over a hundred homes were destroyed or severely damaged. I can see filming that from a photojournalistic perspective. I can see filming it from an artistic motivation. Hell, I can even understand people snapping tourist pictures of the devastation. But to use it for a propaganda film, and one that extols God’s mercy at that, is just sickening. The fact that these people are acquiring sophisticated tools and techniques to create more effective propaganda is very disturbing.